Jerry Lee Lewis, who has died aged 87, achieved dazzling early success as a defining hero of rock’n’roll, when he muscled in among Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, creating rock’n’roll piano from honky-tonk and hymn, as if doing so were as natural as breathing, and commandeering rhythm and blues with a casual authority achieved by no other white performer except Presley. With Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Great Balls of Fire and High School Confidential, he made three of the genre’s indispensable classics.
These hits, plus unbeatable versions of Mean Woman Blues, Berry’s Little Queenie and many more, shared an immediately identifiable style, an alchemy of the “Sun Studio sound”, fluid vocal brio and a pounding yet lyrical piano. Both hands were crucial in his playing, his striding left hand the foundation of the rhythm, even with a bass guitarist behind him.
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On was his second single. Widely banned for lewdness, it sold poorly until Lewis shook up Steve Allen’s national TV show in July 1957, after which he was a star, undertaking nationwide tours while the record sold more than a million. The glorious Great Balls of Fire followed, then Breathless and the title song of the film High School Confidential, in which Lewis performed. All stormed the pop, country and R&B charts.
However, it was all to change in May 1958 when Lewis arrived in Britain. The press discovered that the 13-year-old girl with him was his wife of five months, Myra Gale Brown (who was also his third cousin). His tour was cancelled, Lewis was deported and his career under threat. Jerry confessed his whole hillbilly history: “I was a bigamist at 16 … My wife Myra and I are very happy.” The public were not.
Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, to Mary Ethel, who spoke in tongues, and Elmo Lewis, a labourer, Jerry had two sisters, Frankie Jean and Linda Gail. His elder brother, Elmo Jr, was killed by a drunk driver when they were boys. His father, imprisoned for bootlegging, was brought to the funeral in chains.
Jerry was raised in the Pentecostal church, on family gospel singing and country music by Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Hank Williams and the state’s singing governor, Jimmie Davis. He taught himself the guitar, drums and fiddle as well as the piano, and hung around a local club, Haney’s, where he claimed he heard top black performers from Duke Ellington to Muddy Waters.
At 12 he made his first paid appearance, moved on to Radio WNAT in Natchez, Mississippi, and at 13 played clubs there, while his cousin Betty Jo Slamper taught him to “smooch”.
Hired as a pianist by a travelling preacher, in February 1952 Lewis married the preacher’s 16-year-old daughter, Dorothy Barton. Jerry Lee, too, was 16. The following year he attended the Pentecostal Bible Institute in Waxahatchie, Texas. Expelled for playing gospel music “like coloured people”, he told them, rightly, that they “might as well accept it, ’cause some day that’s how it’s gonna be”. Back home in September 1953, a month before his divorce from Barton was finalised, he bigamously married a pregnant Jane Mitchum after three days’ jail for store-breaking and stealing a gun. Whether or not this second marriage was ever legalised, it ended in 1957.
In Shreveport he made two country music demos, and in Nashville sought work from Slim Whitman. But rock’n’roll was erupting across the south, and like others drawn to Sun Studios, Memphis, by Presley’s success, Lewis auditioned there. In December 1956 Sun issued Crazy Arms, which sold well despite Ray Price’s version having long been on the charts and despite Lewis sounding almost diffident (not something that would recur). The B-side, End of the Road, one of Lewis’s few compositions, was an authentic dark howl, a perfect expression of its name and place.
At year’s end Lewis played on the sessions for several other artists’ rockabilly cuts, among them Carl Perkins’s Matchbox and Billy Lee Riley’s Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll. Days later, Roy Orbison asked him to play. Lewis replied: “I don’t do sessions any more.” Later, pressed by a discographer as to who had played on Jerry Lee’s own records, he would offer one of the all-time great ripostes to the collector mentality: “I played on ’em: what the hell else d’you need to know?”
Live, he was an explosive performer in the early years, genuinely close to the edge. And uninhibitedly competitive. Resenting lower billing than Berry on a date at the Paramount Theater, Brooklyn, New York, in 1958, the rumour is that Lewis ended his act by setting the piano on fire. As they met in the wings, Lewis challenged Berry: “Follow that!” Whether or not it happened, it is a rumour Lewis himself perpetuated with glee.
Two 1964 live recordings show his genius. On a tawdry, humdrum date at the Star Club, Hamburg, playing to what sounds like about 50 people, and using, in the tradition of visiting American stars, an English backing group he met mere minutes before showtime, Lewis suddenly rose to a transcendent Your Cheating Heart, with exquisite vocal phrasing and unsurpassable piano, coursing with understatement and grace. In front of an audience of 50,000 in Birmingham, Alabama, he threw down a Hi-Heel Sneakers of shuddering, majestic excitement, stealing the song from all previous occupants.
Following his rise and fall, Lewis remained at Sun, its heaviest star, making rock’n’roll A-sides and wonderful country B-sides of the immaculate Hank Williams kind, years before country became an established new career for ex-rockers. Lewis would be a main player in opening up this route.
He regained the UK Top 10 once, in 1961, with a superb version of Ray Charles’s What’d I Say, its sumptuous thunder Sun Records’s last golden moment. Lewis left in 1962.
On record he lost direction for a time, but toured with an arrogance burnished into art, wilfully infuriating audiences of Teds by dwelling on slow country songs while provoking country crowds with unabashed rock’n’roll. In mid-song he would order a musician to “Play it, son!” only to prevent his doing so with a piano solo no one would interrupt.
For a while he joined the rock festivals circuit, including appearing at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, but by the 1970s he had cracked the mainstream country market with a succession of hits such as What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me) and the impeccably wily She Still Comes Around (to Love What’s Left of Me). A rangey, muttering Me and Bobby McGee in 1971 was made “to show that damn woman [Janis Joplin] how it should be done”.
Ten years later, his skin waxy and his gait old, he combed his greased hair for the Wembley Country festival crowd, put on filthy sunglasses and delivered a consummate Over the Rainbow: the mic still placed to show off how stylishly his right hand could steer around it, his vocal control sublime. He continued to switch between the two genres for the rest of his career and, as late as October 2009, Lewis opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.
He proclaimed himself for ever a rock’n’roller, through his remaining decades of turmoil, lurid tragedy and farce. His son with Myra, Steve, drowned in their swimming pool in 1962 aged three; one of his two sons with Jane Mitchum, Jerry Lee Jr, died in a car crash at 19 in 1973; Myra divorced him, citing mental cruelty and physical abuse; in 1983 his fifth wife, Shawn Stevens, took a fatal overdose 10 weeks into their marriage, a year after his fourth wife, Jaren Pate, drowned in another swimming pool. Rolling Stone published The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs Jerry Lee Lewis, accusing him of murdering one wife and abusing and/or hounding to death several others.
In 1975 his plane was seized with cocaine and 11 kinds of amphetamine on board; in 1976 he was arrested outside the gates of Graceland, drunk in possession of a gun; the IRS seized his property in 1979 and 1983, and he filed for bankruptcy even as Dennis Quaid was making the 1989 Hollywood film of his life, Great Balls of Fire! A short, tax-avoiding emigration to Ireland with his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver, and their young son, Jerry Lee Lewis III, followed in 1992.
The marriage to Kerrie, remarkably, lasted 21 years, from 1984 to 2005; in 2012 he married for the seventh time, to his former “caregiver”, Judith Brown. There had been decades of medical catastrophe, including a collapsed lung, gall-bladder removal, bleeding stomach ulcers, spinal surgery and car-crash injuries. In 1984 he was twice brought back to life in an ambulance, and had half his stomach removed in 1985, a year his wife said he also spent shooting up methadone, tranquillisers and speed. In old age he also suffered from arthritis, pneumonia and shingles, in Rick Bragg’s 2014 book Jerry Lee Lewis: His Story.
Lewis embodied pinched obduracy, brooding, malevolent ignorance, violent unreliability and borderline madness. He abused women, played with guns and shot at men; he drove the highways of the south blind drunk with his loaded pistol on the dashboard. Yet in the vivid contrast between the meanness of the man and the grandeur of the artist, the common denominators were his phenomenal energy and admirable, all-conquering self-belief.
He will be remembered for his lifetime of hillbilly delirium, but he will be renowned for his seizure of the musical moment at the dawn of rock’n’roll, when an incomparable talent was his intoxicant and ours: when he shot up the old order and played out his defiant dramas on the keyboard, in the studio and on the stage.
He is survived by Judith, and his children Ronnie, Phoebe, Lori and Jerry Lee III.
• Jerry Lee Lewis, singer, songwriter, pianist and guitarist, born 29 September 1935; died 28 October 2022
• This article was amended on 31 October 2022 when a photograph of a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute act was replaced.