Jerry Lee Lewisthe indomitable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on landmark albums like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and who sustained a career that was otherwise affected by personal scandals, died on Friday morning at the age of 87.
Last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis He died at his home in Mississippi, south of Memphis, Tennessee. as reported by his representative Zach Farnum in a statement. The news came two days after the publication of an erroneous report from TMZ about his death, later retracted.
Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the lure and danger of the new genre as unforgettably as the Louisiana-born pianist who called himself “The Killers”.
Tender ballads were best left for the old. Lewis was all lust and gratification, with his lascivious tenor and his demanding grips, his violent tempos and brash glissandi, his cocky grin and his crazy blond hair. A one-man stampede that had fans screaming and keyboards cursing, their live act was so combustible that during a 1957 performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on “The Steve Allen Show,” chairs were thrown at him like buckets of water in an inferno.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ‘n’ roll before Jerry Lee Lewis walked in the door.” an admirer of Lewis once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.
But in his private life, he raged in a way that could have ended his career today, and almost did then.
For a short period of time, in 1958, he was one of the hopefuls to replace Presley as the main producer of rock hits after Elvis was drafted into the army. But while Lewis was on tour in England, the press learned three damaging things: that he was married to 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown (possibly even 12), that she was his cousin, and that he was still married to his former wife. His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from radio, and his income dropped to virtually nothing overnight.
“I probably would have rearranged my life a little bit differently, but I never hid anything from people,” Lewis told The Associated Press. Wall Street Journal in 2014 when he was asked about marriage. “I just went on with my life as usual.”
During the following decades, Lewis fought against the drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes, and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended with the early death of his wife. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s, and she would later allege physical and mental cruelty that nearly led to suicide.
“If I was still married to Jerry, I’d probably be dead by now,” she told People magazine in 1989.
Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry eventually forgave him, long after he stopped making hits. He won three Grammys and recorded with some of the biggest stars in the industry. In 2006, Lewis released “Last Man Standing” with Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others for the “Mean Old Man” album.
In “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll,” first published in 1975, he recalled how he convinced disc jockeys to give him a second chance.
“This time I told them: ‘Look, man, we’re going to get together and put a limit on these things, a peace treaty, you know,’” he explained. Lewis was still playing the old hits on stage, but on the radio he was singing country.
Between 1967 and 1970, Lewis had a string of top 10 country hits, barely softening. He performed boozy songs like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” the wandering-eyed confessions of “She Still Comes Around” and a dry-eyed version of a classic walk-out ballad, “She Even Woke.” Me Up to Say Goodbye”. She remained popular in Europe and a 1964 album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, is widely considered one of her best concert records.
A performance in 1973 proved more problematic: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two longstanding rules: no swearing and no singing non-country songs. “I’m a rock and roll, country and western, rhythm and blues son of a bitch,” he told the crowd.
Lewis was married seven times, and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while filing for divorce. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis married Kerrie McCarver, then 21 years old. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity. He countersued, but both petitions were ultimately withdrawn. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had a son, Jerry Lee III.
Another son from a previous marriage, 3-year-old Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and their son Jerry Lee Jr. died in a car accident at age 19 in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and was survived by his wife Judith.
His finances were also chaotic. Lewis made millions, but he liked his cash and he ended up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. When he started entertaining tourists in 1994 at his old residence near Nesbit, Mississippi — complete with a piano-shaped pool — he set up a 900 phone number that fans could call to receive a recorded message for $2.75 a minute. .
The son of former bootlegger Elmo Lewis and cousin of television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. As a child, he learned to play the guitar, but found it too limited an instrument and longed for an instrument that only the rich in his town could afford: a piano. His life changed when his father arrived one day in his truck and gave him a vertical keyboard made of dark wood.
“My eyes almost popped out of my head,” Lewis recalls in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” written by Rick Bragg and published in 2014.
He took to the piano right away, and began sneaking out to black joints and soaking up everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. At first, he was confused between secular music and scary music, and left school at 16, with plans to become a piano-playing preacher. Lewis briefly attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible college, but was expelled, apparently for playing the “wrong” kind of music.
“Great Balls of Fire”, a sexualized version of biblical imagery which Lewis initially refused to record, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” were his most enduring songs and performances. Lewis only had a handful of other pop hits, like “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but they were enough to secure his place as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.
No group, whether it’s the Beatles, Dylan or the Stones, has ever bettered ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’, in my opinion,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970.
By age 20, Lewis was already a veteran of the roadhouses, and in 1956 he went to Memphis and performed at the Sun Records studios, the musical home of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Company founder Sam Phillips told him to go learn some rock ‘n roll, Lewis returned and soon rushed to record “Whole Lotta Shakin’” in one take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he said later. “Sam Phillips thought she was going to be too risky, that she couldn’t make it. If that’s risky, well, I’m sorry.”
In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others, he was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and this year joined the Country Hall of Fame. The Assassin not only outlived his contemporaries, but saw his life and music periodically reintroduced to younger fans, such as in the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid, and in the documentary Ethan Coen’s 2022 “Trouble in Mind.” A 2010 Broadway play, “Million Dollar Quartet,” was inspired by a recording session involving Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
He won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was cited as best spoken word recording, and received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” was selected for the National Recording Registry. of the Library of Congress, whose board praised the “propulsive boogie piano that perfectly complemented the drive of JM Van Eaton’s spirited drums.” Listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time staying seated during the performance.”
A Bible school classmate, Pearry Green, recalled meeting Lewis years later and asking if he was still playing the devil’s music.
“Yes, I do,” Lewis replied. “But you know it’s weird, the same music they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is that I know I’m playing for the devil and they don’t”.
By Hillel Italy (AP)