Rock and Roll, Rockabilly Pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis Dies at 87

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Rock and roll and rockabilly pioneer and rock and roll hall of fame and country music hall of fame inductee Jerry Lee Lewis has died. His death was confirmed by his publicist in a statement that read in part, “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.” He was 87.

According to the statement, Lewis “suffered through the last years of his life from various illnesses and injuries that, his physicians have often said, should have taken him decades ago; he had abused his body so thoroughly as a young man he was given little chance of lasting through middle age, let alone old age.”

“He is ready to leave,” his wife Judith said, just before his death.

Straight out of some musical womb, Lewis was pounding the piano without abandon and introduced some of the first songs of rock and roll with fiery performances of hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless.” 

Born Sept. 25, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis started sitting at piano at the age of 8, first playing the Christmas carol “Silent Night” and teaching himself how to play the instrument thereafter—and following one failed traditional piano lesson. “Raising hell” by his teens, Lewis was kicked out of a bible study course for trying to perform a more raucous version of the hymnal “My God Is Real” and opted to play what he called “the devil’s music” from that point on.

“I’m the Greatest Live Show on Earth,” said Lewis. “I’ve seen them all, and I’ve never seen no cat, nowhere, no way, that could follow me.”

By the mid-1950s, Lewis started his career at Sun Records when he was barely 21, and recorded his first songs—country singer Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” along with a song he had written himself called “End of the Road.” Though rooted in country, Lewis’ performance naturally brought out the rockabilly and rock within him and were ultimately incorporated into his sound and eclectic range, whether singing his 1958 “High School Confidential,” which he co-wrote with Ron Hargrave or dialing back for a tender delivery of Judy Garland’s 1939 classic “Over the Rainbow” and through his transition back to country in the 1960s with the hit “Another Place, Another Time.” 

“He was the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white,” said Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, who also discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. “One of the most talented human beings to walk on God’s earth.”

Throughout the 1960s, Lewis continued releasing country singles like ″She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).”

Jerry Lee Lewis was country. He was rock and roll, rockabilly, and all the musical bits in between. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and “Great Balls of Fire” even reached the country and pop charts. Today, “Great Balls of Fire” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” is part of the National Recording Registry.

Throughout a career spanning nearly 65 years, Lewis consistently continued to record music, releasing 41 albums from his 1958 self-titled debut through his final release Rock and Roll Time in 2014.

Though Lewis’ life was often troubled and controversial, from his 1957 marriage to 13-year-old cousin Myra Brown and through tumultuous, multiple marriages, his 1976 arrest outside of Graceland for allegedly trying to shoot Elvis Presely, financial issues, and other explosive antics, his music is inerasable in the American songbook. 

On Feb. 28, 2019, Lewis suffered a minor stroke in Memphis, Tennessee. Still ailing from a recent bout of the flu, Lewis recently missed his induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 16. His wife Judith Lewis accepted the honor in his place. A photo was later posted following the ceremony, showing Kris Kristofferson visiting Lewis at his home in Memphis to personally present him with his medallion.

“To be recognized by country music with their highest honor is a humbling experience,” said Lewis in a statement following the news of his induction. Lewis always felt he had been snubbed from the Country Music Hall of Fame, and couldn’t understand the lack of recognition for his contribution to the genre.

“The little boy from Ferriday, Lousiana listening to Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams never thought he’d be in a Hall amongst them,” added Lewis. “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.”

A documentary on Lewis, Trouble in Mind, directed by Ethan Coen, is scheduled for release some time in 2023. 

Lewis is survived by his wife Judith, daughters Lori Lee Lewis, Phoebe Lewis-Loftin and sons Jerry Lee Lewis III and Ronnie Guy Lewis.

“Life is like a vapor,” Lewis once said. “You breathe it in and then it’s gone.”

Photo: Sean Gowdy / 117 Publicity

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