Jerry Lee Lewis, rock & roll pioneer and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ singer, dies at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-playing music legend who helped create both rock & roll and the notion of the larger-than-life rock star, died on Oct. 28, just days after his death was erroneously reported. He was 87.

Lee’s publicist Zach Farnum confirmed the news of his death in a release on Friday, sharing that Judith Coghlan Lewis, the singer’s seventh wife, was by her husband’s side when he died at his home in Desoto County, Miss.

Born in Ferriday, La., Lewis was the cousin of preacher Jimmy Swaggart and as a young man enrolled at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Tex. He was ultimately expelled for playing a boogie-woogie version of the hymn “My God Is Real.”

In 1956, Lewis started recording for the Sun Records label and jammed with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins in what became known as the Million Dollar Quartet session. (A Broadway musical recounting the legendary session, aptly titled Million Dollar Quartet, opened in 2010 and earned Levi Kreis, who portrayed Lewis, a Tony Award.) Lewis was the last surviving member of the legendary quartet.

The following year, Lewis scored hits with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Those seminal rock & roll tracks made Lewis a massive star, and their explosive energy proved hugely influential on subsequent generations of musicians.

In 1958, however, Lewis married Myra Gale Brown, who was his cousin and just 13 years old. The ensuing scandal deeply damaged his popularity. (Brown would file for divorce in 1970, citing extreme physical and mental abuse.) Lewis’ career only recovered in the late ’60s, when he began to release a string of successful country singles.


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