Jerry Lee Lewis, the influential singer and pianist whose unbridled performances and scandalous life defined the personal rebellion at the heart of rock-and-roll music, died Oct. 28 at his home in Southaven, Miss. He was 87.
His death was announced by his publicist Zach Farnum, who did not give a cause.
Lewis, a Louisiana tenant farmer’s son and the cousin of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, performed with a riveting, maniacal quality.
On storming 1950s hits such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential,” he slashed up and down the keys with his right hand, deliberately sped up tempos in mid-song and often finished songs onstage by standing on the piano.
His high-energy music was a distinctly Southern synthesis of rhythm and blues, country, gospel and boogie-woogie, and his barely contained stage frenzy thrilled and unnerved audiences.
He placed 26 songs in the Billboard Top 10 country charts between 1968 and 1981, including such honky-tonk weepers as “Another Place, Another Time” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” a rocked-up version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and a rendition of the standard “Over the Rainbow.”
He was called “The Killer” because of his ability to completely overshadow other performers.
His Rock & Roll Hall of Fame biography — he was inducted in 1986 as a member of the inaugural class — describes him as “the wild man of rock and roll, embodying its most reckless and high-spirited impulses.”
“Among the early rock performers, Jerry Lee stands out as the transcendent experience that rock-and-roll can offer,” said rock historian Albin Zak. “It was new and scary in the 1950s. But now, it’s expected, and whether it’s David Lee Roth or Mick Jagger, they’re all channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Lewis recorded in 1956 for producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, an incubator of talent that also launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
The next year, Lewis drew national attention and notoriety for his performance of his hit song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show.”
Kicking the piano bench away as he sang and played — host Allen kicked it right back to him — he implored the young women in the audience to “shake it one time for me,” then pounded the keys, his heavily pomaded hair dangling over his forehead in a sweaty mop.
“I love quality, and Jerry Lee had it,” Allen later told an interviewer. “The response was incredible. We had him back and he blew everyone’s rating figures away including Ed Sullivan’s. Jerry Lee was a star from then on.”
A scandalous revelation soon cast a shadow over Mr. Lewis’s burst of success.
During his 1958 tour of England, reporters discovered that the 22-year-old entertainer’s bride, Myra Gale Brown, was also his 13-year-old cousin and the daughter of his bass guitarist, J.W. Brown.
Lewis had brought a grown woman to forge the signature on the marriage license.
Their marriage was his third. The English press labeled him a “cradle snatcher.”
His tour of Britain was canceled, and Lewis lost further bookings and national television appearances in the United States.
After the marital scandal, Lewis struggled for hits and radio airplay and gradually reestablished himself as a country performer.
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