Jerry Lee Lewis, legendary rock 'n' roll wild man, dies at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis performs onstage at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on November 17, 2018 in Cerritos, California
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Jerry Lee Lewis, the pianist, singer and songwriter whose volcanic early hits and stage persona helped shape rock 'n' roll, has died at the age of 87.

Lewis' death was erroneously reported (opens in new tab) by numerous outlets earlier this week (October 26), but today (October 28), the news was confirmed by the singer's publicist, Zach Farnum, in a statement.

"Judith, his [Lewis'] seventh wife, was by his side when he passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis," the statement read, in part. "He told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid."

Born to a poor family in Ferriday, Louisiana in 1935, Lewis took up the piano at an early age (his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him one), and with it blended a manic stage presence, and the blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk he grew up hearing, into a provocatively wild sound that brought him both fame and controversy by the late 1950s. 

Songs like his 1957 breakthrough hit, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, Breathless and, most famously, Great Balls of Fire made the then-ascendant Elvis Presley look downright tame by comparison, and were met with a rapturous response from young audiences of all musical persuasions. 

Playing with ferocious intensity – he would climb on top of the piano, and often play with his fists, elbows and feet – Lewis brought a raw, almost feral energy to the new strain of music, popularized by the likes of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Presley, that would come to be known as rock 'n' roll.

In a sign of what was to come though, seemingly just as Lewis had completed his ascendance as one of rock 'n' roll's first superstars, it all came crashing down around him.

Barely a year after the release of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, Lewis' marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra, became public. The ensuing firestorm of publicity temporarily destroyed his career.

Though he'd hit the lower regions of the charts with a number of minor hits throughout the early '60s – and see a brief but remarkably successful reinvention as a country star in the late '60s through the early 70s – Lewis spent most of the rest of his career taking his show on the road.

Through the tumult of his personal life (he was married seven times), and run-ins with both his friends (he was once arrested outside of Graceland after smashing his Rolls-Royce into its front gates, and on another occasion shot his bass player in the chest, “by accident,” with a .357) and the law (he battled with the IRS over unpaid taxes for decades), Lewis continued a schedule of relentless touring, bringing his manic stage show and setlist of country and early rock classics to appreciative audiences around the world.

Though a slew of health issues slowed Lewis – who was one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 – down in his final years, he continued to perform live on a regular basis until he suffered a stroke in 2019.

"Audacious and arrogant, rollicking and rowdy, Jerry Lee Lewis took spontaneity to the brink of dan­ger," reads an essay on Lewis featured on the Rock Hall's website (opens in new tab).

"He was an unrepentant, wild example for the naysayers to use when they spoke out against what even Lewis himself called 'the Devil’s music.'"

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Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player (opens in new tab). Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder (opens in new tab) and Unrecorded (opens in new tab). Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.