Jerry Lee Lewis, the influential rock n’ roll known pioneer known for hits such as ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, has died. According to The Guardian, the singer, often referred to by his nickname “The Killer,” died of natural causes at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi. He was 87.
Lewis was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana and grew up in a poor farming family who mortgaged their home to buy Lewis his first piano. He started playing at age eight and made his public debut at 14 in a Ford dealership parking lot. His mother enrolled him at Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas with the hope of steering him toward Christian music., but Lewis was kicked out of the school after performing a boogie-woogie version of ‘My God Is Real’.
After traveling to audition for Sun Records, Lewis landed a job as a session musician, playing on records by Sun artists like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins before he began recording as a solo artist. He found success in 1957 with his rendition of Big Maybelle’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and its follow-up, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, an Otis Blackwell cover. He showcased his wild and energetic performance style that same year on The Steve Allen Show, where chairs were thrown at him around the stage.
Having achieved international stardom, Lewis was embroiled in scandal during a 1956 tour of England, when a journalist discovered he had married Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin once removed and the daughter of his bass player. Lewis told reporters that she was 15, though it soon became known that she was in fact 13. Though his career would never reach those same heights, it wasn’t over. His Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg album was released in 1964 and found critical acclaim.
In the late ’60s, Lewis transitioned to country and gospel music. ‘Another Place Another Time’ was the first of a string of country hits, and by the early 1970s, he returned to the pop charts with songs like ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ and ‘Chantilly Lace’. He played the Grand Ole Opry for the first and only time in 1973.
In 1989, Lewis’ life was chronicled in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire!, starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder. He continued performing and releasing music through the end of his life. His 2006 album Last Man Standing became his bestselling release included guest performances from Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Keith Richards, and Kid Rock. His final LP was 2014’s Rock and Roll Time. Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, a documentary about Lewis’ life directed by Ethan Coen, premiered at Cannes earlier this year.
“I was always worried whether I was going to heaven,” Lewis said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian. “I still am. I worry about it before I go to bed; it’s a very serious situation. I mean you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?”