Jerry Lee Lewis, Rock & Roll Icon, Dead at 87

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: Rick Diamond / Contributor

Jerry Lee Lewis, whose superb piano playing, incredible voice, and bad-boy persona made him a rock & roll legend, has died. Lewis’ publicist confirmed his death. However, a cause of death was not immediately available. Lewis was 87. 

Lewis passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi. According to reports, his seventh wife, Judith Coghlan, was by his side at the time. 

His death also marks an end to an era, as he was the last living member of a roster of groundbreaking artists, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, to name a few. 

Known as “The Killer,” Lewis was known for his wildly animated stage presence, proven in moments such as when he played the keys with his feet and even lit a piano on fire.

Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. He first learned to play guitar as a child, but then switched to piano. His life changed forever when his father gave him a dark-wood, upright set of keyboards.

“My eyes almost fell out of my head,” Lewis recalled in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” written by Rick Bragg. 

In 1957, he garnered a major hit with his rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The same year he released “Great Balls of Fire,” which hit the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts. 

For a brief moment, he was the top frontrunner to replace Presley as the genre’s ‘It Boy’ after Elvis went into the Army in 1958. However, as Lewis toured overseas, the press discovered damning information about Lewis regarding his controversial marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. As a result, his tour was shelved, he was removed from radio play, and his sales numbers plummeted.

Jerry Lee Lewis on performing: ‘I was born to be on a stage’

Over the year, Lewis also struggled with addictions, legal disputes, and physical illness. However, he overcame adversity, and Lewis rebranded himself as a country singer in the 1960s.  In 1975, he recalled how he convinced disc jockeys of the time to give him another shot. 

“This time I said, ‘Look, man, let’s get together and draw a line on this stuff — a peace treaty you know,'” he said at the time. 

From 1976 to 1970, Lewis had a string of top-10 country hits. He performed songs such as “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” “She Still Comes Around,” and a cover of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” 

In addition, he held onto his fan base in Europe, and his 1964 album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, is widely thought of as one of the greatest concert records ever made. 

“I was born to be on a stage… I couldn’t wait to be on it, I dreamed about it. And I’ve been on one all my life,” Lewis said in Bragg’s book. “That’s where I’m the happiest.”  

He would win three Grammys and recorded with some of the industry’s greatest stars. In 2006, Lewis came out with “Last Man Standing,” featuring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, and others for the album Mean Old Man.

Earlier this month, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.