Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who sang ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ dies at 87


Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-pounding, foot-stomping singer who electrified early rock ‘n’ roll with hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” earlier than marital scandal derailed his profession, has died, in response to an announcement from his consultant, Zach Farnum. He was 87.

Lewis handed away at his residence in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis, the assertion mentioned. Farnum informed CNN that Lewis died of “natural causes” when reached by telephone.

His seventh spouse, Judith, was by his facet when he died and Lewis “told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid,” the assertion added.

Together with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and others, Lewis was one of many main figures of the Fifties rock period and a grasp showman – nicknamed “The Killer” – whose uncooked, uninhibited performances drove younger followers into spasmodic suits. 

“I was born to be on a stage. I couldn’t wait to be on it. I dreamed about it. And I’ve been on one all my life,” Lewis mentioned in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” a 2014 biography by Rick Bragg. “That’s where I’m the happiest.”  

However offstage, the singer’s private life was turbulent. Lewis was close to the height of his reputation in 1958 when the general public discovered that he had married Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin. She was 13 on the time; Lewis was 22. 

Information of the wedding leaked in London, the place Lewis had flown to play some concert events. Lewis informed the press that Myra was 15, however the fact quickly got here out and brought about an outcry, as newspapers blared such headlines as “Fans Aghast at Child Bride.” Audiences heckled Lewis, and the tour was canceled after three reveals. 

Lewis continued to file and tour over the following decade, however his rockabilly music didn’t promote within the Beatles period and he couldn’t regain the recognition of his early years – till he made an unlikely comeback as a rustic singer.  

Lewis was born in 1935 right into a poor farming household in Ferriday, Louisiana. One in all his cousins, Jimmy Swaggart, would go on to turn out to be a well-liked TV evangelist. Lewis’ web site says he started enjoying the piano at age 9, aping the kinds of preachers and Black musicians who handed by way of the area.

After dropping out of faculty to give attention to enjoying music, Lewis traveled in 1956 to Solar Studios in Memphis, the place he shortly gained work as a session participant for such budding stars as Carl Perkins and Johnny Money. He additionally recorded with Elvis Presley.

A December 1956 recording session with Lewis, Presley, Perkins and Money – nicknamed the “Million Dollar Quartet” – turned a seminal second in rock historical past.

By the next yr, because of Prime 5 hits like “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis was internationally well-known, regardless that his incendiary fashion and suggestive lyrics led some radio stations to boycott his songs.

Then got here the wedding scandal, and Lewis’ aura was by no means fairly the identical.

After a decade of dwindling gross sales, he reinvented himself within the late Sixties as a rustic artist and revived his profession, scoring a sequence of Prime 10 nation hits nicely into the Seventies.

In 1989 “Great Balls of Fire!”, a biopic starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis, introduced new consideration to Lewis’ life and music. Lewis even recorded new variations of his hits for the soundtrack.

However his private life remained messy. He was married seven instances and filed for chapter in 1988, claiming he owed the IRS greater than $2 million.

He additionally battled alcoholism, drug dependancy and different well being issues for years. In a single notorious 1976 episode, he was arrested at Graceland within the wee hours of the morning after drunkenly crashing his automotive into the mansion’s gates – with a loaded gun – whereas making an attempt to go to Presley.

“I ain’t no goody goody, and I ain’t no phony,” Lewis mentioned in Bragg’s biography. “I never pretended to be anything, and anything I ever did, I did it wide-open as a case knife. I’ve lived my life to the fullest and I had a good time doin’ it.”

In October, Lewis was inducted into Nation Music Corridor of Fame however was unable to attend the ceremony as a result of he was in poor health with the flu, in response to an announcement posted to his social media.

Lewis was raised in a strict, spiritual family and generally struggled to reconcile his religion in God together with his love of rock ‘n’ roll, which conservative listeners within the Fifties condemned as “the devil’s music.” 

He didn’t write many songs however was sensible at reinterpreting others’ compositions together with his infectious, boogie-woogie rhythms, which helped carry rockabilly music into the mainstream. 

However his most enduring legacy might have been his unhinged piano-playing fashion, which influenced Elton John and lots of different musicians. Throughout concert events Lewis banged the keys together with his fists and elbows, kicked over his piano stool, climbed atop his instrument and as soon as even set it on hearth. 

On this method, he confirmed that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t simply in regards to the guitar. 

In 1986, he joined a constellation of seminal figures – Berry, Presley, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fat Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers – as the primary group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame. 

Lewis lived most of his life on a ranch in northern Mississippi with a piano-shaped swimming pool. He by no means fairly outran the scandal of marrying his younger cousin. However to his followers, his infectious music and his fiery dwell reveals made up for his private transgressions. 

Jerry Lee Lewis speaks at the Country Music Hall of Fame 2022 inductees presented by CMA at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I want to be remembered as a rock-n-roll idol, in a suit and tie or blue jeans and a ragged shirt, it don’t matter, as long as the people get that show. The show, that’s what counts. It covers up everything,” he informed Bragg.   

“Any bad thoughts anyone ever had about you goes away. ‘Is that the one that married that girl? Well, forget about it, let me hear that song.’” 

Lewis is survived by his spouse, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his kids Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Swaggart and lots of grandchildren, nieces and nephews, in response to his consultant’s assertion.

Info on providers shall be introduced within the coming days, the assertion added.

In lieu of flowers, the Lewis household requested donations be made within the singer’s honor to the Arthritis Basis or MusiCares.

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