The Sound Cafe
Rock'n'Roll Legend Jerry Lee Lewis Dead At 87
Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/GI
Jerry Lee Lewis, piano-bashing rock ‘n’ roll founding father, swaggering country shouter and the last surviving member of the inaugural (1986) class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died. His death was announced on Friday (Oct. 28).
Lewis is known for recording such rock standards as “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential.” Both “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Sometime collaborator Kris Kristofferson told USA Today that Jerry Lee Lewis is “one of the best American voices ever.” A 2022 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Lewis is one of just 16 people to have been inducted into both the Country and Rock and Roll Halls.
Lewis was born on Sept. 19, 1935, in East Louisiana to indigent parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis. He was brought up Christian and raised on a family farm in Ferriday that “produced more famous people per square mile than any other American small town.” The young Lewis taught himself to play piano at the age of 8 and sang gospel music in church. His two cousins, Mickey Gilley, who became a successful country singer, and Jimmy Swaggart, eventually a renowned TV evangelist, shared similar musical interests. Lewis’ formative influences included listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts, which featured the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Moon Mullican.
Lewis moved to Memphis in 1956 to audition for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records and the man who first recorded Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Phillips wasn’t there when Lewis arrived, so producer Jack Clement recorded Lewis’ debut single, a rockabilly version of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms.” Lewis went on to work at the studio as a session musician, playing piano on numerous recordings including records by Cash, Billy Lee Riley (“Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and Perkins (“You Can Do No Wrong” and “Your True Love”), among others. The Million Dollar Quartet sessions, recorded by Phillips, was the result of a spontaneous jam session at Sun involving Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis. He was also part of the legendary Class of ’55 album with Cash, Perkins, Elvis and Roy Orbison.
As a piano player, Jerry Lee had a very unique style, blending rockabilly, gospel, blues and country while feverishly banging away on the keys, his long blond hair flying around, as he jumped on the bench, a veritable whirling dervish, and unabashed rock star. “No one wanted to follow Jerry Lee onstage,” said Cash. “Not even Elvis.”
Jerry Lee Lewis was nicknamed “The Killer,” and his “wild” man performances were kinetic, filled with flamboyant flair as he pounded the higher keys with his right hand, kicking and standing on top of the piano, knocking over the bench and anything left standing on the stage. He even lit his piano on fire, making it impossible for anyone to upstage him, a forerunner of the likes of The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
Lewis’ rockabilly version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” first recorded by Big Maybelle, hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s country and R&B charts, as well as No. 3 on the (pre-Hot 100) pop chart in ’57. It was the first song played on the national edition of American Bandstand on Aug. 5, 1957. Said Lewis: “I knew it was a hit when I cut it, but Sam Phillips thought it was too risqué.” Wrote Memphis critic Robert Gordon: “Jerry Lee began to show that in this new emerging genre called rock ‘n’ roll, not everybody was going to stand there with a guitar.”
The follow-up, “Great Balls of Fire,” was an even bigger hit, reaching No. 2 on Billboard‘s pop chart. From this point until 1961, the billing on Lewis’ singles was “Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano.” “Breathless” followed, reaching No. 7. Hollywood took notice: Lewis appeared in the 1957 film Jamboree! In 1958, Lewis sang the title song in the film High School Confidential, starring Russ Tamblyn. The result was another hit (No. 21 on the pop chart).
Lewis’ career stumbled in 1958 with a media backlash, led by British journalist Ray Berry, who revealed that Lewis secretly married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown, who became his third wife. Lewis was 22 at the time and was quickly blacklisted by the music industry. Radio stations boycotted Lewis’ music. Dick Clark himself canceled Lewis’ appearances on American Bandstand. Before his marriage, venues paid him nearly $10,000 a night; the scandal lowered his asking price to a rock-bottom $250 an engagement.
He was still under contract to Sun Records, though, and a subsequent recording of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” reached No. 30 on the Hot 100 in 1961. His contract with Sun ended in ’63 and he went on to release other songs with Smash Records, but nothing hit the crossover peaks of those first releases, even if he did continue to experience success on the country charts. His Live at the Star Club, Hamburg album in 1964 is considered one of the most spectacular live concert discs ever released.
In ’68 he transitioned into country, recording the top 10 hit “Another Place Another Time,” which reached No. 4 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles chart, as it was then called. Four subsequent singles reached No. 1 on that chart: “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” and a cover version of The Big Bopper’s 1958 smash “Chantilly Lace.” (The latter song brought Lewis his first Grammy nomination, for best country performance, male.) In 1981, he released “Thirty Nine and Holding” on Elektra Records and then briefly signed to MCA Records.
In February 1987, Lewis won his only competitive Grammy — best spoken word or non-musical recording as one of the narrators of Interviews From the Class of ’55 Recording Sessions. His co-winners were Johnny Cash, Chips Moman, Rick Nelson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips. Lewis received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in 2005.
Winona Ryder, Dennis Quaid and Alec Baldwin starred in the 1989 biopic of Lewis life, Great Balls of Fire!, which brought Lewis’ career back into the limelight. The movie was based on Myra Lewis’ book detailing his life and controversy. Jerry Lee recorded the songs for the soundtrack.
In 2006, Lewis’ aptly titled Last Man Standing album reached No. 26 on the Billboard 200, his highest-charting title on that chart. Raw concert footage was put together in the companion DVD, Last Man Standing Live, featuring duets with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page, among others. He teamed up in 2010 with Eric Clapton and Merle Haggard, along with Jimmy Page and others, on Mean Old Man, which reached No. 30 on the Billboard 200.
In April 2013, he opened Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk on Beale Street in Memphis. He also released Rock & Roll Time and was the subject of Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, a biography written by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg. Lewis’ version of the title track, originally co-written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson, features guitarists Doyle Bramhall, Jon Brion and Kenny Lovelace, along with vocalists Vonda Shepard and Bernard Fowler. “This is a rock ‘n’ roll record,” he told Rolling Stone. “That’s just the way it came out.” The rest of the album is cast with many artists he inspired, including Keith Richards and Ron Wood, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Nils Lofgren and Shelby Lynne, among others. The album included covers of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Rodgers and old pal Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”), one of two songs on which he played guitar.
Lewis had six children by seven wives, and his personal life was marred by several tragedies. He married Dorothy Barton in ’52 when he was just 17 years old. They divorced in ’53, one month before he married Jane Mitchum, with whom he had two children, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. and Ronnie Guy Lewis. Jerry Lee Jr. died at 19 in 1973 in a car accident when his Jeep overturned. Lewis married Myra Gale Brown, his teenage cousin, and had two children, Steve Allen Lewis and Phoebe Allen Lewis. Steve drowned when he was 3 years old in 1962. His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pete, gave birth to their daughter Lori Lee Lewis before dying in a friend’s swimming pool before their divorce was final. He married Shawn Stephens in ’83 before her untimely death — just three months after they were married. His sixth marriage, to Kerrie McCarver, lasted 20 years, from 1984 to 2004, producing one son, Jerry Lee Lewis III. He married his seventh wife, Judith Brown, in 2012 with whom he spent his final days on their Nesbit, Mississippi, ranch. Jerry Lee Lewis is survived by his wife, sons Ronnie and Jerry Lee Lewis III, and daughters Phoebe and Lori Lee.