Jerry Lee Lewis Dead At 87
Jerry Lee Lewis, a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll with a deeply complicated legacy, has died at home in Memphis, the Associated Press reports. Nicknamed “The Killer,” Lewis, a singer-songwriter and pianist known for his fiery performances and early rock hits like “Great Balls Of Fire,” was one of the most popular and influential performers in rock history, but his musical achievements were often overshadowed by a series of scandals in his personal life. He was 87.
Lewis was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana and grew up in a poor farming family. As a child, he started playing piano with two cousins who would go on to fame as well, future country singer Mickey Gilley and future televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Although he gained some local notoriety performing R&B songs, his mother enrolled him at Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, hoping to steer him toward Christian music. He was kicked out of the school after performing a boogie-woogie version of “My God Is Real.”
Lewis began playing clubs around the South and unsuccessfully auditioning for country radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry and Lousiana Hayride. He found a more sympathetic ear at Sun Records in Memphis, where producer Jack Clement brought him into the fold to record his own songs and play on records by Sun artists like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He broke out in 1957 with his cover of Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and went on to score other massive hits with “Great Balls Of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” He developed a large following in part thanks to his wild performance style, which involved playing the piano with a violent expressiveness.
Lewis’ career momentum slowed significantly in 1958 when a journalist discovered he had married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. Yet by the late 1960s, he returned to the spotlight as one of the most successful artists in country music, starting with his hit “Another Place, Another Time.” He crossed back over to the pop charts with “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Chantilly Lace” in the early 1970s. In 1983, Shawn Stephens, Lewis’ wife of 77 days, died; allegations emerged that Lewis abused her and contributed to her death, but they were never substantiated in any official setting.
In 1989, Lewis was portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the biopic Great Balls Of Fire!, which reignited interest in his music once again. Despite the continued vitality of his career, he clashed regularly with the IRS over alleged tax evasion, and many speculated that his family’s move to Ireland in 1993 was related to those financial issues. He continued to perform and record up through the end of his life, including tours with fellow rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind, a documentary about Lewis’ life by Ethan Coen of the Coen brothers, debuted at Cannes this year.