Jerry Lee Lewis has died at age 87 : NPR

Jerry Lee Lewis, in a photograph taken throughout his notorious journey to London in June 1958, when it grew to become public that he was married to his 13-year-old cousin.

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Jerry Lee Lewis, in a photograph taken throughout his notorious journey to London in June 1958, when it grew to become public that he was married to his 13-year-old cousin.

Night Customary/Getty Photographs

Rock ‘n’ roll’s first nice wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis — the singer and pianist nicknamed “The Killer” — has died. He was 87 years outdated.

Sam Philips, the founding father of Solar Information — and the producer who additionally found Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Money, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison — known as Lewis “the most gifted man I ever labored with, black or white … some of the gifted human beings to stroll God’s earth.” However nearly as shortly as his star ascended, his profession collapsed, after he married his 13-year-old cousin in 1958 — mere months after his first hit track was issued.

Born Sept. 29, 1935 in Ferriday, La., Jerry Lee Lewis grew up caught in a binary quandary over music and morality, perpetually torn between his non secular upbringing and a burning need to boogie. His mom was a Pentecostal preacher who disapproved of secular music; his cousin, the influential and finally notorious evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart, was additionally keen on condemning “the satan’s music.” However when Lewis was simply eight years outdated, his father (who had served time in jail for bootlegging), took out a mortgage on the household farm to purchase younger Jerry a piano. And he grew up sneaking into the black golf equipment, hiding beneath the tables till he received kicked out.

In a 1987 documentary known as I Am What I Am, Lewis described the music he heard there: “One thing totally different about it — it was blues and it was sort of rock. I simply cherished the blues. It was the actual factor. I kinda at all times figured I used to be the actual factor too.”

He taught himself to play, combining the boogie beats from the Black golf equipment and a few of what he heard on Sundays at his Pentecostal church. Faith influenced greater than the music; this was a time when rock ‘n’ roll was deemed downright demonic.

As a teen, Lewis was thrown out of the college he was attending, Southwest Bible Institute in Texas, for enjoying boogie-woogie on a college piano.

In late 1956, Lewis was signed to Sam Philips’ Solar Information, the Memphis report label that grew to become legendary and the place his labelmates included Elvis Presley and Johnny Money. At first, he was a journeyman aspect participant to artists like Carl Perkins — however that proximity meant that he was additionally performed in a legendary single session in December 1956 at Solar Studios. Enjoying alongside Presley, Money and Perkins, Lewis was half the one-night foursome that grew to become often known as the “Million-Greenback Quartet,” which impressed a Tony-nominated musical of the identical title that opened on Broadway in 2010.

When Lewis was 25, he struck gold with a career-defining hit: “Entire Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” It was a track first recorded in 1955 by a black artist, Large Maybelle, for Okeh Information (a aspect that was produced, notably, by a promising younger man Quincy Jones). But it surely was Lewis’ rockabilly model, launched in 1957, that grew to become a success on the pop charts — and put a piano on the middle of rock ‘n’ roll.


In 2000, the late producer Jack Clement described that Solar Studios session to NPR: “All I did was flip the machine on, and we reduce ‘Entire Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’ in a single take.” Lewis would later say that he knew he had a success if it got here out in a single take.

The tape was rolling throughout a whiskey-infused trade between Lewis and Sam Phillips, who believed Lewis might do good with rock ‘n’ roll.

“It can save you souls!” mentioned Philips.

“How can the satan save souls?” Lewis replied. “What are you speaking about? I’ve received the satan in me. If I did not have, I might be a Christian.”

That was the session when his largest hit was additionally captured on tape: “Nice Balls Of Fireplace.”


Lewis began going out on the highway alongside Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry — and earlier than lengthy, “The Killer” was the closing act. His performances have been sexually charged; he’d suggestively work the microphone as he stood up and pounded the keys.

The adulation got here to a screeching halt when the 22-year-old Lewis went to England in June 1958 on tour, and British reporters requested in regards to the fairly younger woman at his aspect. It was Lewis’ new spouse, Myra — who was simply 13 years outdated. Because the press went digging, they realized much more: not solely was “Mrs. Lewis” nonetheless a baby, she was his cousin. And this was already Lewis’ third marriage — one which occurred whereas the artist was nonetheless legally married to his second spouse.


Lewis made it by means of a just some tour dates earlier than succumbing to the press and public’s censure, and retreated again to the U.S. That does not imply that he was ever publicly regretful. His marriage to Myra lasted a decade, and in Rick Bragg’s best-selling 2014 biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Personal Story, Lewis says, “She appeared like a grown girl, blossomed out and prepared for plucking … I thought of her being 13 and all, however that did not cease her from being a full-fledged girl.” In the meantime, Lewis’ personal sister had reportedly married at age 12, giving credence to the concept this was a cultural norm.

In later years, the previous Myra Lewis alleged that her former partner abused her, however extra lately, seems to have created an affable relationship along with her ex-husband, and has known as their marriage “ten unbelievable, great years.” (Through the years, Lewis married a complete of seven instances.)

She informed WHYY’s Contemporary Air in 1989 that her husband was a strolling contradiction — a wild man on stage, boozing and womanizing, who would not enable a drop of alcohol in his own residence. “Jerry sat in judgment of himself constantly,” she mentioned, “as a result of he might by no means get away from the elevating and the educating that he had. That first off, he wasn’t presupposed to be taking part in that sort of music. He was presupposed to be residing the life that he lived.”

After that fateful journey to England in 1958, Lewis’ profession fell aside. Just about in a single day, Lewis went from commanding charges of 1000’s of {dollars} per present to taking part in in bars and doing occasional excursions to Europe, the place he might solely afford to carry out with pickup gamers, not his personal band.

“For ten years, Jerry’s data have been held off the air,” Myra informed Contemporary Air. “He couldn’t get an honest live performance date. There have been sure radio stations that may not contact him in any respect.”

Even so, as The Guardian famous in 2015, “If something, failure made him much more unrestrained,” and his marathon-all-night exhibits grew to become the stuff of legend. Nonetheless beneath contract to Solar, Lewis launched just a few extra charting songs, together with a canopy of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in 1961, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1963. Working beneath the pseudonym “The Hawk” to evade his Solar contract, Lewis additionally launched a boogie-woogie model of “In The Temper,” the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s big-band staple — however there was no mistaking Lewis’ immediately recognizable sound.

By the Sixties, Lewis’ contract with Solar had come to its shut, and he was foundering professionally. He signed with a label known as Smash with hopes to reignite his profession. It did not work, however one nice artifact from this period grew to become legend: his 1964 album Reside At The Star-Membership Hamburg, recorded by the Dutch label Philips as a part of a collection of reside recordings from the German venue, and about which Rolling Stone Journal later raved, “It isn’t an album, it is a crime scene … with no survivors however The Killer.”

Even so, Lewis was determined to get again into the general public eye within the U.S. — which, between his child-cousin-bride fame and the British Invasion upending the American pop scene, appeared increasingly more unlikely. He landed upon an concept that hearkened to his roots: to report as a rustic artist, starting with the 1968 album One other Place, One other Time. The gambit labored. Inside a bit of greater than a decade, Lewis launched 23 songs that grew to become High 10 hits on the Billboard nation chart.


He would later play on the Grand Ole Opry, famously declaring from the stage that he was a “rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues singing [expletive].” He earned the nickname “The Killer” — not for his music or wild life, however as a result of that is what he known as all people else when he could not keep in mind their names. So that is what they known as him.

Lewis’ private life continued to be addled, studded with trauma, and laced with large quantities of prescribed drugs and alcohol. His fourth spouse, Jaren Gunn, drowned in 1982, shortly earlier than their divorce was finalized; Rolling Stone printed a protracted, damning account of Gunn’s demise. Lewis’ subsequent spouse, Shawn Stephens, died of an overdose lower than three months after their marriage, which occurred barely a yr after Gunn’s dying. Although a grand jury cleared him of culpability in Gunn’s dying, the 2015 Guardian profile noticed, “What appears clear is that, again then, he was so incapacitated by his dependancy to prescribed drugs, he grew to become an unreliable witness to his personal historical past.”) Two of Lewis’ youngsters died as nicely: In 1962, his son Steve Allen drowned in a swimming pool at age three, and in 1973, his eldest son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., died in a automobile accident. He ran afoul of the IRS and the DEA. There was additionally an incident in 1976 by which a drunken Lewis slammed his automobile into the gates of Graceland, demanding to see Elvis, with a gun on the dashboard.

“Most of us are beginner sinners, at finest, when in comparison with Jerry Lee,” says writer Rick Bragg. “However then there are occasions when he’s evangelical.” Bragg says that in his outdated age, Lewis tried to set issues proper and was capable of finding redemption. He gave Hank Williams credit score for getting the white working man off his knees lengthy sufficient to take pleasure in some music.

“But it surely was Jerry Lee that put ’em to dancing,” Bragg continues. “And I assumed that was the prettiest factor he mentioned. And the way can that be a sin?”

Or as Lewis himself put it to NPR in 2010: “I been up and down the highway and carried out some laborious residing — and a few laborious rocking and a few laborious rolling.”

Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame in 1986 — one of many first artists to be so immortalized. He was additionally given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, regardless of by no means profitable a Grammy for his recorded music. (He gained a Grammy for Greatest Spoken Phrase or Non-Musical Recording in 1986, for a recording of interviews gleaned from The Class of ’55, an album that introduced him along with Money, Perkins and Roy Orbison.) A 1989 biopic, Nice Balls Of Fireplace, starring Dennis Quaid because the younger Killer. However by that period, Lewis’ efficiency profession had already largely petered off once more.

Nonetheless, Lewis’ profession entered a 3rd act over the past 20 years of his life. Starting within the mid-2000s, Lewis discovered renewed curiosity in his music through a string of duet albums, that includes performances with an unlikely constellation of collaborators that included Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Child Rock and Gillian Welch.

Even so, Lewis knew that the general public nonetheless needed “The Killer” of 1958, earlier than his nice downfall. “‘Nice Balls of Fireplace,’ ‘Entire Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ is what individuals who come to see me need,” he informed The New York Occasions in 1996. “If I did not do these songs, they’d shoot me on the finish of the present.”