Jerry Lee Lewis Dies: ‘Great Balls of Fire’ Singer Was 87
Rock music pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis has died at the age of 87. The “Great Balls of Fire” singer’s death was misreported by some news outlets on Wednesday, October 26. Lewis’ representative, Zach Farnum, confirmed his death on Friday, October 28. A cause of death has not been shared.
“Judith, his seventh wife, was by his side when he passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis,” Farnum said in a statement. “He told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid.”
Born in East Louisiana on September 19, 1935, Lewis taught himself how to play piano when he was 8 years old. He moved to Memphis in 1956 to audition for the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. Phillips was the first person to record Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. After recording his debut single, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” Lewis became a session musician for Sun Records. He played piano in the Phillips-recorded Million Dollar Quartet sessions with Presley, Cash, and Perkins.
Known as “The Killer” for his fiery performance presence, the singer-pianist is regarded as one of the most influential pianists of the rock and roll era. He was an inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, his decades-long career often defying being placed into just one category. He was given the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2022.
Two of his biggest hits, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” have both been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone listed him as No. 24 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of all time.
Through his music, the performer helped establish piano as a starring instrument in rock and roll instead of just guitar. Lewis’ rockabilly version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” was the first song played on the national edition of American Bandstand on August 5, 1957. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 3 on pop, and then his “Great Balls of Fire” follow-up topped at No. 2 on the pop chart.
His rising career took a massive hit in 1958 when reporters discovered that Myra Lewis Williams (née Gale Brown), his 13-year-old cousin once removed who was with him on tour, was also his wife. He was still married to his second wife, Jane Mitcham, when he married Brown. He finalized the divorce with Mitcham, and then remarried Brown in 1958. They remained married until 1970. The scandal ruined his rock and roll career, but he later found success in country music. Lewis’ seventh wife, Judith Lewis (née Brown), is the ex-wife of his first cousin once removed, Rusty Brown (Myra Brown’s brother).
Lewis’ early career was documented in the TV series Sun Records, with Pistol‘s Christian Lees playing the pianist. Dennis Quaid played the musician in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire!. The marriage to his cousin was a main plot point in the film. Lewis himself appeared on an episode of Police Story in 1973.