Fast-living rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis died Friday at his DeSoto County, Miss., home, according to his publicist.
The 87-year-old had been reported dead earlier this week, prompting a caustic tweet from publicist Zach Farnum. “Jerry Lee Lewis is alive,” Farnum said in a Wednesday Twitter post. “TMZ reported erroneously off of an anonymous tip.” Other media outlets broadcast the message before the Farnum correction appeared.
No cause was given in the announcement by Lewis’ publicist but the musician had reportedly been in poor health for some time.
Lewis replaced Elvis Presley for Sun Records at age 21 in 1956, just in time for the release of his premier 1957 release of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The song sold six million copies for the label, making it one of early rock’s biggest hits, according to a New York Times report.
Later that year, Lewis struck gold again when Sun released “Great Balls of Fire,” a high-octane song that rocketed to number two in the American charts, with five million copies sold.
He was as flamboyant as his music as he writhed and made wolf calls and his act came to include kicking his stool away and having his right foot slide across his piano’s keys.
Lewis seemed on a glide path to the same sort of celebrity and fame enjoyed by musicians like Elvis or The Beatles. His flight to fame was shot down by reporters covering his 1958 European tour to promote his third hit, “Breathless.”
Reporters learned that 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, who travelled with Lewis, was his wife. The final straw came when it was discovered the singer was still married to his second wife when he married Brown, according to the Times report.
Sun Records hesitated to promote him because many radio stations refused to play his music after the scandal broke. Lewis took advice that convinced him to switch to country music, which gave him a path back to stardom and success.
He recorded nearly two dozen Top 10 country singles and nearly as many Top 10 country albums through the late 60s. Lewis even hit the charts a few times in the 70s with covers of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Chantilly Lace.”
The musician’s life of heavy drinking and drug use eventually took a toll on his health. He also encountered legal trouble and had a brush with the Internal Revenue Service.
Lewis was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2022, the Country Music Hall of Fame followed suit and added him to its roll of famous artists.
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