Outrageous rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis dies at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis was a pioneer of unruly rock ‘n’ roll, and his outrageous talent, energy, and ego led him to such defining songs as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Crashing records and sustaining a career that was otherwise upended by a personal scandal. He died Friday morning at the age of 87.

Lewis, the last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, died at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, his agent Zach Farnham said in a release. rice field.

Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, the Louisiana-born piano player who called himself “The Killer” hauntedly captured the charm and danger of the new genre. There were very few people.

Gentle ballads were best left to the old. Luis was all about desire and gratification. His domineering tenor and demanding side characters, violent tempo and cheeky glissando, cocky sneer and crazy blonde hair. He was a one-man stampede, fans screaming and keyboards swearing. His live act was so flammable that a chair was thrown at him during his performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin ‘Goin’ On” on “Steve’s Allen Show” in 1957. Like a bucket of hell water.

“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock and roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” Lewis admirers once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.

But in his personal life, he raged in ways that might end his career today — and almost did.

In 1958, after Elvis was drafted into the Army, he briefly replaced Presley as rock’s primary hitmaker contender. But while Lewis was touring England, the press learned three damaging facts about him: He was married to his 13-year-old (possibly his 12-year-old) Myra Gale Brown. The thing is, she was his cousin and he was still married to his previous wife. His tour was canceled, he was blacklisted from radio, and his income dropped to practically zero overnight.

Video: 2022 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee Jerry Lee Lewis

When asked about marriage in 2014 by The Wall Street Journal, Lewis said, “I probably would have changed my life a little bit, but I never hid anything from people.” I just lived my life.”

In the decades that followed, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal battles, and physical ailments. Two of his many marriages ended with the premature death of his wife. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s, later alleging her physical and mental cruelty that led her to commit suicide.

“If I were still married to Jerry, I would 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 finally forgave him long after he stopped making hits. He won his three Grammy Awards and has recorded with some of the biggest stars in the industry. In 2006 Lewis released “Last Man Standing” featuring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others to the album Mean Old Man.

How he persuaded disc jockeys to give him a second chance in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, first published in 1975 I remembered

“This time, I said, ‘Look, let’s all get together and draw a line on this issue — the peace treaty you know,'” he explained. But the radio was singing country.

Lewis had a string of Top 10 country hits between 1967 and 1970, rarely mellowing. He sang drinking party songs such as “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” the spellbinding confession of “She Still Comes Around,” and the classic ballad of abandonment “She Even Woke.” I played a dry eye cover. me to say goodbye. He remains popular in Europe and his 1964 album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is widely regarded as one of his best concert records.

The 1973 performance turned out to be even more troublesome. Lewis sang at the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules.

“I’m a mother who sings rock’n’roll, country and western, rhythm and blues,” he told the audience.

Lewis was married seven times and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jalen, her Elizabeth Gunn, her Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while filing for divorce. His fifth wife, Sean Stevens, 23 years his junior, died in 1983 of an apparent drug overdose. Within a year, Lewis married Kelly McCarver, then 21. He counterclaimed, but both petitions were eventually dropped. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.

Another son from a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis, 3, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and his son, Jerry Lee Jr., died in a car accident in 1973 at the age of 19. His wife Judith survived.

His finances were also in turmoil. Lewis made millions, but he liked to make money in cash and ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. In 1994, when he began welcoming tourists to his longtime residence near Nesbitt, Mississippi, he set up his 900 phone number for fans so he could receive recorded messages for $2.75 per minute. did.

The son of former trafficker Elmo Lewis and cousin to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Feriday, Louisiana. As a boy, he first learned to play the guitar, but found the instrument too restrictive and longed for an instrument only the wealthy in his town could afford: the piano. His life changed one day when his father pulled over in his truck and presented him with a set of dark wood upright keyboards.

“My eyes almost went out of my head,” Lewis recalls in Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, written and published by Rick Bragg in 2014.

He quickly took to the piano and began stalking black juke joints and absorbing everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. I left school at 16 with plans to become an adult. Lewis attended the Assemblies of God University of God in Waxahachie, Texas for a short time, but he reportedly went to the “wrong” kind. was exiled for playing the music of

“Great Balls of Fire,” a sexual interpretation of biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and “Whole Lotta Shakin'” were his most enduring song and performance work. Lewis had only a few other hits, including “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but it was enough to establish him as the architect of rock and roll.

“No group, be it The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones, improved ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ for my money,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.

A roadhouse veteran until his early twenties, Lewis moved to Memphis in 1956 and appeared in the Sun Records studio, home to the music of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. He was told by company founder Sam Phillips to go learn rock and roll.

“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he later said. “I thought Sam Phillips was too dangerous.

In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others. Not only has the killer outlived many of his contemporaries, but he’s also made a name for himself in a number of other ways, including his 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire starring Dennis Quaid and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary Trouble in Mind. We have seen his life and music reintroduced to younger fans on a regular basis. The 2010 Broadway music “Million Dollar Quartet” was inspired by his session recordings featuring Lewis, Elvis, Carl his Perkins and Johnny his Cash.

He won a Grammy Award in 1987 for being part of an interview album cited for best spoken word recording, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005. Listeners of the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time staying seated during the performance.”

Bible school classmate Peary Green remembers meeting Lewis years later and asking him if he was still playing Satanic music.

“Yes, yes,” Lewis replied. “But strangely enough, the same music that they kicked me out of school is the same kind of music that is played in their churches today. I know they are, but they’re not.”