Rock‘n’Roll Original Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘The Killer,’ Dies At 87

Known and loved worldwide for his pioneering recordings, the four-time Grammy winner courted controversy throughout his life.

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Jerry Lee Lewis - Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jerry Lee Lewis - Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock’n’roll original known far and wide as “The Killer,” has died at the age of 87. Lewis’ publicist confirmed his death to Rolling Stone on Friday (Oct 28). His cause of death has not been reported.

Known and loved worldwide both for his pioneering recordings and his effusive stage antics, the four-time Grammy winner often courted controversy in his personal life and through his confrontational behavior. But his place among the greats of the rock‘n’roll explosion was immediately guaranteed by the one-two punch of his early singles for Sun Records in 1957, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls Of Fire.”

Jerry Lee Lewis "Great Balls Of Fire, What'd I Say & Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" | Ed Sullivan Show

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In later years, Lewis became hugely popular within the country genre, with a succession of Top 10 singles and albums. Still later, in the 2000s and into the 2010s, he underlined the influence he had had on generations of fellow artists in a series of collaborative albums (Last Man Standing, Mean Old Man and Rock & Roll Time). Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, John Fogerty, and Robbie Robertson were among those who seized the invitation to take part.

Lewis was, to many, the first wild man of rock’n’roll, as mercurial offstage as on, and often acerbic in his dealings with the media. In later years, he softened considerably, moving into his mid-80s and outliving Little Richard, his “lifelong friend, and fellow rocker,” as he described him on Richard’s passing in May 2020.

Jerry Lee had himself overcome serious health issues for decades. He survived a stroke in February 2019, and went into a Nashville studio with producer T-Bone Burnett in January 2020 to work on a new album, after regaining faculties he thought were lost. “There I was playing piano with my right hand,” he told Rolling Stone. “I thought I would never play again.”

Early years

The soul of rock’n’roll was, literally, in Jerry Lee Lewis’ hands before the music even had a name. He was born in the small northeastern Louisiana town of Ferriday on September 29, 1935, and owed his lifelong devotion to the piano to his sharecropper parents, Elmo and Mamie, who mortgaged their farm to buy him his first instrument. Early on, he played it in groups with two cousins who would also make names for themselves: country star Mickey Gilley and TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Lewis was on local stages soon after his 14th birthday, combining the spiritual and the secular musical influences brought to him via his parents. Wrote journalist Robert Sandall in the Sunday Times in 1987: “Between the black blues joint across the road (Haneys Big House, where he would listen to boogie woogie pianists and the great blues guitarist B.B. King), the jazz records his father played at home and the hymns in the fundamentalist protestant church his devout mother took him to every Sunday, Jerry Lee forged a precocious self-taught style that was soon earning him $9 a night with a local country band.

“At 15, his pianistic skills and his mother’s fervent piety helped to gain him a place at a seminary in Texas, the South Western Bible Institute. The story goes that Lewis was expelled almost immediately for a boogie woogie rendition of the hymn, ‘My God Is Real.’ True or not, it was an accurate portent of the ructions that lay ahead.”

Early recordings

Jerry Lee hit the road and gained priceless, hard-won, experience with shows beyond Louisiana and into Mississippi and Tennessee. He made his first demo in 1954, and he and his self-proclaimed Pumping Piano landed at Sun Records in 1956. In the absence of Sun founder Sam Phillips, it was the sharp ears of producer-engineer (Cowboy) Jack Clement that heard Jerry Lee’s almost feral power and secured his deal.

In those magical Sun years, he not only made his own records but played with many other stars-in-the-making, such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The December 1956 fly-on-the-wall recording that captures the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” of Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Elvis Presley remains a priceless illustration of rock’n’roll’s early and most joyous expression.

Lewis made his US chart debut for the week of June 24, 1957, with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” which rose to No.3. Early the next year, “Great Balls Of Fire” spent a month at No.2; both songs were later inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Knowingly or unknowingly, almost everyone who has played or listened to popular music has been touched by them.

In the first half of 1958, he added to his armory of exciting, frenetic rockers with “Breathless” and “High School Confidential.” The “Ferriday Fireball” was, by now, renowned for his stage act, in which he worked himself into a frenzy of sweat and wayward hair, kicking the piano stool away, playing the keys with his feet, even standing on his instrument. It was manna to those who felt that rock‘n’roll was corrupting the young.

A fateful UK tour

Lewis was to give that phrase another unfortunate meaning. On a trip to the UK in May 1958, he lied about the age of his new wife to a reporter. After further reporting revealed even more unflattering details, the tour was canceled, the singer went home in disgrace, and Sun were subsequently reluctant to promote him. He took out a trade advertisement to explain his personal circumstances, but his pop career was never the same, nor provided another Top 10 US hit.

He did, however, continue to tour and record, and slowly rebuilt his reputation, reaching the UK Top 10 in 1961 with his distinctive version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say .”The following year, Lewis’ return to Britain brought positive reviews and his one and only chart LP there, Jerry Lee Lewis Vol.2. Having reestablished a live audience, he toured again in the UK several times. The NME reported that at a 1963 date at Birmingham Town Hall, the first house inside shouted, “We want Jerry!” while the second, waiting outside, did the same.

Another British trip came in late 1964, on a package with the Yardbirds, girl singer Twinkle, and others. The second half of the decade contained some courageous career shifts for the dynamic Lewis, who in 1966 took the part of Iago in producer Jack Good’s musical recreation of Othello, entitled Catch My Soul. “I will act it as I see it,” Lewis told Melody Maker. “I’m not taking any lessons. I hope to do more of this type of work — but I’d never give up singing or making records.”

What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)

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Then in 1967, he ushered in a new era at Mercury Records by switching to country music, with huge success. Country radio in America had always looked fondly upon his early rock‘n’roll sides. “I think I’ve always been a country artist,” he told Rolling Stone early in 2020. “‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ was No.1 in country. So was ‘Great Balls of Fire.’” In 1968, “Another Place Another Time” ushered in years of major success in the format.

Lewis’ lyrical piano was perfectly suited to the honky tonk traditions of such gems as “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me),” “Green, Green Grass Of Home” (a direct inspiration for Tom Jones’ UK No.1 version), and “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”

Between early 1969 and spring 1972, four of Lewis’ Mercury singles became country chart-toppers, “To Make Love Sweeter For You,” “There Must Be More To Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance On Me,” and, in one of several throwbacks to his wildest years, a revival of The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.”

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The latter cover, from the album The ‘Killer’ Rocks On, took Lewis into the vanguard of a revival that manifested itself in the first London Rock‘n’roll Festival at Wembley Stadium in August 1972. There he rolled back the years with Bill Haley, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. In the US, there was the momentum of wildly popular films in the vanguard of the new nostalgia, such as American Graffiti.

Lewis’ final country scorecard showed 28 Top 10 hits, extending into the early 1980s. His mastery with an old copyright showed again on “Over The Rainbow,” and he observed the passing years, albeit in the character he sang about, in “Thirty Nine and Holding.” (“The dim lights hide his mileage lines, the Clairol hides the gray/And he won’t mention anything that gives his age away.”)

In 1973, some of the artists that were weaned on Lewis’ influence got to play with him on The Session, an oldies collection cut in London with such players as Peter Frampton, Albert Lee, Alvin Lee, Rory Gallagher, Delaney Bramlett, and Kenney Jones. The Killer left Mercury in the mid-1970s and survived numerous serious health scares, family tragedies, and controversies.

In 1976, he underlined that his wild tendencies remained when he was arrested for brandishing a pistol outside the gates of his former Sun labelmate Elvis Presley’s Graceland home. Lewis was acquitted of tax evasion in 1984, the year he married his sixth wife. His MCA album of late that year was even-handedly called I Am What I Am.

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In 1986, Jerry Lee became an inaugural inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame followed in 1989. That year, Dennis Quaid was a worthy choice to play him in the Jim McBride-directed biopic Great Balls Of Fire! Back on record, a particular delight was the 1986 release Class of ’55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming, on which he traded riffs and memories with fellow Sun survivors Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison.

Later years

The 1995 album Youngblood, produced by Andy Paley and featuring his irresistible versions of 1950s oldies, is also highly recommended. The 90s were, however, punctuated by further tax inspections, occasional no-shows at concerts, and an instinct for survival that would continue for decades.

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The aforementioned series of all-star albums, Last Man Standing, Mean Old Man, and Rock & Roll Time, further burnished Lewis’ legend. Even if ill health restricted his public appearances and had seemed to call time on his playing, that early 2020 Rolling Stone interview showed that The Killer still had that trademark growl.

Talking of the period in which the hits stopped coming, Jerry Lee told writer Patrick Doyle: “I thought I would just bow out, get out of the way, make room for somebody else.” Still living near Memphis before his death, he would occasionally ride past Sun Studios. What thoughts did that conjure? “Precious memories,” he said.

In an interview with Q magazine in 1990, the maestro’s chutzpah was on full display, as was his ability to refer to himself in the third person. “We’re talking about Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. “Jerry Lee Lewis is an individual, and he is Jerry Lee Lewis, and there will never be another entertainer, and there will never be another talent like Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s not my fault. It’s what God put on me.”

In May 2022, it was announced that Lewis was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place in October, but sadly “The Killer” was not well enough to attend. On hearing of the honor, he said: “To be recognized by Country Music with their highest honor is a humbling experience. The little boy from Ferriday, LA listening to Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams never thought he’d be in a Hall amongst them. I am appreciative of all those who have recognized that Jerry Lee Lewis music is Country Music and to our almighty God for his never-ending redeeming grace.”

Jerry Lee Lewis is survived by his wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis; his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis, and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Jimmy Swaggart; and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis, sons Steve Allen Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., his siblings, Elmo Lewis Jr. and Frankie Jean Lewis, and his cousin Mickey Gilley.

Services and more information will be announced in the following days. In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requests donations be made in Jerry Lee Lewis’ honor to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares – the non-profit foundation of the GRAMMYs / National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

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