Tue. Dec 6th, 2022
Jerry Lee Lewis, flamboyant and controversial rock and roll pioneer, dead at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-living, hard-playing pianist and singer whose offstage exploits typically grabbed as a lot consideration as his electrifying performances and genre-spanning recording profession, has died. He was 87.

The final survivor of a era of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at house in Memphis, Tenn., consultant Zach Farnum stated in a launch.

Lewis had suffered a minor stroke in 2019 however steadily carried out reside reveals till then. Extra not too long ago, he was unable to attend his Nation Music Corridor of Fame induction as a result of sickness.

Lewis’s legacy was largely established on the principally raucous sides reduce over a three-year interval at Solar Data in Memphis: Entire Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Nice Balls of Fireplace, Breathless and Excessive Faculty Confidential.

A serendipitous session there of future music legends on Dec. 4, 1956 would additionally loom massive — with the songs recorded by the so-called Million Greenback Quartet of Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Money and Carl Perkins bought and repackaged within the ensuing a long time.

Lewis’s enchantment to child boomer youngsters entranced by the brand new style known as rock ‘n’ roll was boosted by manic performances on The Steve Allen Present and within the movement image Excessive Faculty Confidential. Lewis’s hair flipped and flopped as he pounded the keys, yipped and yodelled, kicked the piano bench apart and performed standing up and even along with his toes.

Lewis performs the piano along with his toes in Bourges, France, on April 23, 1987. (Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Photos)

“The Killer” — Lewis’s nickname stemming from a colloquial childhood greeting — was inducted into the inaugural 1986 class of the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame and obtained a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

Not a prolific songwriter, Lewis obtained credit score for placing his definitive stamp on songs that originated throughout genres — R&B, nation, gospel, he cherished all of it. 

Scandalous marriage

Lewis’s life performed out like a Southern Gothic novel manuscript rejected for being too excessive.

There have been seven marriages, a near-fatal taking pictures, perennial IRS troubles as a result of tax delinquency and routine automobile crashes, together with an notorious 1976 arrest by which a pistol-packing Lewis crashed his Lincoln into the gates of previous buddy Presley’s Graceland mansion.

“I’m simply what I’m — Jerry Lee ‘F–k Up’ Lewis,” he instructed the BBC in a 1990 documentary. “Should you don’t love that, you’ll be able to kiss my ass.” 

Chuck Berry, left, and Lewis embrace at a reception on the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Jan. 23, 1986, once they had been each inducted into the Rock & Roll Corridor of Fame. (G. Paul Burnett/The Related Press)

Whereas Lewis loved a recording profession that spanned greater than six a long time, radio airplay largely stopped when it was discovered in 1958 that he had married the 13-year-old daughter of his bandmate and cousin, J.W. Brown, on Dec. 12, 1957.

Myra Gale Brown’s account of their tumultuous 13-year marriage was instructed in 1982’s Nice Balls of Fireplace: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis, the inspiration for a significant movement image seven years later starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Brown. 

Mysterious loss of life

The couple’s three-year-old son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in 1963, whereas a decade later Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., the oldest of six Lewis youngsters, was killed in a car accident on the age of 19. 

Journalist Richard Ben Cramer, in one of the vital well-known Rolling Stone longform items, questioned in 1984 if Lewis had embodied his nickname to lethal consequence after his fifth spouse, Shawn Stephens, died the earlier yr at his Nesbit, Miss., ranch on the age of 26 years, and simply 77 days into their marriage. 

When first responders arrived, Cramer reported, Lewis greeted them with slurred speech, a bathrobe stained with dried blood and scratches on his hand. Stephens’s loss of life was dominated a methadone overdose, and a grand jury refused to indict Lewis, however the investigation was deemed substandard by each Cramer and Geraldo Rivera of TV information journal program 20/20

“I cherished her with all my coronary heart and soul. There isn’t any approach that Jerry Lee Lewis may ever, and would ever, even consider taking one other particular person’s life,” Lewis stated on 20/20, explaining that the blood and scratches had been from punching a wall in anguish over her loss of life. 

Hardscrabble rural upbringing

Jerry Lee Lewis was born on the top of the Nice Melancholy in Ferriday, La., on Sept. 29, 1935, one in every of 4 youngsters. When not travelling, he spent almost his whole life within the coronary heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Lewis’s father picked cotton and did a brief stint in jail for promoting liquor illegally. The household dwelling had no electrical energy or indoor plumbing, and when Lewis was a small little one, his older brother was killed by a drunk driver. 

Respite from the arduous life got here largely from prolonged household gatherings the place music was carried out.   

“There’s quite a lot of piano gamers in my household and quite a lot of singers. You are both a preacher or a rock and roll singer,” Lewis instructed CBC’s Good Rockin’ Tonite in 1989. “I selected rock and roll.” 

Lifetime achievement award winner Lewis poses for photographers on the forty seventh Annual Grammy Awards on the Staples Heart in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2005. (Reed Saxon/The Related Press)

Regardless of the difficult circumstances, 4 members of his prolonged household achieved some extent of fame. Linda Gail Lewis, his sister, and cousin Mickey Gilley had been additionally recording artists, and one other cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, turned one of the vital well-known American televangelists. 

Pentecostal church companies Lewis attended as a baby made a lifelong imprint. All through his life and all of the hellraising that may ensue, he was preoccupied with whether or not “salvation” would happen at his mortal life’s finish. 

On the age of eight, he displayed an inherent ability for music, inspiring his dad, Elmo, and mom, Mamie, to spend greater than that they had to purchase him a standup Starck piano. He was largely self-taught, however a variety of artists fuelled his ardour, with Hank Williams and B.B. King his favourites. 

‘That boy can go’

Lewis performed group occasions starting in his teenagers and snuck into golf equipment, with neither academia nor a stint in Bible faculty holding lasting curiosity. His wide-legged fashion on the piano bench was reportedly as a result of a hip damage enjoying soccer. 

He heard in regards to the exploits of Presley at Solar Data and made a pilgrimage within the waning months of 1956. By that point he had been by means of a sequence of menial jobs and nighttime gigs, in addition to receiving a rejection from RCA Data, whose employees had been reportedly flummoxed that he did not play the guitar. 

Lewis and his spouse, Myra, then 15, are proven in London on Could 23, 1958. The wedding induced controversy, and she or he later alleged it had been marked by abuse. (Getty Photos)

“Nothing may cease me. I used to be going to be heard and get recorded,” he instructed Classic Rock journal. “I knew, if I bought to Solar, it might occur.” 

A reporter was available for the studio session of future legends Money, Perkins, Presley and Lewis. 

“That boy can go,” Presley instructed the scribe. “I feel he has an amazing future forward of him. He has a unique fashion, and the way in which he performs piano simply will get inside me.” 

In lower than two years, Nice Balls of Fireplace, Entire Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Breathless had been all top-10 hits on Billboard’s fundamental chart. 

Aged 22 and on his third marriage, Lewis’s union with a 13-year-old was, regrettably, not with out precedent in rural communities of the Deep South on the time. His personal sisters had been married at 14 and 12, whereas he was 16 when he married for the primary time. 

At a 1959 court docket look relating to tardy little one assist funds to his second spouse, Lewis defined to a decide that gigs had dried up as a result of being branded a “cradle snatcher.”

He performed the membership and tavern circuit for a lot of the Sixties, together with Café Pagoda in Montreal and Toronto’s Le Coq d’or Tavern, showing on a invoice with youthful musicians like John Lennon and Eric Clapton on the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969.

Through the Nineteen Seventies, he discovered the charts once more as a rustic performer, with songs akin to What’s Made Milwaukee Well-known (Has Made A Loser Out of Me) and To Make Love Sweeter for You

Lewis being Lewis, hassle was by no means far off. With drinks flowing in 1976, he almost killed his bass participant, Butch Owens, with a .357 — he stated he was aiming the gun at a Coke bottle. Lewis was compelled to pay damages to Owens and sentenced to probation. 

“I simply comprehend it took him a pair days to speak proper,” Lewis instructed biographer Rick Bragg a long time later. 

After Presley’s 1977 loss of life, it was discovered at a subsequent trial that each he and Lewis had been avid prospects of pill-pushing Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick, as he turned recognized, testified that amphetamines had been Lewis’s specific weak point and that Lewis as soon as discharged himself from a hospital by climbing out a window. 

Across the identical time — and never for the final time — Lewis was compelled to hawk numerous luxurious objects to fulfill tax money owed owed to Uncle Sam. 

In 1981, the wear-and-tear of alcohol and drug use led to abdomen surgical procedure and a subsequent bout of pneumonia, leaving him in severe situation for a time. 

It was at a present the next yr on the Hyatt Regency lodge in Dearborn, Mich., the place he met Stephens, a waitress. 

Richard Ben Cramer’s 1984 Rolling Stone article, The Unusual and Mysterious Loss of life of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis, was lurid. The author identified that Lewis’s fourth spouse, Jaren, drowned in 1982, although the article did not point out that the performer was nowhere close to the scene of that tragedy. 

Each Cramer and Geraldo Rivera alleged there had been abuse within the brief marriage to Stephens. 

“She wasn’t crushed in any respect. There wasn’t a contact of circumstantial proof that I completed it,” Lewis instructed Bragg in 2014’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Personal Story

‘Jerry Lee will not be tamed’

Lewis’s popularity took successful, and a sequence of erratic performances did not assist. He was a no-show at an oldies revue in Toronto’s model new SkyDome in 1989, and 4 years later, he kicked a cameraman in Spain. 

In her e book, Myra Gale Brown stated Lewis would topic her “to each sort of bodily and psychological abuse conceivable” throughout their marriage, and neither had been followers of 1989’s Nice Balls of Fireplace

“I performed him actually as a nine-year-old boy who fell in love with music, which he nonetheless is,” Quaid instructed Vogue in a promotional interview for the movie. 

Within the final three a long time of his life, Lewis nonetheless loved the push of the stage, irrespective of if it was a membership that had seen higher days or a on line casino amphitheatre. 

After a decade break from recording, 2006’s Final Man Standing ushered in three well-received albums within the twenty first century chock-full of visitor spots from the likes of B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Neil Younger, Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson.

As Hutch Hutchinson, a bandmate for greater than 4 a long time on the time, instructed the New York Occasions in 2006: “Jerry Lee will not be tamed. He would not reply to anyone, by no means has.”

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