Jerry Lee Lewis, Rock’s Original Wild Man, Dead at 87

Time finally caught up to The Killer.

Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the few remaining icons from the rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest era and perhaps the least likely to have survived this long, died Friday. He was 87.

Lewis was one of the first artists on Sun Records and from his rural Mississippi roots, he brought a searing style of piano-playing and a stage presence so commanding and so unhinged it once made Elvis Presley cry in fear he’d never be able to match it.

If rock is the hyper-caffeinated amalgam of blues, country and gospel, there was nobody better to be present at its birth than Lewis, who himself was a wild child from the start — he got his nickname because as a kid he once tried to choke a grown man with a necktie. But he was also a product of a Pentecostal upbringing, steeped in the hymns — and the doctrine — of the Assembly of God.

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician Jerry Lee Lewis performs onstage at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on November 17, 2018 in Cerritos, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Like early rock, he truly was equal parts Saturday night and Sunday morning, famously telling Johnny Cash (and the then-June Carter) that he was certain they were all going to hell for the music they played. Lewis being Lewis, he nevertheless assured the future Mrs. Cash she was too pretty for damnation.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. A biographer once asked Lewis “Is it true that…” and Lewis cut him off.

“It probably was.”

What is true is that nearly 70 years of thumping, stripped-down rock songs owe debts to the energy of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

And it’s true that Lewis was no angel. You can’t have the songs without the man coming with them.

When Presley was drafted in 1957, he told Lewis “You can have it.” “It” being the crown as rock’s king. And it would have been Lewis’ too, but it wasn’t Uncle Sam who cost him the title. It was his love for his first cousin once removed Myra, then 13 years old.

Lewis married her surreptitiously in late 1957 (and had to go through it again in early 1958, as he was still legally married to his second wife at the time of the first ceremony) but it remained more or less a secret until he arrived at Heathrow Airport for his UK tour. With Lewis outed as a bigamist who married his cousin who was nearly a decade younger than him, the tour was canceled and his career was — it seemed — in shambles at best and over at worst.

Through the early 60s, Lewis was essentially a non-factor. Elvis was back, the British invaded. He recorded “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” in 1964 with the Nashville Teens (who were from Weybridge, which is in Surrey, not Nashville) and it’s regarded still as one of the great live albums of all-time. And how could it not be? The Killer’s verve is so pervasive, it’s apparent even on vinyl. The record is so primal, so primitive, that a Rolling Stone critic said the recording is “a crime scene” with the viciousness with which Lewis slaughtered the songs (the good kind of slaughter).

In the late 60s, Lewis went country. The man whose sound and antics and contradictions and controversy basically made him a mythologizer’s personification of rock went to the other side of the dial with a cover of the Del Reeves crooner “Another Place, Another Time.” He hit No. 4 on the charts and The Killer was back.

He became a fixture on the country chart, topping it four times and finally playing the Grand Ole Opry, which had once eschewed him. That staid institution’s famous two-song rule meant nothing to Lewis, who played and played. Played over his time, played through the commercials, played when they came back from break.

Myra divorced him in 1970, citing adultery and abuse, saying she’d been “subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable.” Lewis married again in 1971 to Jaren Pate, who drowned in a swimming pool in 1982, weeks before a divorce was to be final. He had a 77-day marriage in the summer of 1983, which ended with the death of his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens. His sixth marriage, to Kerrie McCarver, lasted 21 years. He married his seventh and final wife, Judith Lewis (who was, in fact, the ex-wife of Myra’s brother) in 2012.

Judith was by his side when he died; she said her husband was “ready to be with Jesus.”

The man who was once regularly visited by the DEA, who (accidentally) shot his bassist in the chest with a .357, who swung his mic stand at jeering concertgoers, who set his piano on fire, always struggled with what his music meant, where it came from. He insisted through most of his life it was the Devil’s music — a notion echoed by his cousin, evangelist Jimmy Swaggert. The man out-partied Keith Richards and crashed his Rolls Royce through Graceland’s gates, for God’s sake. Maybe it was the Devil, after all.

Judith said at the end of his life, Lewis had finally come to terms with the music he played. It brought such happiness to people that it had to come from God, he decided, and, finally, finally, he was able to say the Devil had nothing to do with it.

Naturally, maybe, his last record was a collection of gospel standards recorded with Swaggert, the two elderly cousins taking turns on the piano, the way they’d learned them as kids in Mississippi decades before.

Lewis was an inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame Oct. 16.

Services will be announced soon. In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requests donations to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares.