Rock and roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis dies at 87

Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo Credit: Sean Gowdy

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis has passed away at the age of 87.

Somewhere in the world, in a mean little honky-tonk or big music hall or church basement rec room, someone is playing a Jerry Lee Lewis song. Lewis, perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, whose marriage of blues, gospel, country, honky-tonk, and raw, pounding stage performances so threatened a young Elvis Presley that it made him cry, has died.

He was there at the beginning, with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the rest, and watched them fade away one by one till it was him alone to bear witness, and sing of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

He suffered through the last years of his life from various illnesses and injuries that, his physicians have often said, should have taken him decades ago; he had abused his body so thoroughly as a young man he was given little chance of lasting through middle age, let alone old age. 

“He is ready to leave,” his wife Judith said, just before his death. Lewis, who performed everything from “Over the Rainbow” to Al Jolson, who played the Opry and the Apollo and even Shakespeare, was 87 years old.

Musicians and music journalists called him a true virtuoso, whose music was so rich and complex that some of them swore there were two pianos on stage instead of one. He played honky-tonk and blues across the same keyboard in the same instant, could play melody with both hands. He sang rockabilly before he knew it had a name, sang blues, gospel and country in the same set and sometimes the same breath, to become No. 24 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

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

He had prayed every day across his long life for forgiveness, and for salvation. His was a church that believed in miracles; why, he sometimes wondered, should he not be one of them? He found peace near the end of his life in a simple idea: that a music that brought such joy to so many could only come from God, “and the devil,” he said, “didn’t have nothin’ to do with it.”

“He said he was ready to be with Jesus,” said Judith.

His last album was a gospel record with his cousin, lifetime televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who had preached against his music when they were younger. In Jerry Lee’s final months, they took turns at the keyboard, singing songs they learned as children: “Old Rugged Cross” and “Lily of the Valley” and “In the Garden.” Lewis, though his voice and body were weakened by his injury and a recent stroke, seemed happy, content.

His career, like his body, seemed doomed a dozen times.

After soaring to the top of the charts in ’57 with songs like “Shakin’” and “High School Confidential,” he was castigated in the press for his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra. His rock’n’ roll star seemed to burn out even as it began to rise, and after a few big hits in the early 1960s his career seemed to be over. He responded by loading two cars with instruments and musicians and hitting the road, to play some big rooms, still, but also every honky-tonk and beer joint that would pay him to perform. He fought his way out of beer joints in Iowa, then drove all night and all day to another town and another show.

Then, in a twist that surprised many of his rock fans, Jerry Lee Lewis went country. “Another Place, Another Time,” was just the beginning of a string of soulful country chart-toppers that made him rich and famous all over again. He had more than 30 songs reach Billboard’s Top 10, including “To Make Love Sweeter for You” and a haunting “Would You Take Another Chance on Me.” It seemed only natural to Jerry Lee. He had always believed that Hank Williams hung the moon.

In this new stardom he finally played the Grand Ole Opry, the organization that had once snubbed him, and ignored the two-song protocol to play what and for long as he pleased, even playing through the commercials. Then, in perhaps the oddest twist of his musical career, he was cast as Shakespeare’s sinister Iago in a musical production in Los Angeles; he was a natural.

Once again, he flew around the world, sometimes on his own plane, and once again his lifestyle made almost as many headlines as his music. Tragedy followed him; he buried two sons. His health began to fail, marriages failed, but somehow he always rallied, always kept playing, for big paydays, or for free in a Memphis nightclub, living the life he sang about in his songs.

In 2006, his Last Man Standing album sold a million copies, the best-selling album of his long career. He followed that with another success, Mean Ol’ Man. You could hear the ghosts of the old honky-tonks in them, as if Jerry Lee Lewis had, truly, found a way to stop time. He did a duet with Springsteen.  

His Lifetime Achievement Grammy was a kind of crowning achievement, and he appeared at Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame shows to accept his due and to school the whippersnappers on how it was done.

In 2012, when he was 76, he fell in love and married Judith, and they lived quietly – quietly for Jerry Lee Lewis – in northern Mississippi, though Lewis continued to do shows here in the U.S. and abroad.  That year they took a trip to Ferriday to visit the family cemetery, and to drive across the bridge to Natchez where, as a boy, Jerry Lee used to dangle over the girders high above the brown water of the Mississippi and the passing boats below. The other boys begged him to get down, but he just hung there, grinning, till they were in tears. When asked if he was scared, a lifetime later, he just looked surprised. The Killer didn’t get scared. But looking down at the river as an old man, he said he might have been crazy.

Jerry Lee Lewis is survived by his wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Jimmy Swaggart and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis, sons Steve Allen Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., his siblings Elmo Lewis Jr. and Frankie Jean Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley.

Services and more information will be announced in the following days. In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requests donations be made in Jerry Lee Lewis’ honor to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares – the non-profit foundation of the GRAMMYs / National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.