Arts & Entertainment

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ singer, has died

Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the new genre’s attraction and danger as unforgettably as Louisiana-born piano player Jerry Lee Lewis.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Jerry Lee Lewis, the untamable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on such definitive records as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and sustained a career otherwise upended by personal scandal, died Friday morning at 87.

The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at home in DeSoto County, Mississippi, representative Zach Farnum said in a release. The news came two days after the publication of an erroneous TMZ report of his death, later retracted.

Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the new genre’s attraction and danger as unforgettably as the Louisiana-born piano player who called himself “The Killer.”

Tender ballads were best left to the old folks. Lewis was all about lust and gratification, with his leering tenor and demanding asides, violent tempos and brash glissandi, cocky sneer and crazy blond hair. He was a one-man stampede who made the fans scream and the keyboards swear, his live act so combustible that during a 1957 performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on “The Steve Allen Show,” chairs were thrown at him like buckets of water on an inferno.

“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ’n ’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” a Lewis admirer once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.

But in his private life, he raged in ways that might have ended his career today — and nearly did back then.

For a brief time, in 1958, he was a contender to replace Presley as rock’s prime hit maker after Elvis was drafted into the Army. But while Lewis toured in England, the press learned three damaging things: He was married to 13-year-old (possibly even 12-year-old) Myra Gale Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his previous wife. His tour was canceled, he was blacklisted from the radio and his earnings dropped overnight to virtually nothing.

“I probably would have rearranged my life a little bit different, but I never did hide anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about the marriage. “I just went on with my life as usual.”

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