Jerry Lee Lewis, Legendary Entertainer, Musician And Country Music Hall Of Fame Member, Passes Away At 87


Jerry Lee Lewis, a dynamic entertainer known for his flamboyant style and energetic stage presence as both a singer and pianist, has passed away. He was 87.

When 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis arrived at Memphis, TN’s Sun Records, he was introduced to owner Sam Phillips as a man who could play the piano the way Chet Atkins played guitar. That description may have piqued Phillips’ curiosity, but, truth was, Lewis didn’t sound a thing like Atkins, and he played the piano like nothing anybody had ever heard before.

Lewis’ ferocious, key-pounding style derived from a combustible mix of cultural sources — the Assembly of God holiness church of Ferriday, LA; Haney’s Big House, a chitlin’ circuit nightclub on the other side of town where Lewis witnessed a young B.B. King and all manner of other blues and R&B acts; the Jimmie Rodgers records embedded deep within his formative memories; the Al Jolson 78s played before Gene Autry matinees at the local movie house; and Hank Williams’ mournful wail carried across the air via “The Louisiana Hayride.” Those things all came together in Lewis and came out through his fingers with the speed of lightning and the force of thunder.

He is, as music historian Colin Escott has noted, “a rock ‘n’ roller who could never quite get the Country out of his soul, and a Country singer who could never forget rock ‘n’ roll.”

The first record Sun released on Lewis was a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” cut while the original was still on the charts. The first hit, though, came with a song originally recorded by R&B singer Big Maybelle but that Lewis had learned via a Natchez, MS, DJ named Johnny Littlejohn. “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” simultaneously spent two weeks in 1957 atop Billboard’s Country and R&B best-sellers charts, peaking at No. 3 on the Top 100. The following year saw follow-up “Great Balls of Fire” top the Country chart for another two weeks.

Controversy derailed Lewis’ early success, but not before Lewis hit the Country Top 10 three more times with “You Win Again,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential,” each of which peaked higher on the Country charts than they did on the pop side.

In the 1960s, Lewis left Sun for Smash Records. Where Sun had emphasized Lewis’ abilities as a boogie-woogie rock-and-roll piano man, Smash producers Jerry Kennedy and Eddie Kilroy decided to focus on his Country side. They returned him to the radio with songs like “Another Place Another Time” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).” That may have seemed like a radical idea given Lewis’ wild-man reputation, but it also fit the moment. Within months of Lewis having his first chart-topping Country hit in 11 years — “To Make Love Sweeter for You” in 1969 — Johnny Cash, Sonny James and Conway Twitty, all singers who’d hit it big during the dawn of rock and roll, topped the Country charts, as well.

The Country hits continued into the 1970s as Lewis moved to Smash’s parent label, Mercury Records, and later the Nashville division Elektra Records. He reached No. 1 with “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” and a cover of the Big Bopper’s 1950s rock and roll classic, “Chantilly Lace.” He hit the Top 5 with a pair of signature ballads, the 1977 waltz “Middle Aged Crazy” and the 1981 honky-tonker “Thirty Nine and Holding.”

In all, he placed 28 Top 10 Billboard Country singles across four decades, a greater number of hits over a longer period of time than what appeared on the pop charts, where only a half-dozen sides made the Top 40.

Lewis continued to record as his acolytes took him into the studio and as subsequent generations discovered his music, even recording a 2011 live album at Jack White’s Third Man Records. His name appeared in Country hits by George Jones (“Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”), John Michael Montgomery (“I Love the Way You Love Me”), Tim McGraw (“Southern Voice”) and the Statler Brothers (“How to Be a Country Star”) — though, of course, nobody dropped his name more in their songs than he did himself.

“Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” is now part of the National Recording Registry. That and “Great Balls of Fire” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. While those two records are, by far, his most famous, those who know his catalog more deeply understand that he had full mastery of a century’s worth of popular music, from 19th-century minstrel tunes to the songs of Tin Pan Alley standards to classic rock.

In 2022, Lewis joined Sun Records compatriots Cash, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Phillips and Elvis Presley in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also was the fourth member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s founding 1986 class of inductees to also gain membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Presley (1998), the Everly Brothers (2001) and Ray Charles (2021).

While Lewis joined a select group, he also remained uniquely individual in that company. “My style of Country Music is just me,” Lewis told the Associated Press in 2017. “I wouldn’t know how to do anyone else’s.” Lewis’ passing came just days after he was formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Jerry Lee Lewis coming off stage at “The 15th Annual CMA Awards” on Oct. 12, 1981, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network.
Credit: R Hood/CMA
Jerry Lee Lewis performs during the Walter Miller production, “25 Years of Jerry Lee Lewis” in 1982
Jerry Lee Lewis at the 2022 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee Announce on May 17, 2022 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Credit: Maurice Seymour