Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock’n’roll pioneer who became one of the most infamous 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,” a statement said. “He told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid.”
Lewis’s energetic performances on songs including Great Balls of Fire helped install 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 deemed irreverent.
He didn’t return to education, and began playing live – his first performance at the age of 14 was at the opening of a car dealership. He developed a theatrical, boisterous style that chimed 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 dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was an impromptu session: Cash and Presley happened to be separately visiting the studio where Lewis was backing Perkins on piano.
Lewis’s breakthrough came the following year, with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, a barnstorming 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 would kick over his piano stool and play standing up, with songs accentuated with cascading runs of notes.
He followed that Top 3 song with his greatest success, Great Balls of Fire, which reached No 2 on the US charts and became one of the definitive songs of the rock’n’roll era.
During a 1958 UK tour at the peak of his fame, he was embroiled in scandal after it was revealed 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. US radio stations and concert promoters also blacklisted him, and his popularity faded. He never again had a US Top 20 hit.
Lewis’ wild-man reputation cemented his nickname, The Killer, earned from his habit of describing acquaintances with the Louisiana slang of “killer”. After a 13-year marriage to Brown, his fourth and fifth marriages were even more notorious. Jaren Pate and Shawn Stephens both died in suspicious circumstances – the former by drowning, while there were domestic abuse rumors surrounding the latter.
Despite the controversies, he successfully switched to country music after the rock’n’roll scene dwindled and scored a series of hits on the US country charts, including his version of the standard Chantilly Lace.
In 1984, following years of prescription drug use, he survived an operation to remove a third of his stomach after a series of perforated ulcers, and in 1986, he was one of the first 10 performers inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Presley, Chuck Berry and others.
Another infamous “Killer” moment involved Berry. When the pair were on tour, Lewis objected to Berry going on after him, and so set his piano on fire following his performance with the words: “Follow that, boy.” Meanwhile, Lewis was arrested in 1976 after he turned up drunk at Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis with a loaded pistol on the dashboard of his car.
Two of Lewis’s six children died young: Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool aged three, while Jerry Lee Lewis Jr – who had played drums for his father – died in a car accident aged 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 on its release in 2010 and featured duets with stars including Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton.
Tributes have been arriving on social media, including from Elton John who tweeted: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverized the piano. A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your trailblazing inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”