Jerry Lee Lewis, rock & roll pioneer and 'Great Balls of Fire' singer, dies at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-playing music legend who helped create both rock & roll and the notion of the larger-than-life rock star, died on Oct. 28, just days after his death was erroneously reported. He was 87.

Lee's publicist Zach Farnum confirmed the news of his death in a release on Friday, sharing that Judith Coghlan Lewis, the singer's seventh wife, was by her husband's side when he died at his home in Desoto County, Miss.

Born in Ferriday, La., Lewis was the cousin of preacher Jimmy Swaggart and as a young man enrolled at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Tex. He was ultimately expelled for playing a boogie-woogie version of the hymn "My God Is Real."

In 1956, Lewis started recording for the Sun Records label and jammed with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins in what became known as the Million Dollar Quartet session. (A Broadway musical recounting the legendary session, aptly titled Million Dollar Quartet, opened in 2010 and earned Levi Kreis, who portrayed Lewis, a Tony Award.) Lewis was the last surviving member of the legendary quartet.

The following year, Lewis scored hits with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire." Those seminal rock & roll tracks made Lewis a massive star, and their explosive energy proved hugely influential on subsequent generations of musicians.

In 1958, however, Lewis married Myra Gale Brown, who was his cousin and just 13 years old. The ensuing scandal deeply damaged his popularity. (Brown would file for divorce in 1970, citing extreme physical and mental abuse.) Lewis' career only recovered in the late '60s, when he began to release a string of successful country singles.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1962
Jerry Lee Lewis in 1962

Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Jerry Lee Lewis in 1962

He was undeniably one of rock's original hellraisers, and once drunkenly drove his car into the gates of Presley's home, Graceland. Dennis Quaid portrayed the hard-living Lewis in the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire, and Waylon Payne played the musician in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.

Lewis' iconic stature among younger musicians was demonstrated in 2006 with the release of the album Last Man Standing, whose guest performers included Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Keith Richards, and Kid Rock.

He released another album, Mean Old Man, in 2010, and prior to that, he opened the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. Both Mean Old Man and Last Man Standing marked some of the best album sales of his career. His last album was 2014's Rock and Roll Time.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2019, which led him to cancel engagements he had planned, he was considered to be actively performing in concert until his death.

Throughout his lengthy career, Lewis received numerous accolades. Alongside Cash, Perkins, and Roy Orbinson, he became the first ever winner of the Grammy Award in the spoken-word category for an album of interviews released with the Class of '55 record in 1986.

In 2005, he received the Recoding Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award, and he won four Grammy Awards in total. In 2003, Rolling Stone listed his box set All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology number 242 on their list of "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," and a year later, they ranked him No. 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and later, into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2022.

Lewis was married seven times. At the time of his death, he was married to Judith Lewis (nee Brown), whom he married in 2012 (she was the ex-wife of the brother of Myra Gale Brown, the 13-year-old cousin whom Lewis' marriage to derailed his career).

In his later years, Lewis had legal trouble with his children, severing ties with his then manager, his daughter Phoebe Lewis-Loftin, when he married Judith. In 2017, Lewis and his wife sued Phoebe and her husband for a substantial sum of money he claimed they owed him, as well as alleged defamation. Lewis-Loftin and her husband counter-sued, but most of the claims were dismissed by a judge in 2019 due to a statute of limitations.

Over the course of his seven marriages, Lewis had six children, two of whom preceded him in death, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. and Steve Allen Lewis. He is survived by four children, Ronnie Guy Lewis, Phoebe Allen Lewis, Lori Lee Lewis, and Jerry Lee Lewis III.

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