Scotsman Obituaries: Jerry Lee Lewis, legendary American rock'n'roll star

Jerry Lee Lewis, musician. Born: 29 September, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana. Died: 28 October, 2022 in Nesbit, Mississippi, aged 87

Jerry Lee Lewis at a London press reception in 1968 (Picture: PA)
Jerry Lee Lewis at a London press reception in 1968 (Picture: PA)

Rock’n’roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, the self-styled “rompin’, stompin’, piano-playin’ sonofab***h” whose life story was more out-there than his playing, has died of pneumonia at the age of 87. In his time, the archetypal wild man of rock’n’roll – codename: the Killer – was married seven times (sometimes bigamously), including to his teenage cousin and later her sister-in-law, was arrested for drugs possession, shot his bass player, filed for bankruptcy and crashed his car into the gates of Graceland, drunk in possession of a firearm.

Little Richard may have played the piano on his feet but Lewis played with his feet – and his elbows, fists and backside. A good decade before Jimi Hendrix ignited his guitar, Lewis set his piano on fire at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre as a gauntlet thrown down to headliner Chuck Berry.

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Both men were among the first tranche of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1986. Lewis’s punk style influenced Elton John, who tweeted that “he pulverised the piano”, and, less obviously, composer Michael Nyman, whose urgent minimalist patterns could be said to mimic Lewis’s boogie-woogie bass progressions.

Lewis first found fame with the Pentecostal shudder and lewd allusions of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On but was troubled that dabbling with the devil’s music would send him straight to hell. A notorious exchange with Sun Studios boss Sam Phillips while recording his signature hit Great Balls of Fire revealed the level of his torment. Phillips tried to reassure him but Lewis was adamant: “I have the devil in me.”

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He was the last surviving member of the Million Dollar Quartet, comprising fellow rock’n’roll trailblazers Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, who were famously pictured together around the piano at a Sun Studios session in late 1956. At one point, Lewis was seen as a rival to Presley.

But any chance of snatching the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll crown while Elvis was serving in the US Army was blighted by the revelation that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was his 13-year-old cousin. The horrified backlash, first in Britain where he was on tour, and later in the States, almost derailed his career entirely. Their troubled, abusive marriage was depicted in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder. The film was based on Brown’s autobiography, and Lewis obliged by re-recording his standards for the soundtrack.

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Later in the Sixties and into the Seventies, he revived his artistic fortunes by turning to the more socially and spiritually acceptable sounds of country music. In all, the Killer released 41 albums and, spurred by regular touring, achieved some of his greatest sales in the 21st century with Last Man Standing and Mean Old Man, released in 2006 and 2010 respectively.

When news of his death broke, Bob Dylan, currently on tour in Britain and Ireland, paid tribute by covering I Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye at his Nottingham gig, breaking his usual gig chat embargo to say “Jerry Lee will live forever – we all know that”.

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Lewis was born into a poor farming family in Ferriday, Louisiana. His parents Elmo and Mamie mortgaged the farm to buy him a piano which he taught himself to play, inspired by Moon Mullican – dubbed the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players – and the music he heard at local juke joint Haney’s Big House. He made his live debut aged 14 but trouble was just around the corner. He was expelled from the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas for playing a boogie-woogie rendition of the hymn My God Is Real at a school talent show.

Having failed to make the grade at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he had better luck in Memphis, passing his Sun Studios audition. Billed as Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano, he recorded in session for Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and made a solo splash after showcasing his wild style on the primetime Steve Allen Show.

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Lewis burned briefly and brightly until the scandal of his marriage to Brown broke. He failed to find traction when his contract with Sun ended in the early Sixties. The advent of Beatlemania didn’t help either though, ironically, one of his most acclaimed releases was a live album recorded at the Hamburg venue which had been a stomping ground for the nascent Fab Four. Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, recorded loud and unfettered in 1964, was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “not an album, it’s a crime scene: Jerry Lee Lewis slaughters his rivals”.

Lewis was a fervent live performer through the good times and the bad but by the late Sixties he had switched to musical theatre, playing the plum part of Iago in Catch My Soul, a rock opera adaptation of Othello. This alternative career track was cut short by the unexpected success of his first country single Another Place, Another Time in March 1968.

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Over the next decade, Lewis scored 17 hit singles on the Billboard country charts – as ever, kicking against the conventional lush Nashville sound of the day. He made his one and only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in January 1973 – breaking the “no rock’n’roll” rules, of course.

The establishment forgave him and he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a mere 12 days before his death, adding to an extensive roll call of honours including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a street named after him in his native Ferriday.

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Despite health problems, Lewis was working to the last, recently releasing an album of gospel tunes with his cousin, the controversial televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who was set to officiate at his funeral.

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