Jerry Lee Lewis, unbridled early rocker, dies at 87


Jerry Lee Lewis, the influential singer and pianist whose unbridled performances and scandalous life outlined the private rebel on the coronary heart of rock-and-roll music, died Oct. 28 at his dwelling in Southaven, Miss. He was 87.

His demise was introduced by his publicist Zach Farnum, who didn’t give a trigger.

Mr. Lewis, a Louisiana tenant farmer’s son and the cousin of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, carried out with a riveting, maniacal high quality. On storming Nineteen Fifties hits corresponding to “Nice Balls of Fireplace,” “Breathless” and “Excessive Faculty Confidential,” he slashed up and down the keys along with his proper hand, intentionally sped up tempos mid-song and sometimes completed songs onstage by standing on the piano.

His high-energy music was a distinctly Southern synthesis of rhythm and blues, nation, gospel, and boogie-woogie, and his barely contained stage frenzy thrilled and unnerved audiences. He was known as “The Killer” due to his capability to utterly overshadow different performers. His Rock & Roll Corridor of Fame biography — he was inducted in 1986 as a member of the inaugural class — describes him as “the wild man of rock and roll, embodying its most reckless and high-spirited impulses.”

“Among the many early rock performers, Jerry Lee stands out because the transcendent expertise that rock-and-roll can provide,” stated rock historian Albin Zak. “It was new and scary within the Nineteen Fifties. However now, it’s anticipated, and whether or not it’s David Lee Roth or Mick Jagger, they’re all channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Mr. Lewis recorded in 1956 for producer Sam Phillips at Solar Data, an incubator of expertise that additionally launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Money and Carl Perkins. The subsequent 12 months, Mr. Lewis drew nationwide consideration and notoriety for his efficiency of his hit music “Complete Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Present.”

Kicking the piano bench away as he sang and performed — host Allen kicked it proper again to him — he implored the younger girls within the viewers to “shake one time for me,” then pounded the keys, his closely pomaded hair dangling over his brow in a sweaty mop.

“I like high quality, and Jerry Lee had it,” Allen later instructed an interviewer. “The response was unbelievable. We had him again, and he blew everybody’s score figures away together with Ed Sullivan’s. Jerry Lee was a star from then on.”

A scandalous revelation quickly solid a shadow over Mr. Lewis’s burst of success. Throughout his 1958 tour of England, reporters found that the 22-year-old entertainer’s bride, Myra Gale Brown, was additionally his 13-year-old cousin and the daughter of his bass guitarist, J.W. Brown. Mr. Lewis had introduced a grown girl to forge the signature on the wedding license.

Their marriage was his third. The English press labeled him a “cradle snatcher.” His tour of Britain was canceled, and Mr. Lewis misplaced additional bookings and nationwide tv appearances in america. After the marital scandal, Mr. Lewis struggled for hits and radio airplay and progressively reestablished himself as a rustic performer.

Singer Jerry Lee Lewis joined the Nation Music Corridor of Fame on Might 17, 2022. He’s most identified for Nineteen Fifties hits like “Nice Balls of Fireplace” and “Breathless.” (Video: Nation Music Affiliation, Picture: Jason Kempin/Getty Photos/Nation Music Affiliation)

He positioned 26 songs within the Billboard High 10 nation charts between 1968 and 1981, together with such honky-tonk weepers as “One other Place, One other Time” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Well-known (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” a rocked-up model of “Me and Bobby McGee” and a rendition of the usual “Over the Rainbow.” (Mr. Lewis was inducted into the Nation Music Corridor of Fame in October however didn’t attend the ceremony due to poor well being.)

In his private life, Mr. Lewis grew hooked on capsules and alcohol and was bedeviled by tragedy. Mr. Lewis and Myra Gale Brown’s first son, Steve Allen Lewis (named for the TV host), drowned within the household swimming pool at 3. Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., a son from his second marriage who was additionally the drummer in Mr. Lewis’s touring band, died in a automotive accident in 1973.

His estranged fourth spouse, Jaren Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982. The next 12 months, Shawn Stephens Lewis, his fifth spouse, died of a methadone overdose lower than three months after their marriage ceremony. Mr. Lewis maintained that the methadone had been prescribed to him to wean him off addictive painkillers.

A narrative in Rolling Stone journal highlighted discrepancies in Mr. Lewis’s accounts of the incident and the police investigation. The Stephens household known as publicly for an investigation, however a grand jury discovered no proof of wrongdoing.

In 1976, Mr. Lewis shot and wounded his bass participant throughout a drunken goal observe at his forty first celebration. That very same 12 months, he was charged with trespassing and public drunkenness after being arrested on the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion with a loaded gun. In 1977, he totaled his Rolls-Royce whereas beneath the affect of tranquilizers. In 1979, the IRS confiscated Mr. Lewis’s fleet of vehicles in lieu of cost for again taxes. Two years later, he canceled a tour whereas being handled for abdomen most cancers.

Raised as a Pentecostal, Mr. Lewis usually expounded on biblical scriptures, salvation and a perception that performing rock-and-roll had marked him for everlasting damnation. He initially refused to document the music “Nice Balls of Fireplace” (1957), considered one of his largest hits, as a result of he thought of the title blasphemous.

“I’m a sinner, I do know it,” he instructed author Nick Tosches in 1979. “Quickly you and me are going to should reckon with the chilling fingers of demise.”

Actually, Mr. Lewis lived on to change into considered one of rock-and-roll’s oldest energetic performers and obtained a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005.

Influenced by boogie-woogie

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, La., on Sept. 29, 1935. His father, Elmo, a part-time carpenter, ran a household moonshine nonetheless and farmed land owned by Mr. Lewis’s wealthier uncle and namesake, Lee Calhoun. Calhoun additionally owned Ferriday’s largest enterprise, a paper mill.

Mr. Lewis began enjoying piano at 8, alongside two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, on the Calhoun home. Swaggart would later change into a singing televangelist, whereas Gilley would emerge as a preferred nation and pop performer with a method much like Mr. Lewis’s.

After listening to his son plunk out “Jingle Bells,” Elmo Lewis noticed his promise and mortgaged the household home to buy a secondhand piano.

As a teenager, Jerry Lee Lewis hid behind the bar at Haney’s, an African American juke joint, listening intently to blues and boogie-woogie. Different early musical influences included vaudevillian Al Jolson and nation singers Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — a trio of performers he known as the “three nice music stylists.” Mr. Lewis later known as himself the fourth.

Mr. Lewis briefly enrolled at Southwestern Bible Institute, a Pentecostal college close to Dallas, however landed in hassle for taking part in a gradual, staid hymn in a boogie-woogie fashion.

He took his first music job at 18, alternating on drums and piano at a honky-tonk in Natchez, Miss. Mr. Lewis and his father bought eggs to finance journeys to Nashville and Memphis to audition for document corporations. On their third journey to Memphis, he secured an audition at Solar Data.

Phillips recalled to author Peter Guralnick: “They put that tape on, and I stated, ‘The place … did this man come from?’ I imply he performed that piano with abandon. Between the stuff he performed and didn’t play, I might hear the non secular factor, too. I instructed [engineer] Jack [Clement][to] simply get him in right here as quick as you possibly can.”

Though Mr. Lewis’s first Solar single, a canopy of the Ray Worth nation hit “Loopy Arms,” didn’t promote, he did tour Canada in help of Solar artists Perkins and Money. Perkins suggested the inexperienced pianist to “flip round to allow them to see you, make a fuss.”

His second single, “Complete Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957), beforehand a modest hit for blues singer Large Maybelle in a slower rendition, made the pianist a star.

His marriages to Dorothy Barton, Jane Mitchum, Myra Gale Brown and Kerrie McCarver resulted in divorce. In 2012, he married Judith Brown. Along with his spouse, survivors embody 4 youngsters, Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Phoebe Lewis and Lori Lancaster; a sister, Linda Gail Lewis, who can be a singer and pianist; and lots of grandchildren.

Tosches chronicled Mr. Lewis’s tumultuous life within the 1982 novelistic biography “Hellfire.” A Hollywood movie, “Nice Balls of Fireplace” (1989), recounted his Solar Data years with Dennis Quaid as Mr. Lewis and Winona Ryder as Myra Gale Brown.

In later years, a 1956 jam session at Solar amongst Mr. Lewis, Presley, Money and Perkins took on a lifetime of its personal. The Memphis Press-Scimitar proclaimed the 4 “A Million Greenback Quartet” and revealed an image of the 4 that has since change into a lot reproduced.

A recording of the session, although by no means meant for business launch, was lastly launched in 1981 and later turned the topic of a Broadway tribute present, “Million Greenback Quartet,” in 2010. Three of the principals — Money, Perkins and Mr. Lewis — additionally recorded with fellow Solar artist Roy Orbison as “The Class of ’55” in 1986. A document of interviews with the individuals, “Interviews With the Class of ’55,” received the Grammy Award for spoken phrase recording the next 12 months.

Mr. Lewis continued to carry out lately, though medical doctors restricted his time onstage. In 2006, he launched the album “Final Man Standing,” which featured duets with such performers as Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and Willie Nelson. One other album of duets, “Imply Outdated Man,” adopted in 2010. Creator and journalist Rick Bragg wrote an “as instructed to” biography, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Personal Story,” in 2014.

Mr. Lewis was not identified for his public expressions of humility.

“There’s only a few nice abilities left,” he as soon as stated. “I’m not saying I’m considered one of ’em. I’m saying I’m the one one.”



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