Jerry Lee Lewis, a Rock ’n’ Roll Original, Dies at 87

Oct 28, 2022 · 420 comments
Paul (Earth)
Saw Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry together at Carnegie Hall in the seventies, great show except for Chuck’s annoying Ding A Ling song.
John Zotto (Ischia, Italia)
Ha ha. He probably never heard of Little Richard. Southern TV stations would never broadcast black musicians and I doubt Little Richard had a concert in Mississippi in the 1950s. Rock and Roll was multi racial and developed from a variety of music styles.
Craig H. (California)
Notably, the Guardian headline is "Jerry Lee Lewis, notorious US rock’n’roll star, dies aged 87". Perhaps "notorious" in deference to his first wife who wed him at age 13. Here's what Wikipedia says about her: By 1970, Lewis' drug addiction, alcoholism, and infidelity took a toll on their marriage. Brown filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery and abuse, charging that she had been "subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable."
Sausca (SW Desert)
Let’s not forget that John Lennon said that no one had ever topped “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” There is no higher praise possible.
Worf (Los Angeles)
So creepy to be with a child, unable to give consent. Never listened to him after that.
Kyle (Chicago)
JLW was a defiant sinner confessing his sins via rock n roll. RIP.
Ellae (Ashland Oregon)
Loved that guy!!!
JJ Davies (Livermore Ca)
Sort of staggers the imagination had he been born twenty years later and splashed into late 70ties punk rock scene with absolutely no restraints. Mothers pull your children close.
Joe Ranger (NJ)
Jerry Lee, your music will live as long as there is a day. As we rock on to your tunes tonight, we proclaim the sacred words: Rock and Roll Will Never Die!
Ken Zielske (Madison, WI)
Can’t be true. He’s too mean to die.
SD (Singapore)
RIP Killer. God’s gift to piano key makers!
sloreader (CA)
Early black & white TV memory of JLL dancing on the piano, playing it backwards between his legs, then jumping from there to who knows where... Great balls of fire could not be a more apt description... He played the piano like his hair was on fire... Just sad how he treated so many others...
American Expat (In Asia)
Jerry Lee Lewis is dead? Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!! Truly, this is the end of the rock 'n' roll era in the history of American music, which has spanned my years from my birth until now. Great Balls of Fire was released six weeks before I was born. Rest in peace, Mr. Lewis. Thank you for the wonderful music.
Sara (Forest Park Georgia)
R.I.P Jerry Lee he will be missed dearly I love his music all my life and I will never forget him
B L Zeebub (Hells Kitchen)
Funny, the things that brought him down would make him a famous Republican Party politician today.
Skip Szbgnwicz (Lower Slobovia)
Not mentioned in this obituary, JLL had another son, Steve Allen Lewis (named after Steve Allen), who also died as a young child.
Constable Dogberry (Victoria, Canada)
There was a great Dylan song from the mid eighties “ When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” that sounded like it was inspired by Ol’ Jerry Lee. Too bad he never covered it ( to my knowledge anyway). I have to say I was surprised to see the obit article as I figured he was long gone already. Hung on quite awhile for a guy that led such a troubled life, complete with periods of substance abuse. Love him or hate him you have to admit he was a seminal rock n roll figure.
Robert (Formerly Of NJ)
My father introduced me to Jerry Lee Lewis in car rides on Saturday mornings running errands with an 8 track tape player in the car. Turned up a little louder than normal ….. “Listen to this voice and this piano…wow”. I miss them both but am grateful for the music RIP Jerry. Thanks for the gifts
Louis (FL)
That crazy boogie woogie that became iconic was just some 'feel good' music when it was all hopped up and ripped from the African Americans, In hindsight it looks like cultural 'appropriation' ( taking what isn't yours ) and I think, yeah, it was lifted...but it was David Bowie who often talked in candor about how no artist in any media can produce anything truly unique.
Kyle (Chicago)
Jerry Lee Lewis exemplifies an artistic debate of our times. How (or do) we separate the artist from the very flawed individual? In Jerry’s case it was no contest. He was judged and stripped from monetary fame for his “indecent” lifestyle.
Hugh (LA)
My cell-phone ring tone was the opening lines of "Whole Lotta Shakin'" for nearly a decade. "Come on over baby, whole lotta shakin goin' on." When I received a call in public, strangers would smile and nod, give a thimbs up. Thanks for this article. The quotations reveal a man who was a lot more than just an electrifying gonzo performer: “You know, if I could just find another like ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’,’” he told Mr. Guralnick in a 1971 interview. “Some records just got that certain something. But I ain’t gonna find another. Just like I was born once into this world and I ain’t gonna be born again.” “There’s a difference between a phenomenon and a stylist,” he told the record-collector magazine Goldmine in 1981. “I’m a stylist, Elvis was the phenomenon, and don’t you forget it.” Thank you, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Barry Moyer (Washington, DC)
What a sad, sad life, the reading of it, anyway. Good grief, how'd he get through all that? If this doesn't make you think about your own life, what will? Rest, Mr. Lewis. Rest now.
Sofie (Harlem)
OH MY. Can't believe how cool he is. I thought I was cool in the 80's - JLL was way beyond. His country music and southern howling with a wild piano is AHHH-mazing!. Stream his 60's and 70's and 80's music - WOW!! RIP Jerry i'm lovin you right now
Susan (Clifton Park)
When you see Million Dollar Quartet you really appreciate Jerry Lee. End of an era for sure.
T. Quinn (Spokane, WA)
It was too late for Jerry Lee Lewis to die young. Rock and roll legends are finally living long enough to die of natural causes. I'm glad he was one of them.
Pete (Melbourne , Australia)
RIP Killer! Though a gun toting, whiskey drinking, pill popping, womanising, nefarious man, he was the true King of Rock'n'Roll and makes Elvis look like a choir boy! So many years of goosebumps his music has given me and many others. Rick Bragg's, 'Jerry Lee Lewis, His Own Story', is one of the best biographies on any musician ever.
stan (georgia)
i recall a story many years ago in Rolling Stone making the case that "The Killer" killef one of his wives.
Realpolitik (Elite Coastal USA)
Last man standing indeed!
N. Cunningham (Canada)
Vastly over-rated as a piano player … all rock n roll energy and theatre, no imagination … his singing, esp. country stuff was his best strength. His cultural impact tho, is unquestionable.
Mike M (07470)
@N. Cunningham so since he invented that style which dozens of other artists coopted... that makes him overrated? Egads, man.
Robert (Houston)
He definitely didn't invent it. He perfected it for his style/performance and is amazing. The style was around before Jerry Lee Lewis was born.
Barry Schreibman (Cazenovia, New York)
I was 12 when the news of his teenage bride broke. I still remember clearly my battle axe of an eighth grade teacher thundering in class about the depravity of it all. I, however, and most of the rest of the class were fascinated. There was immediately thereafter a run on his records at the local record store. As you see, I've never forgotten that moment. One of those moments when you always remember where you were when you heard. Sort of like the moon walk. Rock and roll forever.
Marge Keller (Midwest)
@Barry Schreibman "Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-driving rockabilly artist whose pounding boogie-woogie piano and bluesy, country-influenced vocals helped define the sound of rock ’n’ roll on hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and whose incendiary performing style expressed the essence of rock rebellion . . ." I love that colorful, enthusiastic and spot on description of the man. Gosh was he talented. He had such fire, such energy, such passion. His music got folks off their butts and began doing some struts. He and his musical originality is yet another icon passing on. He was an extremely gifted musician. He got one's feet moving and one's heart a-pounding. Thank you Jerry Lee Lewis for such a wild ride.
L (Loc)
Marrying a child isn’t a trivial flaw in a person.
Barbara Barran (Brooklyn, NY)
Not only was she 13, but she was his first cousin! What a force of nature he was!
Greg Hodges (Truro, N.S./ Canada)
A Rock&Roll original; whose persona and style were the very essence of the music that shaped an entire generation. While I doubt he would have been given the time of day in 2022; given the canned productions of the 21st century; he remains a true pioneer that shocked the world with his no hold`s barred style and outrageous performances that brought fame and controversy. In an era where singing "black music" did not fly in America; Jerry Lee Lewis broke down barriers and shattered norms that few would dare to even try. He will forever be remembered as the wild man of the piano and a true R&R legend.
scott t (Bend Oregon)
So I never saw Jerry Lee Lewis play. But in 1972 i was working at a county fair in New Jersey as a summer job. I came to work that morning and a man was at the stage where Jerry Lee had been playing the previous night at the county fair and he was screaming and swearing at the top of his lungs. Apparently he was the owner of a piano store in the local area and he had lent the grand piano for Jerry to play, the only problem was Jerry had danced on the piano!
David Bassett (Royal Oak, MI)
I consider myself very fortunate to have seen Jerry Lee a number of times in 1966-67 at the Peppermint Club in Toledo. I was 18, old enough to drink 3.2% beer in those days, and would sit at the bar for hours listening to him and his sister, "Miss Linda Gayle Lewis, ladies and gentlemen." Even though the room sometimes was only half full, he'd play and sing his heart out for two or three sets. A true professional, a master showman.
Mark Brandes (U.S.)
The million dollar quartet may be once united again! Good travels Jerry. Enjoyed your music.
Belle (Seattle)
Jerry Lee Lewis provided the soundtrack to my teenage years. What an amazing talent. Who will ever replace him? No one.
Richard (Albertson, NY)
The last one standing No longer stands: Elvis, gird yourself For a battle of the bands!
Al S (Morristown NJ)
I saw Jerry Lee live in an Allen Freed show in 1958 at the Minneapolis auditorium. The show included 15 other greats including Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Buddy Holly, Screaming Jay Hawkins ( in a bright orange suit) the Chantels, and many others. Jerry Lee closed. He was a fabulous, electrifying entertainer.
Allen (New York State of Mind)
What a great rocker Jerry Lee Lewis was! When I was a kid I saw the movie “High School Confidential” at my neighborhood movie theater in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. I clearly remember listening to that song as well as “Breathless” playing on the juke box in the Pizza Haven on Broadway. My sister took me to see “Million Dollar Quartet” and it was about the most fun I’ve ever had at a Broadway show; it was all I could do to stay seated and not sing along. The line in the play I remember most vividly is when Sam Phillips says about Jerry Lee: “I’ve gotta find a way to keep that firecracker from blowing himself up.” Phillips couldn’t do that, but Jerry Lee found a way to come back and keep pumping that piano on into the twenty-first century. As Danny and the Juniors sang, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay,” and so is the music of Jerry Lee Lewis. RIP.
Michael Skadden (Houston, Texas)
RIP, Jerry Lee. maybe the most exciting, if not the greatest, rock and roll piano player. I'm not surprised that he himself preferred his rock and roll days to country. I also found it interesting that he, Jimmy Swaggart and Micky Gilley were all cousins. Each talented in their own way -in my view, not necessarily in a good way in the case of Swaggart.
Tony Cooper (Oakland, CA)
He was a rip-off of Little Richard. Nothing "orginal" here.
mlawson (chicago)
@Tony Cooper little richard was, as he said, deeply influenced by May, and four other black wild musicians : See Caldonia by one of his predecessor. Little Richard was a generous, kind, born again christian, Gay, he would never say he 'ripped off' those he admired, nor those who admired him. He actively helped the Beatles/ esp McCartney with styling. I knew Little Richard; he was a consummate musician and deeply decent soul.
Ignatius J. Reilly (N.C.)
@Tony Cooper Both Jerry Lee and Little Richard had never heard each other when they developed. They both heard piano being belted in church. And they are both Pure, Original, Representative purveyors of that style and culture my friend. Neither copied or put anything on. They were born into it.
E Brian Johnson (Vancouver BC)
Jerry Lee and Little Richard are two sides of the same coin. One from blues and gospel and the other from country and gospel. Both giants. And now, both immortal.
Barb (WI)
No one like Jerry Lee Lewis…no one to carry on. Who's gonna play this ol' piana After I'm not here? Who's gonna sing these sad songs to you Cause your eyes to fill with tears? Who's gonna keep these ivories talking Like Jerry's doin' now? Who's gonna play this ol' piano After my last bow? When that final curtain calls Someday lord it will! Who'll take my place on that stage When everything is ah hushed and still Who's gonna touch these keys with feeling? Really get to you Who's gonna play this ol' piano When my time is through The killer ain't through yet though baby! Instrumental solo We've laughed and you know we've cried together Done a million shows So I kinda think like I Have every single right to know Who's gonna keep this music going? Who's will carry on? Who's gonna play this ol' piano After the Killer's gone?! Give it to me boy! Piano solo Whooo Hangin likedungotin Whistle solo
Joe Ranger (NJ)
@Barb That is beautiful. Thank you. You know who will carry on IMHO? Bob Dylan.
dean (usa)
@Barb NICE! NICE! You beat me to it. Well done.
Cornflower Rhys (Washington, DC)
But rock and roll will never die. RIP.
Paganus (NYC)
Just like that lucky old sun, give Jerry nothin’ to do but roll around heaven all day…
Mark Zwerger (Port Chester, NY)
One of the all time greats. I can still remember my parents bring home the SUN record 45 of JLL's Great Balls of fire. That was rock and roll; the beat still gives me goosebumps! RIP JLL
Tom (Pittsburgh)
And he came out of the buckle of the Bible Belt!
Flxelkt (San Diego)
Gone but never to be forgotten. Jerry Lee Lewis and Keith Richards "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On"
Don Matson (Boston)
Jerry was best on the car radio. He came on running that piano in great Balls of Fire, it was hard to drive safely.
brupic (nara/greensville)
one of THE seminal figures of rock&roll...... but also a wreck
leftyrite (Bristol County, Mass.)
@brupic Herschel Walker is another seminal figure. (projector starts to whir; grainy picture) Today!! He's running for the United States Senate. Today!! From the Great State of Georgia!! And he ain't faking, either.
john keeley (beavercreek oregon)
Getting married was his downfall , the religious people are such hypocrites.
Kyle (Chicago)
Well.. sorta. He married his 13 year old second cousin.
me (us)
Thought he was already dead!
Robert (Formerly Of NJ)
@me How is that helpful,and why does the censor allow that to pass thru the filters?
Cary Appenzeller (Brooklyn, New York)
No more shakin' goin' on :(
Charles Bogle (Lompoc CA) Sam Phillips arguing with Lewis in-between takes of "Great Balls of Fire"--Lewis, then strong with Assemblies of God, balked at recording a song he believed was blasphemous...
VCR (Durham, NC.)
There's no one left who is Like Jerry Lee Lewis — Sex, dope and anarchy's Gift to piano keys.
Mark Brandes (U.S.)
@VCR . Three cheers for sex, dope, anarchy and a great keyboard player!!
Charles (Davis)
@VCR He was one of the REAL DEAL rockers like Janis Joplin. I was young then; it was AMAZING.
Sam Gwynn (TX)
Y'all Yankees ain't heard nothin' yet.
dean (usa)
@Sam Gwynn Right. Exceptional talent from down there. Blues from the red states. Can't improve on that. really not blue, but you know what I mean. Beethoven broke strings on many pianos trying to hear his own compositions. Jerry's piano tuner's kids probably went to college on his earnings.
expat (Japan)
@Sam Gwynn I love that song, and this arrangement just butchers it. I guess you gotta be from Texas, or have cloth ears...
reader (CA True North)
Oh yeah! JLL was better than most and almost the Greatest R&Roller if he hadn't married his 13 y.o. cousin. Still and all he was absolutely in a class of his own...RIP Killah
mlawson (chicago)
@reader At the time [Im old] many states in the south allowed barely young adults to marry, with parents permission, or not. Back then we were more worried about genetics of such a marriage, for their children's sake, than her age but then we found out she was 'cousin, once removed' and worried a bit less. At that time, many families had many children, and having one less mouth to feed, may have been a factor also. So much tragedy in JLL's life, death of 3 year old babychild, death of young adult son in auto accident, death of a wife from methadone; other untimely passings. Sometimes pain from the beginning fuels full out passion to live as fully alive as possible despite or beause of all losses .
sloreader (CA)
@reader Could light up a room... or turn out the lights...
Zach (United States)
JLL didn’t make records; he made crime scenes. He simply killed.
Susan (Washington County, N.Y.)
Jerry Lee Lewis !! Thank you for “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Yours was a life defiantly and definitely spent on your own terms, and by your own rules. Rest In Peace.
Karen (California)
Early Rock 'n Roll only has two names: Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Amen.
J.C. (Michigan)
@Karen There was a guy named Chuck Berry. Look him up.
barbara (santa cruz ca)
@Karen chuck berry
Mary Poppins (Out West)
Elvis started out great and got bland. JLL never did. Rest in peace, Killer.
Bob Saigh (Phoenix, AZ)
When Mr. Lee came on the radio, my folks knew what I was listening to. Seventy-plus years on, I still am, still tapping, gyrating and yowling. Thank you very much for your Life Spice, Mr. Lee. Shake on!
ultimateliberal (New Orleans)
I used to get him mixed up with Little Richard.....
Hugh Bris (Naples, FL)
@ultimateliberal Especially when you see photos of them.
Vernon Rail (Maine)
Sorry to hear this news. Yesterday, I visited Sun Records and spent some time in the old recording studio where the Million Dollar Quartet jammed. Sun’s founder, Sam Phillips recorded that session despite the fact that Elvis was under contract to RCA. Phillips was a risk taker who stepped over the line and preserved a precious moment of rock and roll history.
Ed Marth (Saint Charles IL)
A troubled life, which like his records went round and round to everyone's delight. Playing the piano with boots! Piano teachers everywhere were as shocked as a librarian finding people talking out loud in the library. An entertainer few will ever match.
Andrea Gubbelhoffer 🤘🏾👄💄🫦👛⛑ (New York)
My Nana said she met him when she was in high school back in 1960. Can you believe she’s still able to remember this from so many years ago. She later saw the Beatles a few years later and had to marry my Grandpa Fred once her parents found out she was preggers with mom. And the rest is history! RIP MrJerry Lee, my Nana still renters how great a singer you were back in 1960!
Green apples (Boston)
Sounds like Nana was kind of a riot. Go Nana!
sloreader (CA)
@Andrea Gubbelhoffer 🤘🏾👄💄🫦👛⛑ Dear Andrea... Yes, I can remember 1960 and I was born in '53... Anyone born in the 30s or 40s who is still alive remembers, believe me...
pat knapp (milwaukee)
As a long-time Milwaukeean, my favorite, of course, was "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous." Not to be forgotten. The man and the song.
Mike M (07470)
So sad... but inevitable. Now every one of the true stars and famous founders of rock'n'roll in the 1952-56 time frame are deceased. That pantheon of incredible music included Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Of course there were other tangential contributes but these guys are on that mythical Mount Rushmore. And Jerry Lee was the wildest of the wild.
expat (Japan)
@Mike M Don't overlook Dick Dale and the Deltones, Carl Perkins and the Percolators, Link Wray, and Eddie Cochran, who's material was an influence on both The Who and U2. Neil Young has said that the band he most regrets not having been able to see live was the Deltones. Dale essentially invented the surf/punk wall-of-guitar sound, along with Wray, and Rumble. This was later cleaned up and commoditized by the Ventures, and even influenced proto-punk bands like the Seeds, the Stooges and the MC5.
Charles (Davis)
@Mike M I have been several times to Sun Records and stood in the actual room where Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash Carl Perkins started rockin recordings. Two of my four sons became musicians and are now in 50s, and they still revere that room and Jerry Lee, Elvis. Those were the GREATEST days of rock that most of you missed out on.
Dav Mar (Farmington, NM)
Republicans seem to think Democrats invented "cancel culture". In fact, societies have always shunned and ostracized those who run afoul of conventional social mores. The reaction to the "scandal" of JLL marrying his cousin couldn't be a more solid example. Of course examples of the phenomenon are heavily peppered throughout recorded history.
Sima Vera Belmar (Richmond, CA)
@Dav Mar she was 13!
Kyla (Ohio)
Are you saying it’s just fine for someone to marry a 13 year old when they are 22? Are you kidding me?
I loved his music but never allowed myself to buy his records because of the possibility that he had something to do with the demise of his wives. But now well I am going to be gobbling up hi stuff left and right. Fabulous music.
AM (Bklyn)
No mention that he regularly beat at least one of his wives? Or that he was believed to be more than a little involved in the "accidental" drowning and overdose of two of the wives mentioned. Apparently, the wife who drowned was about to be given a large payout from their divorce and the one who overdosed was in the midst of leaving him due to physical abuse.
Ron (Texas)
Thanks for all of that great music. You had the courage to play your music and to keep us moving. Especially at teen center dances. Rock on. RIP.
Greenfields (Princeton, NJ)
Say what you want about his personal life and challenges, his music is wonderful and timeless.
Eric (BoCo, CO)
Boy did he. For better or worse.
Annessey (Girl from the North Country)
“When they look back on me I want 'em to remember me not for all my wives, although I've had a few, and certainly not for any mansions or high livin' money I made and spent. I want 'em to remember me simply for my music.” -Jerry Lee Lewis Rest In Peace, Jerry Lee
Marge Keller (Midwest)
@Annessey All that mattered to me WAS his music. His personal life was his business, none of mine. Good to see you commenting again my friend. Hope all is well with you.
Mary Bullock (Staten Island NY)
I saw Jerry Lee on Steve Allen. Compare that to the video the Ed Sullivan Show and you will see that Jerry did tone it down. There is nothing to compare with that raw original. I remember the marriage. I was in seventh grade; didn't understand the fuss.
Red O. Greene (Albuquerque, NM, USA)
Random observations: Over the long haul, Jerry Lee Lewis demonstrated far more talent than Elvis Presley. Far more. But Elvis had the looks and, of course, the timing, including the Earth-shattering and incomparable Sun recordings. But back to Lewis. There's not a rock pianist that can touch him, and that includes, with all respect, Johnny Johnson and Fats Domino. And - pffff - Elton John. Lewis defined rock piano, established the piano as a lead, not just a rhythm, instrument in rock and roll. And there's not a country pianist that can touch him. Not Moon Mullican, not Floyd Cramer, not Pig Robbins. Maybe his Smash records from the early to mid-60s didn't sell, didn't chart, but they still contain some blazing rockers and beautiful country recordings. Meanwhile, this obit curiously fails to acknowledge the greatest rock and roll concert ever recorded: Lewis's performance, backed by the Nashville Teens, at Hamburg, Germany's intimate and wild Star Club in '64, when Jerry Lee was -pffff - supposedly on the skids. The artist would obviously not be stopped. Then, of course, country music saved Lewis from 1968 onward. He gave us scores of beautiful country recordings while continuing to sneak in dozens of incendiary rockers. His induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame was long overdue. Mad piano, beautiful piano, kinky piano. Whether rock, country, blues, R&B, or Tin Pan Alley, a one-of-a-kind. RIP, Jerry Lee. And "Think about it, Darlin'."
Jack M. (Nashville)
I was at the Country Music Hall of Fame museum in Nashville last week. There was a Jerry Lee Lewis display there. I said to my wife that it was amazing that Jerry Lee was still alive after all the other R&R pioneers were gone years ago. He seemed like to least likely guy to survive. what energy he had. Terrific. A great book by Rick Bragg about Jerry Lee from a few years ago.
Retired Fed (Northern Westchester)
More raw talent than any of his peers, and that includes Elvis. No idea how he made it to 87 but I'm glad he did.
Sambamann (San Luis Obispo, Ca.)
I'll never forget hearing that heart-stopping intro to "High School Confidential" roaring from a Wurlitzer jukebox. The Killer had arrived.
leftyrite (Bristol County, Mass.)
A word to the Wise: Make sure that the Jerry Lee Lewis Museum is surrounded by strip malls. Make no mistake. What he did for rock 'n roll piano is indelible. Even so, I'm just sayin'. One way in; one way out. Just sayin'. Good-bye, Jerr.
Steve Sheldon (Roseburg,Oregon)
I find it funny that he saw himself as a stylist and Elvis as a phenomenon. The opposite is true.
stevo (Texas)
I'm trying to find out how to watch the 2022 documentary "Trouble in MInd" about Jerry Lee Lewis. Directed by Ethan Coen. Don't see it streaming anywhere.
Vince (L.A.)
Time marches on. It was the NYT Oct. 12 issue with the obituary of dj Art Laboe that included the album cover with a photo of Lewis. Two youngsters then, now gone.
Richard (Princeton)
Probably the finest moment in the entire award-winning TV documentary series "VH 1 Behind The Music" comes when The Killer fixes his searingly proud gaze on the young off-camera interviewer and declares, "I _am_ rock 'n' roll, boy!"
Oatis Park (California)
Big fan! Looks like most of the pioneers are gone.
Michael (Evanston, IL)
Jerry Lee Lewis was a pure product of America - caught between the sacred and the profane. His songs blew the cover off what was considered respectable for white people in 1955. (Mothers grab your children!) His biggest songs were written by black men and sung with abandon by Lewis. Like Elvis, he helped expose whites to a black musical sensibility. His music was on the forefront of the rock n roll that began to put cracks in the color barrier. He lived like he sang. Rock on Jerry Lee, rock on.
Kyla (Ohio)
I always thought of it as white people taking credit from black musicians who didn’t Become as famous because they were black.
Jean Kroeber (Frankfurt Germany)
Loved Jerry Lee 's music!
Sandra Ryan (Cass Lake, Minnesota)
You didn't mention his last album released...gospel music with his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. Just recently released.
Lila (NYC)
One of the founders of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis was part of the greatest “founding” of an original sound that captures the best of 20th Century America. 18th Century America had its Founding Fathers but 20th Century America had its own and we are fortunate to have heard the democratic sounds and vibes of freedom emanating from the music and today we say “bye bye” with the passing of Jerry Lee Lewis…and can ask ourselves if this is another of those days the “music died…”
hotGumption (Rhode Island)
Jerry, thanks for the memories...
Richard Waugaman, M.D. (Potomac, MD)
News of his death brings back a painful childhood memory, of watching a Jerry Lee Lewis movie and quickly learning he wasn't the same person as Jerry Lewis, whose movie I was hoping to see.
John Pettimore (Tucson, Arizona)
Think about this: given his offstage behavior, JLL would have been instantly, permanently cancelled if he were to be performing today. That's beyond depressing.
E (US)
Love this obituary. It is a testament to all that is wrong with the PC movement. “Hardscrabble” circumstances and style, not just phenomenon, make the man. And in the words of Jerry Lee Lewis: “Don’t you forget it.” The 1989 film “Great Balls of Fire” with Dennis Quaid cemented my image of Jerry Lee Lewis as brilliant, fun and exciting. I had my “Sweet Sixteen” that year and was naturally a bit of a rebel myself. Rest in Peace Jerry Lee Lewis and condolences to his family, friends and fans.
Jughead (Riverdale)
Jerry Lee you were a class act back then, you're a class act now and will be a class act in the foreseeable future. RIP my idol.
Kathy B (Fort Collins)
OMG I thought he was already dead. He's one of those bygone singers who just seems like they die about every 2 years or so. I get him confused w/those others of his era. He's the one who married his teenage cousin...that's what I remember about him...
Very Confused (Queens NY)
He shook the world, please let me explain He led a life that was not mundane He had the skill He fit the bill So audacious Now he’s expired RIP Jerry Lee Lewis
Ann P (Gaiole in Chianti, Italy)
I loved the fact that his tune "Great Balls of Fire" was featured in Top Gun in 1986 and resurrected in Top Gun Maverick in 2022. Great tune. Great singer. RIP.
WestOfDivide (Montana)
Mojo Nixon said it was a Rolls-Royce that was driven into Graceland. And Great Balls of Fire was recorded on one take.
David Williams (San Diego county)
"Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, the is indispensable album that captures the riot that were Lee's shows. And you know what? I like the biopic, "Great Balls of Fire" too.
Barb (WI)
No one will play his old piano. He was a one of kind talent that others may try to emulate, but will fall short. Jerry Lee Lewis’ energy in performances, his emphasis in lyrics will never be matched. His music will live on long in the future. RIP “Who's gonna play this ol' piana After I'm not here? Who's gonna sing these sad songs to you Cause your eyes to fill with tears? Who's gonna keep these ivories talking Like Jerry's doin' now? Who's gonna play this ol' piano After my last bow?”
Farrell (California)
He's tied in with every Boomer's life. In seventh grade, 1957, waiting for my father to drive me to my first-ever middle school "sock hop" and scared to death, I watched the first episode of Dick Clark's half hour nighttime show. Jerry Lee Lewis, the headliner, played Great Balls of Fire. He put his leg up on the piano and they set off flash bangs in the air. I watched, amazed. I knew something had happened. Rock and Roll was now officially my generation's music. I was now officially a Teenager. We all were. Everything had changed. He opened the era, and now he closed it.
hotGumption (Rhode Island)
@Farrell Yeah, for me too. This remembrance also reminds me all over again that I will until my final breath be completely overjoyed that I lived when I did. and JLL is part of that. When life seems too unbearably bleak these days I fire up these old tune-makers on YouTube and am transported. What a blast it's been, what a lucky chick I am.
barbara (santa cruz ca)
i was a kid and loved his rock and roll. but i do remember the marriage thing and the shock. i wasn't quite sure what marriage involved,but i had read peyton place so knew some of the details. she looked like a little girl, less mature than my fellow 7th graders with their lipstick and straight skirt and sweater sets and the clip on earrings that covered their whole ear and the long hair with the little tsil in back or duck tail. didn't you have a baby? and have to finish school. yuck. but i still loved great balls of fire and such and with my fellow elders thought for all the health issues he'd probably outlive us so this is a shock'is keith richards next? i am not as old but more and more of the artists i liked are dead, some younger and i dread to see the obit page.
Marge Keller (Midwest)
"Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-driving rockabilly artist whose pounding boogie-woogie piano and bluesy, country-influenced vocals helped define the sound of rock ’n’ roll on hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and whose incendiary performing style expressed the essence of rock rebellion . . ." I love that colorful, enthusiastic and spot on description of the man. Gosh was he talented. He had such fire, such energy, such passion. His music got folks off their butts and began doing some struts. He and his musical originality is yet another icon passing on. He was an extremely gifted musician. He got one's feet moving and one's heart a-pounding. Thank you Jerry Lee Lewis for such a wild ride.
Walt Ray (Mn.)
Seen jerry Lee in 1956 what a great entertainer . He could play the piano Like no one else. His music lives on.
John H. (USA, Midwest)
I am too young to have discovered JLL on the first go in the 50's. I found him back in the early 80's along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others. But JLL had the pace, ferocity and sheer power to keep the tape in the tape deck for weeks on end. I'm sure my parents were thrilled. But as the radio "genre" of "oldies" had yet to be created (and drilled into our brains ad nauseam) I was rather limited in scope and scale of who and what JLL was really all about. But I'm super happy that I found him and listened to one of the originals! My only failure is that I never got to see him live. Off to YouTube!
Becky Sue (Atlanta)
Jerry's "Middle Age Crazy" is one of my all time favs. Such inate, raw talent, and just the fact that he was born and raised in Louisiana, which always indicates wonderful complexity. Think Violet Venable and Tennessee Williams.
cs (bay area)
Tennessee Williams wanted everyone to think he was born and raised in Louisiana. He was actually from St.Louis, a town whose complexity is underrated and shaped the man more than any other.
Steve (New York)
He must have had a heckuva a constitution to survive to 87 with all the wild living he did. Back in the 90s I met a doctor in whose practice Jerry Lee was a patient. He told me that every once in awhile Jerry Lee would call up and ask for a prescription for Percocet "for old time sake." It would always be carefully explained to him that this wasn't possible and he would accept this without complaint. No one else ever rocked like him and Chuck Berry.
mlawson (chicago)
@Steve the doctor broke the law by telling you, who had no legal signed consent form from JLL, confidential info about a patient. JLL's doctors most likely were ethical and would never risk their licenses to break the confidentiality of their patients.
Hank (Idaho)
I saw Jerry Lee play in England and the crowd of teenagers went beyond wild. The teenagers rushed the stage and crowded around his piano, and while Jerry Lee just continued playing and pounding on the piano, they shook their heads and bodies to the rhythm as if there was no tomorrow.
aryeh18 (Santa Cruz, CA)
I saw him at my first concert when I was 16. Ridiculously, he was not the headliner. Brenda Lee was the headliner. She was good, but Jerry Lee just stold the show. Saw him at every opportunity after that. A musical phenomenon and genius.
barbara (santa cruz ca)
@aryeh18 hell is having to follow jerry lee lewis back in the day.
Area Man (Milpitas)
He was famous for upstaging the headliner. He thought of it almost as a challenge. There is a famous story of his lighting the piano in fire when opening for Chuck Berry. He then told Berry “follow that”, supposedly following it up with a racial slur. By all accounts, he was a terrible human being and possibly murdered at least one of his wives. RIP Killer, and if there is a heaven I probably won’t see you there.
Walkin' Willie (Comic Book Land)
Jerry Lee Lewis is one of those musicians where you have to separate the art from the artist. Love his music but I'm glad I never met him.
Jasmine Armstrong (Merced, CA)
Jerry Lee Lewis was the stylistic godfather of all Rock's incendiary performances to come. He was probably the last true great from the era of Rock's birth, and his wild piano playing will echo forever over America's cultural landscape.
Queenie (Henderson, NV)
Loved the music. The man, not so much.
John Brown (Mesquite, Texas)
@Queenie A fair comment. What he had was the appeal of a rogue. Yeah, I didn't agree with a lot of what he did, but I had to admire his honest audacity.
Julio Wong (El Dorado, OH)
Thanks for all the great music. RIP, Jerry Lee.
Andrew D (Miami beach)
My mother was a fan. She took me to a show at a county fair in my hometown in the mid seventies. I remember watching the show with very few people in attendance, my mother happily smiling as Jerry lee pounded away at the keys…”Another place, another time” indeed. RIP Kilker.
Jersey Skyliner (New Jersey)
R.I.P. Jerry. If I may paraphrase a poet:"The grave's a fine and private place - but not so private that Jerry Lee Lewis won't annoy his neighbors with his shakin' and shoutin' all night long." And as to his 13-year-old child bride, Myra Gale Brown: I understand that reports at the time claimed that she still believed in Santa Claus at the time of their marriage. Well, I don't understand what's so weird about that. I'm 75 years old, and I've ALWAYS been an unstinting Santa believer!
M Martínez (Miami)
I didn't know he had a very complicated life. We the fans of music learn a lot by reading the wonderful obituaries of The Times.
Tom (Fort Worth)
Saw Jerry Lee twice, the first time was one of the best shows I've ever seen. The second time (don't recall where it was), he came out, sat at the piano, played a few riffs, started talking. Said something along the lines of "Everybody picks on ole Jerry Lee, call him the Killer - I ain't never killed nobody", slammed the piano shut, stalked off the stage - end of show. That first time more than made up for it though, what a performance...
Jon Vargosko (Arlington MA)
I bought a used copy of his 90's CD "Young Blood" for $3.99 and, goodness gracious, I can't recommend it highly enough.
Eric May (Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France)
I had the great good fortune to see Jerry Lee and Band perform at the Stockyard in Nashville back in 1988. A more exciting show in a small venue could not be imagined. Playing old rock 'n roll hits and his country classics, Jerry Lee's tremendous onstage charisma plus a dangerous edge all his own overshadowed his superb musicianship. The band was also excellent! Try to find Jerry Lee's shows from LA's Palomino Club in the late 70's and you will get the idea. Thank you, Jerry Lee!
OldBuck (Georgia, USA)
They broke the mold when Jerry Lee was born. Without a doubt one of the all time great rock and rollers. He was admired by many younger rocers. A rebel through and through. The album '"The Session", recorded in London in 1972 is awesome. With admiring rock stars behind him, The Killer made some unforgettable music. The entire album rocks from top to bottom. Jerry Lee burns down the house with his version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis Tennessee". Legend.
S (Oregon)
I'll never forget seeing him perform on a hot summer evening at the Memphis fairgrounds, late '70s.
HOUDINI (New York City)
I was a fan long after he passed only because of this line: "Reduced to performing in small clubs for a few hundred dollars a night". The agent who booked Mr. Lewis and occasionally his band was Martin Hoberman (1950-2000) founder of (at age 18) Creative Talent Associates (CTA) that was folded into (bought) by ICM in the late 70s. Marty was a prodigy agent, like Lewis attacked the piano. Diff being, Marty never had any drugs or alcohol in his body and Lewis did. (Marty also booked The Doors into the Miami show where Morrison allegedly expose himself; he didn't.) When I met Marty in 1984 after offering him 33% of the gate if he booked me into a venue in Westchester he controlled, he did not accept my offer but turned up at a film I did and walked up to me handing me his card saying, (and I quote), "OK, I'm here. You impressed me. Now, I'm your agent and I don't expect any Jerry Lee Lewis problems with you because you'll meet the same people on the way up as you meet on the way down." Lewis not only set a musical precedent, he also created the need to the clause for artists against destruction of hotel property. Genius/madness; he surfed them both; and I admired him and the man who handled his "low" period. RIP great talent. Thank you.
BrendanC (NY)
@HOUDINI Where can I read more about Marty the guy who once booked Jerry Lee, didn't drink or drug like Jerry Lee, asked you not to behave like Jerry Lee when he handed you his business card, and who turned down an offer of 1/3 of gate for an act that was not Jerry Lee? Because there has to be more to this story.
Paul (Brooklyn)
He was really a one hit wonder but what a one hit wonder with the few hits he had. He was great on the piano. He caught magic in a bottle for that brief period. RIP and condolences to the family. Bill Haley was the pioneer of rock and roll. Chuck Berry was the father of rock and roll. Little Richard was the innovator of rock and roll (and I give him the nod for technically inventing it).He hit it on the nose. Elvis was the king of rock and roll.
Jan Schreuder (New York)
@Paul Certainly not the father or grandfather of rock. I saw Haley in Scheveningen in 1957 ( yes I'm that old ). It was great. But Louis Jordan was there a decade before.
Tony Cooper (Oakland, CA)
@Paul Bill Haley, really? And Elvis was the king of nothing, except being the biggest thief of African-American culture of all time, which is saying something.
Mike M (07470)
@Paul Lewis had 30 top ten hits. Bill Haley coopted Black music for virtually the entire bulk of his career. His band played with a bit more energy than his fellow thief Pat Boone but he was anything but a pioneer.
erayman (California)
The last of the Founders, and one of the greatest. He'll be welcome in heaven; they'll be rocking up there tonight.
MaggieToo (Carolinas)
"Rest in Peace" seems inappropriate, since I don't think Jerry Lee would have wanted it that way. I never would have expected this old reprobate to have lived to 87. But there's no denying that he left his mark.
R (Brooklyn, New York)
Go browse on Youtube for live concerts from the 60s and onward to get a sense of what a phenomenon he was and what rock 'n roll concerts were like in those early days. Watching him perform (and fans react) will amaze you. Reminds me of the concert scenes in A Hard Days Night.
Ben (Akron)
Had a lot of fun listening to your music, Jerry. Saw you twice in Amsterdam. Rip, and a big thanks!
David Fairbanks (Reno Nevada)
He lived the wildlife many of us dream of. He was wild without cruelty. He gave Rock a needed kick. He will be missed, if only quietly.
Wrigley (Los Angeles)
Saw Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry on the same ticket about 20 years ago. Berry disappointed by making his gig a showcase for his daughter. He sang a few of his hits and then turned it over to her. Jerry Lee rocked and brought down the house.
neil (east windsor, nj)
I remember watching the Killer on Steve Allen's TV show. The next day in the World-Telegram and Sun the TV critic Harriet Van Horne wrote that "he played the piano like a dead horse." What did she know? Long live the Killer and all the other greats from the early days of rock & roll. May their music live on forever!
Al (White Plains NY)
Saw him at a WCBS FM show at the Garden in the 90s with Little Richard, Dion, Lesley Gore. They were all great. They brought us so much joy.
Coffee Dan (Los Angeles)
I'll tire of listening to him. I vividly remember how dumbfounded and energized he made me feel when I first heard him in 1956. There's a wonderful clip of him and Mickey on YouTube. RIP.
Doc (Atlanta)
The Killer was a bundle of talent like no other. No one could touch his piano skills. His "flaws" were irrelevant. Rock On, Rock On, Jerry Lee.
Dennis Flannagan (middletown ,New Jersey)
i don’t know if this is true but i remember reading quite a while ago , that Mc Donalds had hired him to do a commercial for them. “goodness gracious big mac and fries”. but canceled it when they did a little research into his history. true or not it’s a great story
Aydin Torun (Manhattan)
May I inquire as to the ultimate fate of Jerry Lee Lewis' 13-year old bride, Myra Gale Brown, or would that be considered rude, impolite or simply bad form?
Craig H. (California)
@Aydin Torun - According to Wikipedia: By 1970, Lewis' drug addiction, alcoholism, and infidelity took a toll on their marriage. Brown filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery and abuse, charging that she had been "subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable." She is still alive, and made a good life without Lewis.
Dale Wetzel (Bismarck ND)
@Aydin Torun Her name now is Myra Lewis Williams. She ljves in Georgia and had a successful career as a real estate saleswoman. A friend of mine once hired her to help him house-hunt in Atlanta. He said she was great and professional, and that he never could muster the nerve to ask her about Jerry Lee.
DS (Indiana)
@Aydin Torun She became a successful real estate agent.
BrendanC (NY)
I was in a shoot - out with Jerry Lee many years ago. Fortunately, we were both so wasted we didn't hit anything, or anyone important. We had a good laugh and became pals, introducing each other to our women folk.
Green apples (Boston)
I have to say that this is the first NYT obituary comment I’ve ever read that described being in a shootout with the deceased. And that shootout being just part of a generally convivial evening. But if you had told me that such an NYT obit comment existed, and quizzed me on whose obit it was, Jerry Lee Lewis would have been my first guess. Second guess? Chuck Berry. Not a man to be messed with.
Prestor John (Baton Rouge)
The first time I saw Jerry Lee was in Shreveport, LA. He kicked a piano off the stage after having set it on fire. Wow!
styleman (San Jose, CA)
I can remember hanging out at my local soda shop with my buddies around the pinball machine. We played and played 'Who Lotta Shakin" over and over on the jukebox until the owner screamed "No More"!
I think his nickname was “Killer” not “the Killer.” Always great amazing fun to see JLL perform!
Attorney Lance Weil (Oakley, Ca.)
To get a ride on the planet earth like his, and for 87 loops around the sun, there is nothing to mourn, and everything to celebrate.
scrim1 (Bowie, Maryland)
Jerry Lee Lewis was preacher Jimmy Swaggart's first cousin. (Swaggart was later disgraced in a sexual misadventure.) I remember reading that Swaggart used to harangue his cousin Jerry Lee about the latter's evil ways. Once, Jerry Lee got fed up with it, and reminded Jimmy that it was his cousin Jerry Lee who bought the preacher his first Cadillac so he could ride the circuit in style.
Lane Brigham (Mt. Hermon, LA)
KWKH is in Shreveport, Louisiana. Not in Natchez as the article states. The station was famous for the Louisiana Hayride which early on rivaled radio stations in Nashville as they featured early gospel and country music.
Aaron (Orange County, CA)
When was he still alive? I thought he passed years ago...
Julie (CT)
I had the same reaction. Saw the headline and said didn't he die already?
Ziggy (PDX)
Stay classy.
T.W (The Great White North)
Just like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and so many other early trailblazers, Jerry Lee Lewis was the real deal. A true unabashed Rock’n’Roll animal, destined to do what he did, there won’t be another one like him. For those who need a primer here’s Lewis tearing it up at the Toronto Peace Festival in 1969, even the hippie kids knew.
Art Turner (Rockford, IL)
‘No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones have ever improved on “Whole Lot of Shakin’” for my money.” - John Lennon, 1970
dean (usa)
Piano techs everywhere owe him big time.
Thomas (Alabama)
Great musician! He could tear up a piano! Sad time. JL's cousin, J.W. Brown (Myra's father) died a couple of weeks ago. He was the bass guitar player in JLL's band. I fact, I believe JW was responsible for encouraging JL to come to Memphis and start a band! RIP cousins Jerry Lee and JW!
LaurieBelle (LV)
Can recommend "Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story" by Rick Bragg. But I insist true believers listen to Jerry singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Fabulously boozy, sad, yearning, hopeful, and a million other emotions all at once. That's an artist.
Expat (Esseffe)
The great and only one! Jerry Lee was the only one who could make “Somewhere over the rainbow “ sound dirty.
Joy Ocean (NYC)
One of the true greats. We shan’t see his likes again.
RosiePI (Charleston SC)
Maybe now that the “Killer” is gone to his just reward, someone will give credence to his vow to at least two of his wives that he’d kill them if they ever tried to leave him “cause that’s why they call me Killer.” Jaren Gunn and Shawn Stephens both died trying.
RG (Massachusetts)
John Lennon had this to say: Discussing rock ‘n’ roll, John said “That’s the music that inspired me to play music. There’s nothing conceptually better than rock ‘n’ roll. No group, be it [the] Beatles, [Bob] Dylan, or [the Rolling] Stones, has ever improved on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ [Goin’ On]’ for my money. Maybe I’m like our parents, that’s my period. That’s my period and I’ll never leave it.“
Jack be Quick (Albany)
"The Killer" - with two dead wives and a near fatal shooting. a well-earned nickname. Like Elvis, a flash of brilliance followed by decades of mediocrity.
jlafitte (New Orleans/Encinitas)
That clip from the Steve Allen show says it all.
Mark Hermanson (Minneapolis)
It was all fake.
Benito chacolatte (Texas)
WOW ! What an up and down rollercoaster of life. Funny that one of his cousin was Swaggert and Micky Gilley from the Houston area. Amazing he laster to 87
Kelly Mullins (Seattle)
Every singer after him who amped up their sexuality and wild abandon owe him royalty checks.
Mike (fl)
Saw him at Monroe Park in Richmond, Va in the early 70s. He played one song, got mad at some drunks in the crowd and went back to his trailer. The crowd pelted the trailer with whiskey bottles and everything they could throw but he never came out. He was a hard livin man, never in a million years did I think he would make it to 87. RIP, Killer.
dognose 2 (Richmond Calif.)
In the 50's, Great Balls of Fire, was the first 45, I bought for myself. & today, for some incredulous reason, my 14 year old Granddaughter, does that song justice on the piano & I rock n' roll with laughter when she's doing the JLL thing.
bert (vienna)
What a ride his life was!
Russell Scott Day (Carrboro, NC Transcendia)
Hedonism has few real heroes.
Paul Berger-Durnbaugh (Madison, WI)
The BBC implies that the bigamy involved the first and second wives. NYT says it's the second and third. Wikipedia says nothing. Anyone know who is right?
Winthropo muchacho (Durham, NC)
I saw him in Feb of ‘58 in my hometown of Ft Liquordale Fla. I was a mere stripling in shorts at age 7 1/2 and I have no idea why my Junior League/DAR mother took me to see the show which opened with Buddy Holly and closed with Jerry Lee In between there were Bill Haley and the Comets, the Everly Bros and the Royal Teens (Al Kooper organist). I remember Jerry Lee doing Great Balls of Fire while standing on his piano chair. The image of his insane antics has been burned into my consciousness since that night. Saw him again @ the Ritz in NYC in 1980. He was still killing it.
Mary (New Orleans)
@Winthropo muchacho What a fabulous memory!
Steve Kennedy (Deer Park, Texas)
"If there's a rock n' roll heaven Well you know they've got a hell of a band, band, band Jimi gave us rainbows And Janis took a piece of our hearts And Otis brought us all to the dock of a bay Sing a song to light my fire, remember Jim that way ... " And now they've got a piano player.
James (NYC)
As an NYU student in the '80s who had somehow gravitated to rock'n'roll instead of New Wave, Jerry Lee was one of the legends I was fortunate to see in person (along with Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers). No advance ticket sales, no line--just walked into the Lone Star Cafe, had a seat at the bar and watched him play his gig. I was astounded that not everyone shared my awe for his music. I'm still astounded.
Stacy (Santa Monica, CA)
May he rest in peace. My condolences to his loved ones, friends and fans.
Do Shindler (Melbourne)
One of the few -- if not the only -- successful novels penned by short story and essay genius Harlan Ellison, was entitled, SPIDER KISS: it was about a Rockabilly star. For a long time, people assumed it was about Elvis Presley (and his "people" even optioned it, once). But in at least one interview, Ellison revealed that the true inspiration behind that novel about Rock & Roll excess was none other than Jerry Lee Lewis.
C Williams (Burlington NJ)
My condolences to the family. I did not know much about his life but grew up dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis' music and he was a great performer.
sandhillgarden (Fl)
Decades ago I cobbled together my fav rock n' roll for a workout CD, and still listen to "Don't Let Go" a few times a week. Love you, Jerry.
Thomas (New Jersey)
I saw him a few years ago at the Stagecoach Festival in California. He had to be helped out on the stage to the piano, but when he sat down and started playing and singing, the talent and experience and uniqueness just put me in awe. It was like watching greatness. The real thing. After about six or so songs he just stopped and was helped up and helped off the stage, waving to and thanking the audience. The crowd was having fun and enjoying every minute of the show and applauded him all the way off the stage. I’m grateful I got to see him live.
Barbara (San Diego)
@Thomas Love your remembrance. Thank you.
Stacy (Santa Monica, CA)
@Thomas Great experience. Thank you for sharing it.
Ron956 (South Texas)
I was fortunate enough to see JL in his leaner years and speak with him several times over the years. No comparisons. JLL was in his own orbit and didn’t really care about all the labels the so-called experts tried to hang on him. Long live The Killer’s legacy. Rest In Peace.
FPC (Spain)
I still remember how difficult it was to get JLL records around here during the first sixties... Tonight I will devote some time to re-listen to some of his master pieces again. His piano and his voice were always pure rock-and-roll to me. Last man standing!
Tam O’Shanter (Earth)
I’m glad he was inducted in the Country Music HOF while still alive. The Million Dollar Quartet is now entirely reunited: Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Lewis. RIP.
Ted Burke (San Diego, California)
Chuck Berry and Little Richard in their prime always meant more to me, but Lewis was a close third in my personal rock and roll canon. No one could pound a piano with more verve or energy, and it seemed to me watching old clips of him live over that he was not so much playing piano as he was committing assault upon it. His singing, as well, was unique, his own and impossible to cogently emulate. His southern accent became a tight, coiled sound that was as much about barely constrained energy as it was about tone, timbre, or range. It was a primitive glee to raise havoc that battered the limits of the chord progressions. God help the audience if whatever possessed this artist escaped the musical bars that constrained it. That Jerry Lee Lewis found a second career as a fully realized country artist only makes sense; one always had the feeling that he thought he thought the Devil and God were wrestling for his soul. If rock and roll were the indulgence of the baser, untamed qualities of the human spirit, country was the area where home, hearth, heartbreak, and healing of a sort could balance the emotional scales. He was an original architect of rock and roll, a phenomenon that will not reoccur in any future unfolding of human history.
Becky Sue (Atlanta)
@Ted Burke Well said. Devil and God wrestling for his soul. The Pentacostal background surfacing.
PM (Somewhere in Queens)
Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg is an amazing performance by an entertainer who for years couldn't play in the US bc of his marriage scandal. Not sure if someone today would survive something like that. Not sure if I disagree but we got a great album from it.
Great Great Album! Indeed! I Wondered why I heard a piano thunderstorm playing In the sky today… The sky blue… (Aix-en-Provence)
Great Great Album! Indeed! I Wondered why I heard a piano thunderstorm playing In the sky today… The sky blue…
John Brown (Mesquite, Texas)
@PM One of, if not the best, live albums I ever heard. You don't want to listen to just one song. You have to play it straight all the way through. The intensity, the drive, the attitude and, quite frankly, the physicality involved was tremendous. One reviewer's comment on the album was spot on, "This isn't an album, it's a crime scene". Lewis just murdered that piano.
Debra M. (Syracuse)
I love that the obit describes his left hand v right hand piano style. I play piano and appreciate that putting two hands together on the keyboard is not as easy as it looks. In my family, I grew up with some awareness that "The Killer" was special and often hearing that maybe he was a bad guy and maybe not so bad, but that he had not received the honors due him because he did what was normal at the time in his culture when he married his young cousin. RIP Jerry
Do Shindler (Melbourne)
@Debra M. -- Then's still "normal" in many cultures to kill women for dishonoring the male relatives of their family. I love the music he made. But what Jerry Lee Lewis did was and still IS peodphilia. You can't condone that by saying, well, it was "normal at the time in his culture". Sexual assault on a child has always been, and will always be, sexual assault on a child.
Rainbow Dash (Massachusetts)
I’m fairly certain it wasn’t “normal” anywhere in 1960s American culture to marry your 13 yr old cousin. That’s why it ruined his career.
JohnB (upstate NY)
Maybe High School Confidential wasn't the best choice for a follow-up single in the wake of the 13-year-old-cousin scandal.
Charlie Messing (Burlington, VT)
@JohnB I bought one! Didn't worry about the British scandal press. Great record - both sides, too! "Fools Like Me" was the B-side.
Will L. (London)
For pure exuberance and drive, Jerry Lee Lewis' live recordings have very few peers. Check out in particular "Jerry Lee Lewis live at the Star Club" recorded in Hamburg, Germany in 1964.
Richard (Nashville)
@Will L. Thanks for the idea!
Glenn (Brentwood, CA)
I always felt that Elton John borrowed his style from both Jerry Lee and Liberace.
Jordan (Seattle, WA)
@Glenn it was more a mix of Lewis, Little Richard, Winifred Atwell, and then Leon Russel. of course, he adored Liberace's style, but talking about playing styles here. his autobiography is a fantastic read.
ted (Brooklyn)
Hellfire by Nick Tosches is one of the best biographies ever. He also wrote, the often imitated, Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll. His books on country, blues, and assorted Americana are must reads
Bull Goose Loony (Seattle, WA)
Agreed, e.g. *The Devil and Sonny Liston*
Tak (Denver)
@ted Where Dead Voices Gather, about Emmett Miller and the minstrel era, is also incredible.
sailbart (mission viejo ca)
I remember that as a young boy living in Northeast Ohio that hearing Jerry Lewis for the first time changed my life. I began to see endless possibilities. Thank you Killer.
AG (Upstate NY)
Check out Jerry Lee Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg Germany (1964). It was Jerry Lee, two unknowns playing bass and drums. Any punk rock group would have been hard pressed to match the intensity of that performance. Just the best.
Shonuff (New York)
@AG been trying to find it. Pretty sure it was the Nashville Teens who did Tobacco Road.
AG (Upstate NY)
Thanks! You are correct.
John (Georgia)
His character in "Walk The Line" announces to Johnny Cash: "Nobody follows The Killer". True then, and true now. RIP, Killer. They've thrown away the mold.
Do Shindler (Melbourne)
@John -- LOL Except for Elvis, of course. Despite what Lewis liked to believe.
Zeke (NYC)
About 25 years ago, I saw Jerry Lee and Fats Domino. Fats opened and blew the doors off the place. Jerry Lee was simply horrible. His "set" consisted of him talking for about 30 minutes out of the 90 minutes he was on stage. Horrible show. No matter. RIP Mr. Lewis. Tell Elvis "hello"
Mark Siegel (Atlanta)
I loved his swagger. He was the best, he knew it, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. Not bragging. Just the truth.
Jay Dee (The Tropics)
I saw him perform at the rehearsal for the Capitol Fourth in the early aughts, after seeing how old he looked then it’s hard to believe he made it another 20. Tough, tough guy.
Fritz O'Schenia (Animal Farm)
A real legend with a checkered and questionable past. But what real legend doesn't ?
Marie McCabe (Washington, DC)
Everything that is good, bad, simple, and complicated about true rock 'n' roll...RIP Jerry Lee.
Madelyn (North Carolina)
I saw Jerry for the first time on TV on American Bandstand. He knocked my socks off. I was 11 years old at the time.
HKGuy (Hell's Kitchen)
A great artist with a gift for making very bad marriage decisions.
Caddisman (The Great Northwet)
The guy served his own movie. God knows he was bigger than life. Ah, the South: There's just nothing like it. Rest in peace, Jerry Lee.
Park Bench (Washington DC)
Minor error. KWKH is a 50k watt clear channel AM station founded in Shreveport, LA, from which it still broadcasts. Not from Natchez as this article states. KWKH weekly show Louisiana Hayride provide large, wide audiences to some of the best country, blues, R&B, rock and roll, rock a billy. and other artists of that era. Nobody missed Louisiana Hayride. Fabulous shows that provided incredible opportunities to some of music’s biggest stars.
Hold Your Horses (USA)
Jerry Lee Lewis was my first employer when I moved to Nashville to start a public relations business in 1975. While learning my way around town, I hired on to help in his office. Between filing paperwork and other office duties, I answered the phone. I was trained on how to talk to his wives and family members who were constantly trying to track him down to collect overdue alimony or other debts. "Hi they'ah (southern drawl), honey. I'm just calling to find out where Jerry is. I'm so worried about him and just want to go see him and check on 'im." actually meant, "Where is that scoundrel!? He owes me money and I aim to collect!" JLL was good to me, though, and I never had any problems with him. No matter how wild he was in her personal life, he was an extraordinary talent that is unmatched. He will me missed - even by surviving exes.
LaurieBelle (LV)
Now THAT'S a very educational early career job! Thanks for sharing that - it gave me a chuckle, although I'm sure there were times it gave you a headache.
PE Smith (New York)
RIP to the One and Only Jerry Lee. . Saw him later in his live performance days. It was unbelievable. The Killer took no prisoners. And the fact that he was on this earth for 87 years is a miracle in itself.
I saw Jerry Lee at, of all places, the Pitman Theatre in Pitman NJ, around 1981(?). During the performance, his drummer was allowed a solo, and they put a lone spotlight on him. Jerry stopped playing and the band ground to a halt. The house lights came up about halfway, Jerry pointed to himself and said, "The spotlight stays HERE." They resumed playing, with the spotlight only on you-know-who. We cheered! Was it part of the act? Was he actually angry? I'll never know. But what a show. R.I.P., Killer.
malibu frank (Calif.)
I remember JLL's 1957 performance on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. Pounding on the keys near the end of "Whole Lotta Shakin'" Jerry leapt to his feet, sending the piano bench flying off camera. Seconds later it came sliding back across the stage, evidently by the hand of Steverino.
Shambolicus (Louisiana)
R.I.P., Killer. Time to cue up my well-worn copy of the fantastic “Live at The Star-Club, Hamburg” in his memory. Minor aside…the obit incorrectly mentions radio station KWKH as being in Natchez, Mississippi. KWKH broadcasted, and I believe still does, out of Shreveport, Louisiana. The 50,000 watt, clear channel “blow torch” is famous for having broadcast “The Louisiana Hayride,” a weekly live music program that featured a number of notable performers of the early and mid-1950s, including Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
Bradford (Blue State)
Listen to Jerry Lee Lewis Live At the Star Club in Hamburg to get a sense of what he was like live. The backup band for this performance was The Nashville Teens who, the mid 60s, had a minor hit with Tobacco Road.
Jim the Enchanter (New Jersey)
Saw him at Seaside Heights sometime in 1970's in a very small venue, maybe 3 dozen people at the most. So much energy. Be happy.
Sunwatcher (San Diego)
In an age of vegan yoga pop rockers performing corporate written songs, Jerry Lee Lewis' seeking out the animal within embodies what it takes to be a real rockstar.
Bradford (Blue State)
I saw Jerry Lee in Vegas in the 90s. One night he drove on to the stage in a 1950s classic car. On another night, seemingly loaded, he stomped off the stage after a few songs but came back even more stoked and ready to push the keys around. Maybe it was a true display of his cantankerous nature or part of the show; it didn't matter. Thanks Jerry Lee. When you get to the Pearly Gates tell St Pete you're here to play keys for the Million Dollar Quartet.
MarieM (NYC)
This is the first time I chuckled while reading an obituary. What a life. RIP Jerry!
Dorothy Teer (Durham NC)
i was just rocking in my care to a great CD of his...I adored his music!!!!!!!RIP
Daniel Buck (Washington DC)
Saw Jerry Lee Lewis at the Prom Ballroom in St. Pail, MN, in the late 1950s. His guitar player was the incomparable, stone-faced Roland James. Need I mention that Jerry Lee set the stage on fire?
Misty White (Toulouse, France)
The name of Jerry Lee’s guitar player was Roland Janes, not James.
Mary C (Raleigh)
Wow! How do you make it to 87 with this wild a life? Maybe that’s the secret? Too young to have seen him, but have some of his music. One of a kind for sure.
ExileFromNJ (Maricopa County AZ)
I have played Rock & Roll piano since the sixties. A little over a year ago a guitarist said to me that he never heard anyone play a strong rhythm piano like a guitar. I just looked at him and said nothing. Above being able to provide himself with the appropriate rhythm he was a consummate singer and, as he knew, a song interpreter. He knew a good song and how to perform it and own it. He was wild but you could see in his grin he was probably just making it all up as he went along. RIP
Socrates (Downtown Verona, NJ)
'the young girl traveling with him, Myra Gale Brown, was his 13-year-old bride — and his cousin — and Mr. Lewis had still been married to his second wife when he recited the vows for his third marriage.' “Oh, no, not at all. Age doesn’t matter back home. You can marry at 10 if you can find a husband.” His troubled son Jerry Lee Jr. died in a car crash in 1973. 'watching television at his wife’s house, Mr. Lewis accidentally shot his bass player, Norman Owens, in the chest with a .357 Magnum handgun after announcing, “I’m going to shoot that Coca-Cola bottle over there or my name ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis.” ' 'His fourth wife, Jaren Pate, drowned in a friend’s swimming pool in 1982. His fifth wife, Shawn Michelle Stephens, died after taking an overdose of methadone in 1983.' A great musician. A disaster of a human being.
BrendanC (NY)
@Socrates Yeah; your less than insightfu last two sentences is only thing we didn't just read in obit.
MT (LosAngeles)
You can still marry a 13 year old in many states, with parental consent.
Dav Mar (Farmington, NM)
@MT But not if you are already married, which apparently he was at the time.
disgruntled southerner (Gulf Coast)
Best show I’ve ever seen. No one else came close. RIP, Killer. Now get to that jam session up yonder quick!
firlfriend (usa)
He is not a good piano player. He was an entertainer, and apparently a womanizer.
BrendanC (NY)
@firlfriend He's not a good or bad anything.
RG (Massachusetts)
@firlfriend Well, you got two out of three correct. Guess which one you blew.
Will (Murohreesboro)
Rockabilly artist?
AM (SoCal)
Top Gun movies wouldn’t have been the same without his song
Lowell (Dubai)
One of my late wife's favorites. We saw him in the early 90s, 45 minutes late, almost too drunk too speak, and he still played that piano like he invented it. A treasured memory. Bye, Killer.
Viv (SoCal)
Wow. I could have remembered him better without all that bad karma.
Flaneur (Cape Jellison)
I could never understand why JLL hated Elvis so much? Jealousy?Why does he show up at Graceland brandishing a pistol demanding to see Elvis? JLL was a great R&R entertainer, but had a really messed up personal life. His psychological make-up would provide a fascinating topic for a PhD dissertation. Lots of inner turmoil.
Dave (Shreveport, Louisiana)
Just a note of correction…the radio station, KWKH, which aired the famous Louisiana Hayride, was broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana, not Natchez, Mississippi.
Billy (San Luis Obispo, Ca)
Jerry Lee and Little Richard were monumental artists who just plain "brung It". Still thrill, and i mean thrill me. "Don't put no heatdstone on my grave"!!!
Carlyle T. (NYC)
Off course i danced to his music but now also wonder what kind of preacher did the wedding service of as some say a 12 or 13 year old child?
Sam Gwynn (TX)
@Carlyle T. Loretta Lynn used to claim she was married at 13.
George S. (NYC)
@Carlyle T. It was the South; it was 60+ years ago. 'Nuff said.
ts (new jersey)
RIP Killer. As Springsteen said, you didn’t play rock n’ roll, you ARE rock n’ roll.
JLH/MSH (Philadelphia, Pa)
Jerry Lee shook up the world.
Robert (Wisconsin)
This guy did more than just tickle the ivories. RIP Jerry Lee.
alinsydney (Sydney)
I hope he turned out the lights when he left the room he was the last one. RIP
Henry Martinez (Atwater, CA)
One of the greatest rock and roll originals! Heaven's band just got a whole lot better. Rest in peace, Killer.
HapinOregon (Southwest Corner of Oregon)
The world is less now...
Brown11 (NYC)
RIP Jerry. Hardscrabble life, but somehow his talent broke the clouds ever now and then. Whole Lotta of Shaking still gets people moved on the dance floor. 🎶
Rick Ackermann (Portland, Maine)
One of the best, drop dead gospel singers in the known world.
Hal (Dallas)
T Bone Walker influenced the guitar playing of Chuck Berry, but Berry played the licks to a R&R beat.
Ferris (Minnesota)
Jerry Lee Lewis married 13 year old Myrna Brown in 1958, so let's all just take a nice step back from the rose-colored glasses.
RG (Massachusetts)
@Ferris Well, whatever he did, it appears it was legal at the time.
Satyaban (Baltimore, Md)
Rest easy Killer, What with "easy listening" called rock and roll, you may have not been that happy anyway.
ADAM FIELDS (Los Angeles)
We lost maybe the last living legend of Rock n Roll today. I had the wildest 7 years ride producing the movie Great Balls of Fire. I shot the picture in Memphis so Jerry could come to the set every day if we wanted to. The soundtrack which he recorded produced by T Bone Burnett might be his best record ever. He was one of a kind in almost every respect. He will be missed.
Saul (Boston)
@ADAM FIELDS Great job with the movie. Would love to hear more about those seven years. Did you have much one-on-one time with Jerry, and did he tell many tales? Bring anyone interesting to the set?
Adam Fields (Los Angeles)
Yes all the time! I shot the movie in Memphis so he could come by the set whenever he wanted. An imposing figure for sure! The soundtrack for the movie I believe is maybe his best record. T Bone Burnett was maybe the only guy that really produced him.
D.M. (Philadelphia)
Why do some people get cancelled and not others? He married a 13y.o girl, for Pete's sake! If Al Franken loses his job, why does Jerry Lee Lewis get an obituary on the front page of the NYT?
Charles Bogle (Lompoc CA)
@D.M. I love Al Franken, but nobody's still kickin' along with his skits from 65 years ago!
RG (Massachusetts)
@D.M. Apparently a marriage within the laws in effect at the time aren’t good enough for you. Look around, marriages at that age remain on the books in many states.
Adam Fields (Los Angeles)
Priscilla was 14 when Elvis started dating her. Different times for sure. But as Jerry Lee would grouse to me “Hey at least I married Myra Gale before she moved in so why was Elvis the king? “
Bonnie (Brooklyn)
This is one of those "Wow, they were still alive?" obituaries.
Thad (Boca Raton)
He’d be one of the faces on Mt. Rock n’ Roll.
spinoza (Nevada City Ca)
Never cared that much for his music. To compare him to Elvis is ridiculous. One word describes his life: trainwreck.
RG (Massachusetts)
@spinoza Opinions are like something else I can think of. And everyones got one.
mpound (USA)
"Reporters discovered that the young girl traveling with him, Myra Gale Brown, was his 13-year-old bride — and his cousin — and that Mr. Lewis had still been married to his second wife when he recited the vows for his third marriage." This guy was a REAL punk rocker.
BC (Auburn, MA)
His " London Sessions" with all the Greats, is his best-Boozy and Brutal with all that Southern Charm nad Killer Keys! RIP
RG (Massachusetts)
@BC Yes. Check out his duet with Delaney Bramlett on Hank Williams “Lost Highway”. These guys knew how to sing.
Rufus T. Firefly (Alabama)
Saw him in 1983 at the “Orion Barn Party” put on by the masked singer “Orion” aka Jimmy Ellis in Orrville, Alabama. Mr. Lewis was late coming on stage well pass his 8:00 schedule because Mr. Lewis insisted that he be paid in cash. I knew both Jimmy Ellis and Mr. Furniss Ellis and both said that Mr. Lewis insisted on cash payments because of IRS liens and ex-wives attachments to any bank accounts. Lucky that Mr. Ellis was able to get a bank in Selma, Alabama to open on a Friday night to get Mr. Lewis cash fee…
Don (Washington)
I'm 81 but still remember where I was the first time I heard "Great Balls of Fire" on the car radio as my friends and I were cruising in a 50 Ford coupe. "Rock Around the Clock" had started rock and roll for my cohort. But the Killer was transformative.
Richard Palumbo (Delaware)
There will never be another like "The Killer" from Farraday, Louisiana!
Jackie (NYC)
Goodness gracious 😢
kkm (NYC)
Jerry: You sure had "a whole lotta shakin goin' on" in your 87 years! Rock on -- through eternity!
Kari Rhyan (Waimea, HI)
He married a 13 year old child who was also his first cousin. Spare me your tributes.
Dav Mar (Farmington, NM)
@Kari Rhyan Which was entirely legal, other than the fact that he was already married. Any legal impropriety was based on that fact, not the age or familial relationship with the bride. Cancel culture much?
Whole lotta fun now gone...RIP...Killer
Yann Poisson (RI)
Do yourself a favor and get live at the star club and you will hear how amazing he was! RIP killer!
Wordsworth from Wadsworth (New Wye, Appalachia)
The story mentions the film, “High School Confidential." The film opens with Lewis on the bed of a flat bed truck, banging out the theme song going through a high school campus. It's a little camp, but really a hidden gem of a film. Despite his excesses, and Southern mien declamations, the Killer was held in high regard by musicians like the Stones' guitarists. "I raised Ronnie Wood." About payola, "Well son, everyone wants to be paid." When Jimmy Swaggart was drowning in scandal in 1987, comedian Robert Klein said, "His cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis likes these young girls. He married an embryo last week down in Arkansas."
JDS (Santa Fe)
As a kid I thought he banging on the piano and his songs were incredible and riotous. Once reading about him as a teen I realized I wasn’t interested in his music after marrying a thirteen year old. Was he really that great honestly?
RG (Massachusetts)
@JDS As Bruce Springsteen has noted, you can be a genius in one area of your life and a complete failure in others. Are you a genius in ANY areas of your life, honestly?
Joe (Spain)
@JDS Yes , he was !
Matt Kuykendall (San Mateo, Ca)
The reports is his death are greatly exaggerated.
Russell Scott Day (Carrboro, NC Transcendia)
Hedonism has few real heroes.
Adam Stoler (Bronx Urban Warrior)
Though I wished I could wish this man to RIP , he likely wouldn’t want to Shake rattle and roll bro
Joe Hill (Where working men defend their rights)
goodness gracious
lizannes (Corvallis, OR)
Let's not forget his marrying his 13 year old cousin. Ah, the good old days.
Kylie M (San Francisco, CA)
Finally someone who was actually worthy of being canceled and he still ends up with this fawning, omission heavy obituary? What about his 13 year old wife’s charge that she was "subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable."? I really can’t wait to read Gary Glitter’s obituary next.
Mary Poppins (Out West)
@Kylie M Nobody's praising him for being a great person. He was a great entertainer.
The Steward (Massachusetts)
Sad news. I grew up on rock n' roll and country music in a part of Pennsylvania that has now been paved over and not a cow or a tractor in sight. I grabbed everything I could in Philadelphia concert halls, coffee houses, small clubs and college campuses. (Yes, I was at Woodstock. Saw the Beatles on their first US tour.) But I never got to see Jerry Lee, a huge disappointment. Now I am back out in the country on a low Appalachian mountain, waiting for the local roadhouse to reopen after the pandemic: cause that's where they play Jerry's kind of music!
Jean louis LONNE (portugal)
Sad to hear, he made a hard life for himself, but so many of us are grateful for his music.
joelibacsi (New York NY)
a troubled life but a wonderful performer. i enjoyed and enjoy him so much.
Aaron Adams (Carrollton Illinois)
Music for young people back in the 50s and 60s was happy and fun, not like the depressing stuff kids listen to today. And the performers knew how to play real musical instruments like the piano and Saxophone. Now all they know how to use are the two-note guitars. .
Jenny (Virginia)
@Aaron Adams Right. Do not forget autotune.
No Chaser (New Orleans)
Considering his lifestyle, he lived a lot longer than I thought he ever would, so there's that. He was a wild child at the beginning of his career, and I love him for it, and I'm sad he's gone. Safe journey.
ns (Houston)
I saw him in the early 1980’s at the Cowboy Club in Mexia, Texas. He had recently been very I’ll in the hospital with an ulcer and abdominal abscess. He was supposed to go on at 9, but was to arrive early PM at the airport in nearby Waco and have a press conference, and also meet the local band that was to back him. He did not show at the airport, and it was assumed he would be a no show that night; however, at exactly 9, he walked in the back door of the club with a Miller Lite in hand, sat at the piano, and launched into “Great Balls of Fire”. He played for 2 hours.
Stuart Ewen (New York City)
In 1955 and 1956 I attended two of Alan Freed's "Big Beat" rock and roll shows, one at the Brooklyn Paramount, a second, Christmas special, at the New York Paramount. These shows were the last gasps of vaudeville. One after another performers would appear on stage, do a couple or three songs and then depart for the next act. In between shows, movies were screened. Among the performers I saw and heard were Jerrry Lee Lewis, who was a wild man at the piano, along with Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, "Screamin' Jay" Hawkins, Fats Domino, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Shirelles, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Mickey and Silvia, Richie Valens, Danny and the Juniors, Joann Campbell, and the Drifters. Audiences were interracial and were among the first wave of integration in practice. I can still feel the sway of the audience, throwing our arms up to keep up with the beat. This was real. This was way before rock 'n roll concerts became distant spectacles moved and arenas and focused individual performers and groups, usually introduced by an "opening act." It was also before tickets came at catastrophic prices, and became costly status symbols.
manta666 (new york, ny)
@Stuart Ewen Lucky man!
Mrs. Kennington (Upstate)
What a slice of history to experience … as a old history professor once told me, you have to rely on primary sources for the tuth
Woman Uptown (Away)
@Stuart Ewen That's phenomenal! I don't suppose they recorded it?
Joe S. (California)
He was a rascal, but a great musician. His country stuff is highly underrated. Rest in peace, Jerry Lee -- and thanks for all the great tunes!
Anne (Boston)
@Joe S. "Rascal" is quite a term to use for someone who was violent against women and a prime suspect in the death of his wife.
Patricia/Florida (SWFL)
@Joe S. Thank you for one of the most respectful comments here. I share your thoughts and will always appreciate Jerry Lee Lewis's music and his creativity.
Seattle reader (Seattle)
We had tickets for Jerry Lee in Seattle in 2001, but he couldn't make it. We were disappointed, but guess who filled in? Chuck Berry. It was a great performance.
lance (texas)
He made some good stuff but Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll. Jerry Lee and Elvis had nothing to do with it.
Me (NC)
@lance I hear you. But here's the thing: all good art in collaborative. He made what he made and people liked it. To call him one of the founding fathers of rock n' roll is not incorrect, although it is somewhat patriarchal.
AFSilbergeld (California)
AS Rock and Roll started long before the 50s and has deep roots in the blues and jazz, but it doesn’t matter what anyone’s views are in crediting a single person as “The Originator “. Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the most gifted pianists of his time. He played a bar room style that has rarely been heard in other bands or solo performers, and no one jumped, kicked back the piano bench, and stomped the keys like he did! Farewell!
Hector Bates (Dinwiddie, Va.)
I agree that Chuck Berry’s achievement was unprecedented- the first great songwriter-artist-auteur in Rock and Roll, and that he still represents a pinnacle in the music. But he himself always adamantly said that he was a product of his influences. Everybody gets it from somewhere, and (if they’re good) reconfigures it in their own way.
John Boot (Paris, France)
I was fortunate to be in the audience for a memorable concert in Paris in 2008 with JLL and Chuck Berry (who was already well into his 80s). Little Richard was also supposed to be on the bill, which would have been an incredible event, but he was ailing and was replaced by Linda Gail Lewis. An unforgettable evening. RIP
David (San Francisco)
Wow, what a life he led. After reading this, I feel like I just got rounded into the paddywagon by the cops after they shut down a raucous party.
Rick (Long Island)
Hanging with Little Richard
Mr Tommy (New Orléans)
@Rick Lewis was a racist homophobe, so probably not.
Dav Mar (Farmington, NM)
@Mr Tommy As was 95 percent of the white population at the time.
linda5 (New England)
@Dav Mar not in the entertainment industry.
Frank (Düsseldorf, Germany)
Thanks Killer for your music and RIP. I saw Jerry Lee in 1991 in my hometown l, Duesseldorf, Germany and he only played nearly 50 minutes but it was great. In 1997 I saw him again, together with Chuck Berry and Little Richard and I was very impressed of the 'Three Legends of Rock'n'Roll'. Today the music world lost a legend and the sound in Rock'n'Roll-heaven will be loud, fine and complete after the Last Man Standing (his 2006 album) has left the planet. Rest in peace, Mr. Great Balls of Fire😭
jim (nj)
If Whole Lotta Shaking and Great Balls of Fire were his only legacy, he would still be a titan.
Bob (Portland)
Goodness gracious great balls of fire! Jerry Lee along with Little Richard changed pop music by injecting raw sexuality & unbound energy into it. The devil's music turned us all into "unmanageable delinquents."
Mark Cutler (Cranston, RI)
My band got to open for Jerry Lee in the early 80’s. He was outrageous but he was also gracious. He insisted that we hang out with him in the dressing room with him before he went on. He told crazy stories about marrying his cousin and invited me to his home for a barbecue. Before he went onstage, he said to me, “You know, Mark, I’m going to hell. God bless you Mark.” To hell!! Godspeed Jerry Lee!!
@Mark Cutler That's pretty amazing Mark. Tell more. What music/songs did your band play? How was the BBQ?
Timothy Daley (Massachusetts)
@Mark Cutler long live the schemers!!!! great ocean state rock n roll!!!!
Mark Cutler (Cranston, RI)
@MG unfortunately, we didn’t take him up on the offer. I wish we did!
Jeffrey Todd (USA)
RIP Jerry; you earned it. The last of the 'great' ones to pass on; you inspired and influenced generations of Rock-n-Roll and Country. Thank you.
Jim (Big Bear Lake CA)
On early rock 'n roll, I was playing drums in the '50's and my memory of R&R was 'House of Blue Lights' in 1955. Bill Haley & the Comets' 1956 'Rock around the Clock' made R&R popular - 1956.
Mr Tommy (New Orléans)
@Jim That version of "House", a Tin Pan Alley composition made popular by the Andrews Sisters, was probably the one recorded by jazzman Chuck Miller. Neither the song or any versions of it have much to do with Rock 'n' Roll. The worldwide top-selling artist of 1955? New Orleans' own Antoine "Fats" Domino. Teens, among them my mom and dad, were dancing to the "Race Music" radio stations, buying "Race" 45's and demanding that they be placed in jukeboxes. White musicians including the middle-aged professional musician Bill Haley, saw the future and began playing covers in a White "Bucks" version of R&B. The artist untethered to the paycheck priorities of career musicians like Haley, who rode Fats Domino's success to the top of the charts in 1956? Elvis.
James T. Lee MD (Minnesota)
He made it through approximately six wives and a hemi-gastrectomy for bleeding, so it can be said that he was one tough cookie. Lewis started at the bottom with very meager prospects but worked his way to the top. RIP.
Fortunate to see JLL at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas- 1971? I recall the owner of the club (and piano) Dewey Groom pulling Jerry down off the house piano he was standing on! Hilarious stuff-
Doug Jones (Los Angeles)
Hey Broadway producers! I see a great Broadway show in this amazing life.
Marty (California)
@Doug Jones or a movie !
Ed Callahan (Whitestown IN)
They did one already, and it was pretty good. “Walk the Line” still topped it, though.
Steve Kennedy (Deer Park, Texas)
"Elvis may be the greatest, but I'm the best."
Zeke (NYC)
@Steve Kennedy, Sorry, Jerry, no. Elvis will always be The King of Rock-n-Roll. Jealousy knows no bounds
RG (Massachusetts)
@Zeke Many people feel that way, but it’s unreasonable to believe there isn’t room for debate.
Joe S. (California)
@Zeke Why is it one or the other?
Kimberly (N.C.)
I remember my Granny very "carefully" liking his music hehe. He was naughty, but he was so good. Another great one gone.
Mel Farrell (New York)
I'll bet there's "a whole lot of shaking" going on where Jerry Lee has just met up with all the great who have been waiting for him. What a guy; he lived his life the best he could, gave joy to tens of millions; from my perspective that's just about as perfect as one can get. And I'm quite sure the Great Man Himself personally welcomed him home ... The grace of God; I'm confident we encounter it at some point in our lives.
Zeke (NYC)
@Mel Farrell, by The Great Man, I am sure you are talking about Elvis
LJR (South Bay)
I was 7 and was watching the Steve Allen Show on our DuMont TV in the Bronx when suddenly this whirlwind appeared on the screen. I began loving rock-n-roll that day. Watch that performance on YouTube, and bear in mind when you do that this was 1957...somnambulant until that day for me!
Kari Rhyan (Waimea, HI)
AND you were old enough for him to date.
Scott (Grand Rapids)
He was certainly a great entertainer, but not a great piano player. Loud and fast doesn't equal great, particularly with simple three chord songs.
What (California)
A simple three chord structure does NOT preclude a song or artist from being great.
sjr (il)
His hand strength alone was noteworthy. Barrelhouse is a brutal style to play, let's see you try it.
Bobaloobob (New York)
@Scott Obviously you have never seen a live performance. Simply electrifying!
Tom (Bronx)
I saw Jerry Lee in Houston around 1990. I expected his backup band to do half an hour, then he'd do his hits for half an hour. A local guy loaned Jerry Lee his prized Steinway for the show. BAD IDEA. Jerry Lee did two solid hours and tore the place up. At the end of the night he practically reduced that piano to a pile of wood, wire and ivory.
Ms Suzy (Michigan)
@Tom Lucky guy, wish I coulda been there. I saw Chuck Berry twice at a small club in Michigan about 1969. And it was magical. He did the duck walk.
The Earl Of Tenafly (Jersey)
And so the last of Sun’s “Million Dollar Quarter” leaves us. I’d like to think they’re having quite the reunion right now.
Sixofone (The Village)
Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and now Jerry Lee Lewis. Popular way before my time, yet I eventually discovered their music and that of their peers. It was these four whose music was not only the most important for the rockers to follow, but which I also found the most delightful. IMO, these four were the cream of Rock's first crop. All dead now. Very sad, but all things must pass.
Sinatra’s Kid (NYC)
You’re forgetting Buddy Holly. The first to go was the best.
Sixofone (The Village)
@Sinatra’s Kid No, I didn't forget him. Or Carl Perkins, or Roy Orbison, or Fats Domino, or ... There were several worth listening to, but I named the four who'd make my Pantheon.
Keoki Mahalo (USA)
@Sixofone Please don`t forget Ricky Nelson.
Timid Impala I (Serengeti)
I’ve watched Baz Luhrman’s Elvis about 7 times. Mr. Lewis’s influence was there. It’s amazing that he stood the test of time. Godspeed…
Sharon J (Cleveland, Ohio)
@Timid Impala From what this article said, JLL came to Sun Records after Elvis left. He had a hit record by the same man who wrote two of Elvis' biggest hits.
Nancy (Charlottesville, Virginia)
They didn’t call him “The Killer” for nothing. He was a force to be reckoned with on the rock and roll piano and an unforgettable character in music history. He wrote the playbook for wild rock and roll performances.
BrendanC (NY)
@Nancy He was known as Killer because he shot someone to death as a teen. Seems he made no bones about it.
Irondoor (Montana)
RIP, Jerry Lee. You were one of the great entertainers.
painfully honest (Oakland, CA)
I had a whole lot of fun listening to him as a young man, in the late 80s, early 90s because of his bio movie with Quaid. I was in college and a professor was a mid-century culture aficionado and I wanted to learn about the history of Rock and Roll. JLL soon became one of my favorites. He had a rawness and visceral intensity, both at the piano and his singing, that immediately caught my attention. I'm grateful for his legacy and for the cheerful moments his art gave me. Rest in Peace, Jerry Lee Lewis! I'll be listening to your music again for the next few days and in the future!
Rubber Soul (Delaware)
A great performer and musician whose many songs will live on forever. Rest in Peace...
jjb (St. Louis, MO)
Just a phenomenal talent. Always wanted to hear more.
Jim Fleming (Garret Park, Md.)
As a former musician, now in his early 70s, I’ve seen a lot of performances over the years. Jerry Lee Lewis at the Palomino in LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1979 or so is one of the top five I’ve ever witnessed. I saw a master at work, improvising to glorious effect, sometimes starting a song and then stopping and saying “no, we’re gonna do a different one.” And yet it all worked. His huge talent and personality were transcendent, the essence of rock ‘n’ roll’s disruptive anarchy. Ronnie Wood was there and probably others of his stature. RIP, Killer. You’re one of the pantheon, with Chuck, Little Richard, Fats and the like.
sue (Tucson)
@Jim Fleming I was at that Palomino show! Amazing. I later met him when the company I worked for was putting out the soundtrack for his biopic. I flew to Memphis and hung around the set for a few days. He had the craziest eyes I've ever seen.
literalee (san francisco bay area)
@Jim Fleming Thanks for remembering Fats Domino, the inspiration for all of them.
Bradford (Blue State)
I totally agree about the Fat Man. I saw Fats Domino twice once in London and once at the 99 jazz fest when he was literally moving the grand piano across the stage as he was playing. We lost another Master of the Keys today.
Dan (New York)
Years ago I was chatting with Ian Stewart, the legendary "sixth Stone" and a formidable pianist himself, and we got onto the subject of favorite piano players. I mentioned Jerry Lee and Stu said he didn't care for him "because his singing and entertaining interfered with his piano playing". I said, "That's what makes him great", so we agreed to disagree...
ts (new jersey)
@Dan Boogie with Stu! Too ugly to be a Rolling Stone but a legend in his own right.
Ron L (Princeton NJ)
@Dan And you were both right!
LauraK (NJ)
Fantastic life! His creativity and spirit will never be forgotten RIP.
Joanne Murphy (Chicago IL)
I was waiting tables at the Palomino in North Hollywood in 1982 when Jerry Lee performed there. I had been consigned to the patio because the hostess didn’t care for me. That night he performed was the only decent night of tips I ever saw there. RIP
Bonacker (new york)
@Joanne Murphy You were drawn into the turbulent rockin' orbit of a star that night. Glad the decent tips added to the special evening!
Virginia (Manhattan)
I am so grateful that I rediscovered Jerry about 20 years ago and, partly thanks to guidance from his long-time fan club leader, Kay Martin, managed to see him perform maybe half dozen times, both in the US and in Europe, where he had a delirious following. He was, unpredictably, the last man standing from his cohort. Sorry he and all of them are gone.
Jim Osborne (Los Angeles)
No one invented rock & roll and it has no father of mother. Music evolves and each artist learns from prior musicians and tries to emulate or improve it.
Larry Dickman (Des Moines, IA)
@Jim Osborne You are wrong. Rock 'n' roll literally had a father. Its mother was Etta James.
dan (ny)
Respect. I do not think most folks realize how great a musician, and what a true original, he was. There's an almost Armstrong-like aspect to the way he absorbed and synthesized elements of mid-20th-century American music. Elvis said it real good: "If I could play piano like Jerry Lee, I'd forget all about singing".
@dan Don Imus liked to tell the story about the photo taken at Sun Studios of The Million Dollar Quartet --- Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee, wherein Elvis sat at the piano --- Jerry Lee's instrument. When asked why he sat there and did not allow Jerry Lee to sit there instead, Elvis replied, "Well, anybody can play the piano." The story goes both ways doesn't it? I'm sure Elvis was joking.
Laura (Florida)
@dan Their mutual humility was charming.
Jeffrey (Los Angeles)
RIP Jerry Lee, you will be missed!
Niki (New York)
@Jeffrey ...though probably not by the people he abused. But hey, he sure could play the piano!
Abby (Western Washington)
He might have appeared to be killing the piano, but underneath all the showmanship, he could really play. Sam Phillips at Sun Records was a genius for picking the talent that defined the sound. Loved to listen and rock to those old 45s. Legendary producer and legendary artists.
See also