Rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, known as 'The Killer', dies

29 October 2022 - 10:00 By Bill Trott
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Jerry Lee Lewis performs at the19th annual Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View, California, US, on October 29 2005.
Jerry Lee Lewis performs at the19th annual Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View, California, US, on October 29 2005.
Image: Kimberly White/Reuters

American rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, who was torn between his Bible-thumping upbringing and his desire to make hell-raising rock 'n' roll with hits such as Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, has died at the age of 87.

Lewis passed away from natural causes at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, with his wife, Judith, by his side, his publicist said. The musician had been ill in recent years and suffered a stroke in 2019.

Like Chuck Berry's guitar, Lewis' piano was essential in shaping rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s. He was part of the dazzling Sun Records talent pool in Memphis, Tennessee, that included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Lewis outlived them all.

Lewis, also known by the nickname “The Killer”, was one of the first performers inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was so influential that when John Lennon met him backstage at a show in Los Angeles, the Beatle dropped to his knees and kissed Lewis' feet.

Lewis filled his albums not only with ground-breaking rock but with gospel, country and rhythm and blues such as Me and Bobby McGee and To Make Love Sweeter for You as he endured a life often filled with alcohol, drugs and tragedy. His music was sometimes overshadowed by scandals — including his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra in 1957.

In his prime, he performed with daring, originality and a lewd wild-man stage demeanour that thrilled his young fans as much as it agitated their parents. Typically, Lewis would kick away his piano bench and bang the keyboard with his foot while his long wavy blond hair flopped in his face.

According to legend, Lewis was once so upset that Chuck Berry had been chosen to close a show over him that he finished his set with a move that was hard to top — setting the piano on fire and walking off.

“I'm a rompin', stompin', piano-playing son of a bitch,” Lewis once told Time magazine in his Louisiana drawl. “A mean son of a bitch. But a great son of a bitch.”

Lewis was born on September 29 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, and grew up poor with two cousins also destined for fame — television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country singer Mickey Gilley.

He became interested in the piano at age four and by 10 was sneaking into roadhouses to hear blues performers. He absorbed a variety of musical influences, especially the Jimmie Rodgers records that belonged to his father, a farmer who went to prison for bootlegging.

Lewis' family attended the Assembly of God church and his mother ensured he was thoroughly informed about the evils of liquor, honky-tonks and promiscuity. But Lewis was intent on experiencing them first-hand and began playing piano in bars while still a teenager. His mother, upset by the idea of her son performing the devil's music, sent him to a Bible college in Texas.

It turned out to be a brief stay, with Lewis reportedly being dismissed from the school for playing a boogie-woogie version of My God Is Real during an assembly. The incident showed the dichotomy that Lewis had to live with.

“The man is tortured,” Myra Lewis told People magazine. “Jerry Lee says that Jerry Lee is too wicked to be saved.”

As Lewis himself once put it, “I'm dragging the audience to hell with me.”

Lewis had a son and was on his second marriage before he turned 20, even though he had not divorced his first wife. He was determined to be a musician and made his way to Memphis.

In 1957 he recorded two rollicking chart-topping hits for Sun — Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and Great Balls of Fire, which he had been reluctant to record because he considered it blasphemous — that helped define early rock 'n' roll. Lewis quickly followed with more hits — You Win Again, Breathless and High School Confidential.

His career came to a halt during a 1958 tour of Britain. Journalists discovered Lewis was now married to Myra, the daughter of his bass player, who not only was 13 years old but also was his cousin. News coverage was so intensely negative the tour was called off.

Back in the US, Lewis' career was not revived until he shifted genres and recorded country hits such as Another Place, Another Time, What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me) and She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.

Lewis' string of hits was matched only by the tragedies in his life. His young son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in 1962 and another son, Jerry Lee Jr, died in a 1973 car accident at 19.

After a divorce from Myra in the early 1970s, he married Jaren Pate in 1971 but she drowned in 1982. They had been separated for eight years but not divorced.

After only a few months of marriage, his next wife, Shawn Michelle Stevens, was found dead of a drug overdose in their home in 1983. Eight months later he started another stormy marriage with sixth wife Kerrie McCarver that lasted 20 years before they divorced and he married his seventh wife, Judith Brown, in 2012.

In 1976 Lewis accidentally shot his bass player and that same year was arrested drunk outside Presley's Graceland mansion in Memphis with a loaded pistol, demanding to see Presley.

Lewis, who lived much of his later life on a ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi, also endured costly battles with US tax officials, a nearly fatal perforated ulcer and a painkiller addiction that landed him in the Betty Ford Clinic.

In his later years he settled down but biographer Rick Bragg recalled interviewing Lewis for his 2014 book Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Words. Lewis showed Bragg the pistol he kept under his pillow in a bedroom pockmarked with bullet holes and a Bowie knife stuck in the door.

“I don't think Jerry Lee Lewis had to exaggerate his life one bit to make it interesting,” Bragg told the Atlanta Constitution Journal. “He really did make Elvis cry. He really did turn over more Cadillacs than most people purchased in the state of Mississippi.”

Lewis's late recordings included featured guests such as Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Neil Young, John Fogerty, Ringo Starr and other rockers he had influenced.

In addition to wife Judith, Lewis is survived by four children, a sister and many grandchildren.


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