Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dies at 87

PHOTO: Jerry Lee Lewis, dead at 87. (via BBC)

Early rock music pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis died this weekend at the age of 87. Known for his flamboyant appearance and performances, and his wildly controversial life, Lewis was essential in the popularity and evolution of rock ‘n’ roll music. Lewis had a stroke in 2019 and was erroneously reported to have died on Wednesday, several days before his actual passing.

Lewis’s first single was the smash-hit Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, but his follow-up to Great Balls of Fire became one of the biggest hits of all time, rocketing him to stardom. Even his third single, Breathless, was an immediate chart-topper.

As the wild sounds of rock ‘n’ roll first broke into the mainstream, sharply contrasting with the refined and mature adult contemporary songs of the time, Jerry Lee Lewis created overwhelmingly rhythmic rollicking songs. And that vigour was matched by his stage performance which often involved him climbing on top of his grand piano, playing in fits using his hands and feet, his blonde hair whipping to his rhythmic gyrations.

His life was riddled with controversies and was the subject of the 1989 biopic movie Great Balls of Fire starring Dennis Quaid. Lewis’s first and biggest controversy came just as he was enjoying massive success when at the end of 1957, at the age of 22, he married his bass player’s 13 year old daughter, who was also his cousin.

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The secret wedding came out the following year when he went to London to tour, and he was faced with worldwide backlash. Despite the drama, the pair remain married until 1970 and were said to have kept in touch after.

Among his antics, Lewis battled the government over unpaid taxes, had his fair share of drunken rampages, and a string of high-profile divorces. Lewis lived the rock and roll lifestyle and, upon his death, his manager called him “perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“He was there at the beginning, with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the rest, and watched them fade away one by one till it was him alone to bear witness, and sing of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”

He began his musical rise at the age of 9 when his parents mortgaged their family farm to buy him a piano. His talented family also included country musician Mickey Gilley and scandalous televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, both cousins.

In 1956 Jerry Lee Lewis headed to Memphis to record at the legendary Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips. How legendary? Artists Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and even Elvis Presley were recording at the studios alongside Lewis. A jam session received critical acclaim upon later relief, dubbing them the Million Dollar Quartet after all four shot to mega stardom.

With over 50 years of performing, and a presence that shocked and engaged audiences ushering in the era of rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis was said to have died peacefully of natural causes according to his wife Judith.

“He is ready to leave.”

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Neill Fronde

Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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