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Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, known as ‘The Killer,’ dies

American rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, who was torn between his Bible-thumping upbringing and his desire to make hell-raising rock ‘n’ roll with hits such as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” has died at the age of 87.

October 29, 2022
By Bill Trott
29 October 2022

By Bill Trott

Oct 28 (Reuters) – American rock pioneer Jerry Lee
Lewis, who was torn between his Bible-thumping upbringing and
his desire to make hell-raising rock ‘n’ roll with hits such as
“Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” has
died at the age of 87.

Lewis passed away from natural causes at his home in Desoto
County, Mississippi, with his wife, Judith, by his side, his
publicist said. The musician had been ill in recent years and
suffered a stroke in 2019.

Like Chuck Berry’s guitar, Lewis’ piano was essential in
shaping rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s. He was part of the
dazzling Sun Records talent pool in Memphis, Tennessee, that
included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy
Orbison. Lewis outlived them all.

Lewis, also known by the nickname “The Killer”, was one of
the first performers inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of
Fame in 1986 and was so influential that when John Lennon met
him backstage at a show in Los Angeles, the Beatle dropped to
his knees and kissed Lewis’ feet.

Lewis filled his albums not only with ground-breaking rock
but with gospel, country and rhythm and blues such as “Me and
Bobby McGee” and “To Make Love Sweeter for You” as he endured a
life often filled with alcohol, drugs and tragedy. His music was
sometimes overshadowed by scandals – including his marriage to
his 13-year-old cousin Myra in 1957.

In his prime, he performed with daring, originality and a
lewd wild-man stage demeanor that thrilled his young fans as
much as it agitated their parents. Typically, Lewis would kick
away his piano bench and bang the keyboard with his foot while
his long wavy blond hair flopped in his face.

According to legend, Lewis was once so upset that Chuck
Berry had been chosen to close a show over him that he finished
his set with a move that was hard to top – setting the piano on
fire and walking off.

“I’m a rompin’, stompin’, piano-playing son of a bitch,”
Lewis once told Time magazine in his Louisiana drawl. “A mean
son of a bitch. But a great son of a bitch.”

FAMOUS COUSINS

Lewis was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, and
grew up poor with two cousins also destined for fame –
television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country singer Mickey
Gilley.

He became interested in the piano at age 4 and by 10 was
sneaking in to roadhouses to hear blues performers. He absorbed
a variety of musical influences, especially the Jimmie Rodgers
records that belonged to his father, a farmer who went to prison
for bootlegging.

Lewis’ family attended the Assembly of God church and his
mother ensured he was thoroughly informed about the evils of
liquor, honky-tonks and promiscuity. But Lewis was intent on
experiencing them first hand and began playing piano in bars
while still a teenager. His mother, upset by the idea of her son
performing the devil’s music, sent him to a Bible college in
Texas.

It turned out to be a brief stay, with Lewis reportedly
being dismissed from the school for playing a boogie-woogie
version of “My God Is Real” during an assembly. The incident
showed the dichotomy that Lewis had to live with.

“The man is tortured,” Myra Lewis told People magazine.
“Jerry Lee thinks that Jerry Lee is too wicked to be saved.”

As Lewis himself once put it, “I’m dragging the audience to
hell with me.”

MAKING IT IN MEMPHIS

Lewis had a son and was on his second marriage before he
turned 20, even though he had not divorced his first wife. He
was determined to be a musician and made his way to Memphis.

In 1957 he recorded two rollicking chart-topping hits for
Sun – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,”
which he had been reluctant to record because he considered it
blasphemous – that helped define early rock ‘n’ roll. Lewis
quickly followed with more hits – “You Win Again,” “Breathless”
and “High School Confidential.”

His career came to a halt during a 1958 tour of Britain.
Journalists discovered Lewis was now married to Myra, the
daughter of his bass player, who not only was 13 years old but
also was his cousin. News coverage was so intensely negative
that the tour was called off.

Back in the United States, Lewis’ career was not revived
until he shifted genres and recorded country hits such as
“Another Place, Another Time,” “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous
(Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say
Goodbye.”

Lewis’ string of hits was matched only by the tragedies in
his life. His young son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in 1962 and
another son, Jerry Lee Jr., died in a 1973 car accident at 19.

After a divorce from Myra in the early 1970s, he married
Jaren Pate in 1971 but she drowned in 1982. They had been
separated for eight years but not divorced.

After only a few months of marriage, his next wife, Shawn
Michelle Stevens, was found dead of a drug overdose in their
home in 1983. Eight months later he started another stormy
marriage with sixth wife Kerrie McCarver that lasted 20 years
before they divorced and he married his seventh wife, Judith
Brown, in 2012.

GUNPLAY

In 1976 Lewis accidentally shot his bass player and that
same year was arrested drunk outside Presley’s Graceland mansion
in Memphis with a loaded pistol, demanding to see Presley.

Lewis, who lived much of his later life on a ranch in
Nesbit, Mississippi, also endured costly battles with U.S. tax
officials, a nearly fatal perforated ulcer and a painkiller
addiction that landed him in the Betty Ford Clinic.

In his later years he settled down but biographer Rick Bragg
recalled interviewing Lewis for his 2014 book “Jerry Lee Lewis:
His Own Words.” Lewis showed Bragg the pistol he kept under his
pillow in a bedroom pockmarked with bullet holes and a Bowie
knife stuck in the door.

“I don’t think Jerry Lee Lewis had to exaggerate his life
one bit to make it interesting,” Bragg told the Atlanta
Constitution Journal. “He really did make Elvis cry. He really
did turn over more Cadillacs than most people purchased in the
state of Mississippi.”

Lewis’s late recordings included featured guests such as
Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Neil
Young, John Fogerty, Ringo Starr and other rockers he had
influenced.

In addition to wife Judith, Lewis is survived by four
children, a sister and many grandchildren.
(Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; additional reporting by
Lisa Richwine, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Diane Craft)

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