Rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis dead at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the last originator of rock ‘n’ roll, has died in his home Desoto County, Miss., at age 87. His death was erroneously reported by TMZ on Oct. 26, but the outlet quickly retracted that story, apologizing and explaining that it had been misled by someone claiming to represent the musician. On the morning of Oct. 28, news of Lewis’s passing was confirmed by his publicist, Zach Farnum of 117 Group.

According to Farnum and Lewis biographer Rick Bragg, Lewis’s seventh wife, Judith, who was by Lewis’s side as he passed, said, “He is ready to leave. … He said he was ready to be with Jesus.” Lewis had been reportedly battling the flu and had been unable to attend his Oct. 19 Country Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, as stated in a Facebook post on his official page that day. Lewis’s longtime friend Kris Kristofferson accepted the honor on Lewis’s behalf and brought the award to Lewis’s bedside.

Jerry Lee Lewis, who went by the nickname “The Killer,” was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La. He began playing music at age 10, after his parents Elmo and Mamie mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano, and attended piano lessons with two of his cousins, fellow future stars Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. After gigging around Louisiana and Mississippi during the dawning era of rock ‘n’ roll, he got his big break in 1955 when he traveled to Memphis to audition for Sun Records. (Sun Records founder Sam Phillips would later declare Lewis the most talented person he had ever seen.) With that seminal label, Lewis began not only recording as a solo artist but also working as a session musician for other artists on the Sun roster like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Lewis was the last surviving member of Sun Records' Million Dollar Quartet and the album Class of '55, which also included Cash, Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley.

Lewis’s dynamic, boogie-woogie playing style (which often involved him pounding the keys with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside and kicking over his piano bench) and wild-eyed, bad-boy persona established the Killer as an architect of early rock ‘n’ roll, alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Presley, and he influenced countless rock pianists who followed him. In a 2013 interview, Elton John said that before he discovered Lewis, “the piano playing that I had heard had been more sedate. My dad collected George Shearing records, but this was the first time I heard someone beat the shit out of a piano. When I saw Little Richard at the Harrow Granada, he played it standing up, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually jumped on the piano! This was astonishing to me, that people could do that. Those records had such a huge effect on me, and they were just so great. I learned to play like that.”

Lewis’s first big solo success for Sun Records came in 1957 with the top three Billboard hits “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On” (which was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005) and “Great Balls of Fire” (which later inspired the title of his 1989 biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder). However, his career was derailed just a year later, during his first tour of the U.K., when journalist Ray Berry reported that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown (the daughter of Lewis’s bassist uncle, J.W. Brown), who was accompanying Lewis on the trip, was 13 years old and his first cousin once removed. Lewis was 22 at the time. The scandalous news generated an immediate backlash: The U.K. tour was canceled after only three shows, and back in America, Lewis’s records were widely banned from the radio. Myra, who was portrayed by Ryder in Great Balls of Fire, remained married to Lewis until 1970, when she filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery and abuse.

Despite these setbacks, Lewis kept trying to reboot this career and gain a new audience in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He stayed with Sun Records until 1963 and then signed to Smash Records that year, returning to the U.K. for the first time since the scandal. His live album from that period, 1964’s Live at the Star Club (recorded at the famed nightclub Hamburg, Germany), is considered one of the greatest concert albums of all time. However, Lewis’s Smash recordings were largely unsuccessful, so he leaned into his country roots and surprisingly reinvented himself.

Lewis scored a No. 4 country hit in 1968 with the Jerry Chesnut cover “Another Place, Another Time,” and between 1968 and 1977, he racked up 17 top 10 hit singles on the Billboard country chart, including four No. 1’s. In 1969, Sun Records reissued many of Lewis's old country recordings to capitalize on the musician’s unexpected newfound success, with one of his unreleased Sun tracks, “One Minute Past Eternity,” going to No. 2 on the country chart. Lewis played the Grand Ole Opry, which had turned him away in his pre-Sun Records days, for the first and only time in January 1973.

Lewis also scored two pop hits in the early ‘70s, “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Chantilly Lace,” the result of the public’s growing nostalgia for vintage rock ‘n’ roll. In 1986, he was one of the very first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; other members of the Hall’s inaugural Class of ’86 included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson, disc jockey Alan Freed, Presley and Phillips. In 2005, Lewis was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

Lewis continued to enjoy success and acclaim late in life. His 2006 duets album Last Man Standing — which featured collaborations with admirers and disciples like Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Don Henley, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood — was his most successful full-length release, with more than 1 million copies sold worldwide. In 2013, he opened his own club on Beale Street in Memphis, and in 2014, he released his autobiography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, written with Bragg. Lewis’s last studio album was 2014’s Rock & Roll Time, although in March 2020 it was announced that he was working with renowned producer T Bone Burnett on album of gospel covers — his first time in a recording studio following a 2019 stroke. Burnett co-produced the 2022 documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, which was directed by Ethan Coen.

Jerry Lee Lewis performs onstage at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 17, 2018 in Cerritos, Calif. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Jerry Lee Lewis performs onstage at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 17, 2018 in Cerritos, Calif. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Jerry Lee Lewis is survived by his wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis; his children, Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Phoebe Lewis, and Lori Lancaster; his sister ,Linda Gail Lewis; his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart; and many grandchildren, nieces ,and nephews. Services and more information will be announced in the following days. In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requests donations be made in his honor to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares.

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