Jerry Lee Lewis, infamous American rock’n’roll star, dies aged 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who became one of the most notorious figures in popular music, has died aged 87, his publicist has said.

He died of natural causes at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi. “Judith, his seventh wife, was by his side when he passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis,” the statement said. “He told her, in his last days, that he welcomed the afterlife and that he was not afraid.”

Lewis’ energetic performances on songs including Great Balls of Fire helped establish rock’n’roll as the dominant American pop music of the 1950s. He was born in Louisiana in 1935, the son of a poor farming family who mortgaged their home to buy Lewis his first piano. While learning the instrument and studying at an evangelical school, he was kicked out for performing a boogie-woogie version of My God is Real that was considered disrespectful.

He did not return to education and began to play live – his first performance at the age of 14 was at the opening of a car dealership. He developed a theatrical, boisterous style that meshed with the energy of the nascent rock’n’roll scene and began playing at Sun Studios in Memphis, first as a studio musician and then as a solo artist. Some of his earliest recordings were made in 1956 with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, a group later named the Million Dollar Quartet. It was an impromptu session: Cash and Presley happened to visit the studio separately, where Lewis was backing Perkins on piano.

Lewis’ breakthrough came the following year, with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, a piano-driven rock’n’roll single. When he performed it on television on The Steve Allen Show, he brought his unique playing style to national attention: wildly energetic, he kicked over his piano stool and played standing up, with songs accented with sustained notes.

He followed that top 3 song with his biggest hit, Great Balls of Fire, which reached number 2 on the US charts and became one of the defining songs of the rock’n’roll era.

During a tour of Britain in 1958 at the height of his fame, he was embroiled in scandal after it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown – it would be the third of his seven marriages. There was outrage in the British press and the rest of his tour was cancelled. American radio stations and concert promoters also blacklisted him, and his popularity faded. He never had another US Top 20 hit.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown in May 1958.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown in May 1958. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lewis’ reputation as a wild man cemented his nickname, The Killer, which he earned from his habit of describing acquaintances with Louisiana slang for “killer.” After a 13-year marriage to Brown, his fourth and fifth marriages were even more infamous. Jaren Pate and Shawn Stephens both died under suspicious circumstances – the former by drowning, while there were rumors of domestic abuse surrounding the latter.

Despite the controversy, he successfully switched to country music after the decline of the rock’n’roll scene and scored a string of hits on the US country charts, including his version of the standard Chantilly Lace.

In 1984, after years of prescription drugs, he survived surgery to remove a third of his stomach after a series of perforated wounds, and in 1986 he was one of the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, along with Presley, Chuck Berry and others.

Another infamous “Killer” moment involved Berry. When the pair were on tour, Lewis objected to Berry continuing after him, so set fire to his piano after his performance with the words: “Follow it, boy.” Meanwhile, Lewis was arrested in 1976 after he showed up drunk at Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis with a loaded gun on the dashboard of his car.

Two of Lewis’ six children died young: Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool at age three, while Jerry Lee Lewis Jr.—who had played drums for his father—died in a car accident at age 19. Four others – Ronnie Guy, Phoebe Allen, Lori Lee and Jerry Lee III – survive him, as does his wife, Judith.

Lewis recorded 40 studio albums, the most recent being Rock & Roll Time in 2014. His previous album, Mean Old Man, reached the US Top 30 when it was released in 2010 and featured duets with stars such as Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton .

Tributes have poured in on social media, including from Elton John who tweeted: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I would not have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverized the piano. A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your pioneering inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”

Ringo Starr has too tweeted: “God bless Jerry lee Lewis peace and love to all his family”. Gene Simmons called him “one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll” and “a rebel to the end”.

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