Jerry Lee Lewis, a scandal-prone kingpin of 1950s American rock and roll who was instrumental in shaping the genre’s sound, died on Friday. He was 87 years old at the time. The star best known for his blond locks, rowdy piano beats, and outrageous stage presence, the star best known for his classic Great Balls of Fire, died of natural causes, according to his publicist.
“He Is Ready To Leave,” the artist’s wife, Judith, was quoted as saying in an accompanying statement.
According to the statement, Lewis had years of illnesses and injuries: “He had abused his body so thoroughly as a young man that he was given little chance of living through middle age, let alone old age.”
Lewis’s career spanned more than half a century and produced a wealth of eyebrow-raising stories about his numerous wives—including a teenage cousin—drunken rampages, and run-ins with the government over back taxes.
It also yielded a slew of indelible hits.
On September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis took the keys at the age of nine. Elmo and Mamie took out a loan on the family farm the next year so they could buy him an upright piano.
Lewis spent a lot of time with his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swagger working on his craft. Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart went on to become award-winning country musicians and scandal-tainted evangelists, respectively.
Lyrics that are provocative
In 1956, Lewis moved to Memphis, Tennessee, which is known as the birthplace of soul, blues, and rock. He went there to work at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who was a big part of Elvis Presley’s meteoric rise to fame.
That year, Lewis, Presley, and Johnny Cash got together in the studio with Carl Perkins for the “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session, which was later released to critical acclaim.
The next year, Lewis became famous when his song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” became a big hit. The song’s lyrics were so shocking that some radio stations wouldn’t play it at first because they were so rude.
In 2006, he told The New York Times, “It was just another song to me.” “The Girls Went Berserk, But That’s What Girls Are For.”
Great Balls of Fire, his follow-up, is still one of the best-selling singles of all time, and it was also the title of a 1989 docudrama about Lewis starring actor Dennis Quaid.
Lewis, dubbed “The Killer,” was on the rise by the summer of 1958, with fans packing shows, money pouring in, and a third hit, “Breathless,” climbing the charts.
In fact, Lewis took it even further. He pounded on the keys with his hands and feet and jumped on top of his grand piano, which made people squeal with delight. This was during an era when Elvis Presley’s smallest lower body movement caused a stir.
“Who would have thought it would be me?” the rocker said in his final days, according to the publicist’s statement.
According to legend, Lewis even set fire to his piano in an attempt to outshine guitarist Chuck Berry, who had won the closing slot that night.
Elton John tweeted, “I Wouldn’t Have Been Who I Am Today Without Lewis,” calling him a “Trailblazing Inspiration.”
“He Was Exciting And Groundbreaking, And He Pulverized The Piano.”
It all came crashing down in 1958, when Lewis embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom and the press discovered he had married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown.
Lewis later told The Washington Post, “I Knew It Was Bad, I Knew It Was Wrong.”
Lewis’s return to the United States was also a rude awakening, as he found himself blacklisted from radio and television.
He hit the road for one-night shows in bars and small clubs.
“From $10,000 per night to $250 per night is a huge disappointment,” Lewis said.
Lewis spent most of the 1960s on the sidelines, being overshadowed by the next generation, like The Beatles, because his secret marriage would always be a stain on his reputation.
He was, however, an inspiration to his celebrity successors.
When they met in the early 1970s, John Lennon kneeled down to kiss Lewis’ feet and told him, “You Are The Man Who Made It Possible For Me To Be A Star In Rock-n-Roll Music.”
“I just kind of froze,” Lewis said of the experience.
Lewis switched to country music in search of a new beginning. He also redid some of his classic songs.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, alongside fellow legends such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Ray Charles.
In 2005, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Late in life, he worked on studio albums with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.
“Your Songs Light Up My Life!” Jagger tweeted
Lee’s personal life remained troubled and turbulent. The couple divorced after 14 years of marriage to Myra, who accused the singer of physical and mental abuse.
Lewis was married twice before Myra and four times after. He was married with six children. One died as a toddler in a swimming pool accident, and the other in a car accident.
Arguments with the US government over back taxes led to the seizure of pianos, furniture, and other personal items in 1993 to cover his debt.
Lewis was a notorious hard drinker who became addicted to prescription pills at times.
In his later years, he did a lot of touring, but a stroke in 2019 cut his plans short.
“I want them to remember me not for all my wives, though I’ve had a few, and certainly not for any mansions or high living money,” Lewis said.