Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis dies, aged 87

Jerry Lee Lewis
(Image credit: Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Controversial rock ‘n’ roll star Jerry Lee Lewis has died at the age of 87, his publicist has confirmed.

Lewis will be remembered for his iconic hits, piano-playing showmanship and turbulent private life. In 1958, his UK tour was aborted when it was revealed that he’d married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown, and further scandals - including an arrest outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland home in 1976 when he drove to the property with a loaded gun in his car - followed. 

Lewis was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana. He started playing the piano at the age of nine when he was exposed to gospel and church music. 

In 1956, Lewis signed to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and he soon became a huge star. His first hit, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, came in 1957, and this was followed by Great Balls Of Fire, a song that has gone down as one of the most iconic in rock ‘n’ roll history.

He was also part of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet - a chance, one-off collaboration between Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins that occurred when they all happened to be at Sun Records’ Memphis studio together. 

Nicknamed ‘The Killer’, the young Jerry Lee was a pianistic force to be reckoned with, and his influence is still felt by many musicians today. Aside from his undeniable, natural ability, Lewis was famous for enhancing his performances by hammering the keys and sending piano benches flying, even setting fire to his piano on one occasion. 

He followed up his rock ’n’ roll period to become a country recording artist in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Lewis is survived by his seventh wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, and four of his six children.

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.