Notorious rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis dies aged 87

Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis has died aged 87.

The musician, whose hits included Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, was one of the last survivors of rock ‘n’ roll’s golden age which included Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and became as well known for his controversial private life.

He died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis with his wife Judith by his side.

His publicist Zach Farnum said: “Lewis, perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, whose marriage of blues, gospel, country, honky-tonk and raw, pounding stage performances so threatened a young Elvis Presley that it made him cry, has died.

Jerry Lee Lewis was best known for 'piano pounding' - setting several ablaze on stage during his long career
(Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)Jerry Lee Lewis was best known for 'piano pounding' - setting several ablaze on stage during his long career
(Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Jerry Lee Lewis was best known for 'piano pounding' - setting several ablaze on stage during his long career (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

“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.”

The musician suffered from various illnesses and injuries in the final years of his life, with doctors often telling him they should have taken him decades ago, Mr Farnum said.

He added that just before his death, Lewis’ wife Judith said: “He is ready to leave.”

Born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis later moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he found work as a studio musician for Sun Studios.

The rising star, with trademark cocksure grin, was never more than a minute away from combing his hair.    (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)The rising star, with trademark cocksure grin, was never more than a minute away from combing his hair.    (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
The rising star, with trademark cocksure grin, was never more than a minute away from combing his hair. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

While working at Sun, he and Carl Perkins jammed with Presley and Johnny Cash in a session that would later be referred to as being played by the “Million Dollar Quartet”.

Across this career, his music became a hit in the pop, country and R&B charts.

He also became known for his famous stage antics, such as playing standing up and even lighting the occasional piano on fire.

Lewis was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986 and a few years later in 1989, he was honoured for his contribution to the recording industry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Paying tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis, the Country Music Association tweeted: “It is with great sadness we’ve learned about the passing of Jerry Lee Lewis, who was just inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this month. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

listeners were introduced to Lewis through the 1989 biopic Great Balls Of Fire, in which he was played by actor Dennis Quaid.

Even until relatively recently, the lifelong musician and singer continued to record new music and perform around the world.

Lewis enlisted the help of such famous admirers as Sir Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy for his 2006 album Last Man Standing.

Collaborator Kristofferson described Lewis as “one of the few who can do rock ‘n’ roll, country or soul, and every song is authentic”.

He told USA Today that Lewis is “one of the best American voices ever”.

In April 2013, the musician opened Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk on historic Beale Street back where it all began – in Memphis, Tennessee.

The venue is filled with one of The Killer’s pianos, a motorcycle, photos, and memorabilia – along with food and live music.

In 2014, Lewis kicked off his “80th Birthday Tour” with shows across the country, from California to Tennessee to New York – as well as shows in Europe.

The same year he released a biography with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg, titled: Jerry Lee Lewis – His Own Story.

At the time, he told Rolling Stone magazine: “This is a rock ‘n’ roll record… That’s just the way it came out”.

He once said of his career: “I just think it’s a blessing from God that I’m still living… and I’m still rocking.”

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