Jerry Lee Lewis, flamboyant and controversial rock and roll pioneer, dead at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, a flamboyant rock & roll pioneer, dead at 87

Lewis Lee Lewis suffered a minor stroke in 2019. He was the last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Lewis died at home in Memphis, Tenn.

Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-living, hard-playing pianist and singer whose offstage exploits often grabbed as much attention as his electrifying performances and genre-spanning recording career, has died. He was 87.

The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, died at home in Memphis, Tenn., representative Zach Farnum said in a release.

Lewis suffered a minor stroke in 2019 but frequently performed live shows until then. More recently, he could not attend his Country Music Hall of Fame induction due to illness.

Lewis’s legacy got largely established on the raucous sides cut over three years at Sun Records in Memphis: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ OnGreat Balls of FireBreathless and High School Confidential.

Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29, 1935 – October 28, 2022) was an American pianist, singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “the Killer,” he was described as “Rock and roll’s first great wild man and one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century.” 

A pioneer of rock and roll and rockabilly music, Lewis made his first recordings in 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. “Crazy Arms” sold 300,000 copies in the South, and his 1957 hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” shot Lewis to fame worldwide. He followed this with the major hits “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” His rock and roll career faltered after his marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old cousin once removed.

His popularity quickly eroded following the scandal, and with few exceptions, such as a cover of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” he did not have much chart success in the early 1960s. His live performances at this time were increasingly wild and energetic. Many music journalists and fans regarded his 1964 live album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, as one of the wildest and greatest live rock albums ever. In 1968, Jerry LeeLewis transitioned into country music and had hits with songs such as “Another Place, Another Time.” 

The move reignited his career, and throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, he regularly topped the country-western charts; throughout his seven-decade career, Lewis had 30 songs reach the Top 10 on the Billboard Country and Western Chart. His No. 1 country hits included “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Lewis’s successes continued throughout the decades, and he embraced his rock and roll past with songs such as a cover of The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” and Mack Vickery’s “Rockin’ My Life Away.” In the 21st century, Lewis continued to tour around the world and released new albums. His 2006 album Last Man Standing was his best-selling release, with over a million copies worldwide. It was followed by Mean Old Man in 2010, another of his best-selling albums.

Lewis had a dozen gold records in rock and country. He won four Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award and two Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame recognized his pioneering contribution to the genre. He was also a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2022.

Lewis was the last surviving member of Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet and the album Class of ’55, which also included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley. In 1989, Lewis chronicled his life in the movie Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid. Also, in 2003, Rolling Stone listed his box set All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology at number 242 on their list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. In 2004, they ranked him No. 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Music critic Robert Christgau said of Lewis: “His drive, his timing, his offhand vocal power, his unmistakable boogie-plus piano, and his absolute confidence in the face of the void make Jerry Lee the quintessential rock and roller.”

Jerry Lee Lewis’s life and career.