MEMPHIS (CelebrityAccess) — Jerry Lee Lewis, pianist and singer-songwriter who played a foundational role in the creation of rock & roll and rockabilly music, has died. He was 87.
According to his publicist, Lewis died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, with Judith, his seventh wife at his side. A cause of death was not provided.
“He is ready to leave,” his wife Judith said, just before his death, according to his publicist, Zach Farnum.
A controversial but towering figure in the early history of rock music, Lewis lived a true rock & roll lifestyle during his early career as he generated hits such as “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” that helped to create the sound of early rock & roll.
With a career that spans more than 70 years, Lewis earned four Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with a dozen gold records in both rock and country music. He was a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A native of Mississippi, Lewis, in his teens began playing the piano with two of his cousins, Mickey Gilley, who went on to a successful career as a country musician, and Jimmy Swaggart, who became a noted televangelist.
Lewis made his first public performance in 1949, performing with a country and western band at a local car dealership near his family home in Ferriday, Mississippi.
After a brief foray into evangelical music at the behest of his family, Lewis began performing in local clubs, refining his proto rock sound and cutting his first demo in 1952.
Around 1955, he relocated to Nashville and then Memphis to further his career, signing with Sun Records where he recorded both as a solo artist and as a session musician, contributing his distinctive piano style to records by Sun’s other artists, such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Lewis found success with his own recordings, including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a re-imagining of the Big Maybelle song, and “Great Balls of Fire,” which brought him international acclaim.
However, he quickly ran into controversy while on tour in the United Kingdom when reporters discovered that Lewis’ third wife, Myra Gale Brown was not only his first cousin (once removed) but also just 13 years old when she married the 22-year-old Lewis. The resulting publicity prompted public outrage and his tour was ultimately canceled.
After his marital revelations, Lewis’ career went into decline. He left Sun in 1963 and signed with Smash Records but failed to return the commercial success of the 1950s.
In 1968, after years of failing to generate traction with rock & roll, Lewis turned to country music, and recorded a new version of the Jerry Chesnut song “Another Place, Another Time”, which proved to be a hit with country.
Over the next decade, Lewis would record 17 Top 10 hit singles on the Billboard country chart, including four #1 hits. While he was passed over by the Grand Ole Opry in the 1950s, his success as a country artist earned him an invite and he performed there for the first and only time in 1973.
Lewis also enjoyed renewed success on the pop charts with the revival of vintage rock in the 1970s but scored his last major commercial hit single in 1981 with “Thirty-Nine and Holding.”
Despite his success as an artist, Lewis had a chaotic personal life and struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as legal and marital issues for much of his life.
He was married seven times and had six children, including Steve Allen Lewis, who accidentally drowned in a swimming pool at age three, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who died in an auto accident at age 19 in 1973.
He was also arrested in 1976 after crashing into the gates of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis home while armed and intoxicated.
In 1979, he ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service and had property seized to settle hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, though he was ultimately cleared of tax evasion charges in 1984. In 1988, he declared bankruptcy, revealing that he owed more than $3 million dollars, including $2 million to the IRS.
In 2012, he married his seventh wife, Judith and the couple lived quietly in Northern Mississippi, while Lewis occasionally performed both in the U.S. and abroad. He returned to the charts in 2006 when his duet album, “Last Man Standing” peaked at 26 on the Billboard 200.
His final album, “Rock & Roll Time” came in 2014 and featured Lewis performing a selection of classic blues and rock hits such as Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Jerry Lee Lewis is survived by his wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Jimmy Swaggart and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis, sons Steve Allen Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., his siblings Elmo Lewis Jr. and Frankie Jean Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley.
Services and more information will be announced in the following days. In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requests donations be made in Jerry Lee Lewis’ honor to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares – the non-profit foundation of the GRAMMYs / National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.