Jerry Lee Lewis, Rock and Roll Forefather and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ Singer, Dies at 87

Lewis was inducted to both Rock and Roll and Country Music Hall of Fames
Jerry Lee Lewis
(Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock and roll pioneer known as “The Killer,” has died at age 87. According to the artist’s publicist, Lewis died at his home in Mississippi with his seventh wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, by his side. No cause has been announced.

Lewis’ groundbreaking blend of rockabilly, gospel, blues, and country, combined with his flamboyant showmanship and penchant for jumping on top of his piano, created a blueprint for American rock and roll. His style is immortalized on such genre standards as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential,” and helped him become one of 16 individuals inducted into both the Country and Rock and Roll Hall of Fames.

 

“I can’t believe my big brother is gone,” said Lewis’ sister Linda Gail in a statement. “My world will never be the same again. From the first moment I opened my eyes he’s been my protector and inspiration. As a child I grew up watching him play piano in our house and developing his distinctive piano and vocal style that would change the world only a few years later. Jerry is the one that first took me into the studio, made me sing my first notes and record my first record at 15 as a duet with him. I owe him my entire career and my life to him! Every unforgettable experience, every song we sang together, every stage we shared on the road for over two decades will never be forgotten by me, and hopefully not anyone that was there.The world has lost a light that we’ve been blessed with for 87 years. I hope, in my own humble way, I can keep my brother’s memory alive and as long as I can breathe, every breath will be a tribute to his legacy, the greatest piano player, singer and brother the world has ever known. God bless you Jerry Lee Lewis, I love you!”

Lewis was born on September 19, 1935, on a farm in East Louisiana. He learned piano at age eight and sang gospel in church. His cousins Mickey Gilley, a future country star, and Jimmy Swaggart, a future TV evangelist, shared his musical interests and the three of them grew up listening to country singers like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Moon Mullican on the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1956, Lewis went to Memphis to audition for Elvis Presley producer Sam Phillips. Jack Clement recorded Lewis’ debut song, a rockabilly version of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” and Lewis became a session musician at the studio, playing piano on recordings by Johnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley (“Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll”), and Carl Perkins (“You Can Do No Wrong” and “Your True Love”).

One year later, on August 5, 1957, Lewis’ rockabilly version of Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” became a crossover smash, topping Billboard’s country, R&B, and pop charts. It also showed that rock and roll performers did not only have to play guitar.

Lewis’ career stalled in 1958 after writer Ray Berry reported that Lewis, who was 22, had secretly married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown. The music industry banned him and his music, a period covered in the 1988 Dennis Quaid-starring biopic Great Balls of Fire! His career crept back in 1961, when his rendition of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” went to No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100. His recording contract with Sun ended in 1963, and while he would continue to release music, nothing surpassed the peaks of those first recordings. Jack White’s Third Man Label has reissued some of Lewis’ Sun material over the past decade.

In the late ’60s, Lewis reinvented himself in the country music world, releasing hits like “Another Place Another Time,” “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me,” and a rendition of The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” which hit No. 1 and earned Lewis his first Grammy nomination.

Despite bouts of ill health, Lewis toured and recorded fairly regularly over the past 30 years, including with fellow early rock legends Chuck Berry and Little Richard. A 2010 album produced by benefactor Steve Bing and drummer Jim Keltner, Mean Old Man, paired Lewis with a host of superstar collaborators, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Slash, Solomon Burke, and John Fogerty.. Ethan Coen’s Lewis documentary, Trouble in Mind, debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

Lewis is survived by his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Phoebe Lewis, and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, Swaggart, and many grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

Watch the 1989 Lewis documentary I Am What I Am below:

IMPACT

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