Jerry Lee Lewis, a legendary singer-songwriter and pianist long known by his nickname “the Killer,” has died. He was 87.
The musical legend died on Friday (October 28), at his home in DeSoto County in Mississippi, south of Memphis, Tennessee. His death was prematurely reported by mistake on Wednesday (October 26), and TMZ quickly updated its report with an apology, in part: “Earlier today we were told by someone claiming to be Lewis' rep that he had passed. That turned out not to be the case. TMZ regrets the error.”
An obituary was shared on Lewis’ official Facebook page on Friday, remembering “perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll…” It notes that, after losing other trailblazing artists over the years — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and more — Lewis wondered near the end of his days: “Who would have thought it would be me?”
The obituary states that Lewis suffered from illnesses and injuries in the final years of his life that “should have taken him decades ago,” according to doctors. Shortly before his death, Lewis’ wife, Judith, said “he is ready to leave. ...He said he was ready to be with Jesus.”
Lewis was born to parents Elmo and Mamie on September 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, growing up on a small-town farm near the Mississippi River. The singer-songwriter first started playing piano at age 8 (beginning with “Silent Night” on his aunt and uncle’s instrument before Elmo scraped together the money for his son to have his own), and grew up with multi-genre musical influences, including church hymns and more. Lewis’ father believed in his son’s talent back then, and mortgaged the family’s home for $300 to buy the future superstar a new piano, which he largely learned to play by ear and wore down the keys, according to information from he Country Music Hall of Fame, where Lewis was inducted with the Class of 2022. Lewis performed in public for the first time at age 13 in 1949, and was inspired largely by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, “boogie-woogie” blues music and more. Lewis used to sneak out to a Black nightclub to listen to the sounds of Black artists like Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, per the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lewis referred to the experience: “…like strolling through heaven.”
Unable to land a recording contract in Nashville in the mid-1950s, Lewis ventured to Memphis where he was determined to meet with Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Phillips’ assistant, Jack Clement, recorded a tape of Lewis’ jaw-dropping piano playing. That put Lewis in the same ranks as other musical legends discovered by Phillips, including Cash, Perkins and Presley — rounding out what’s known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” with Lewis — and more. Phillips once dubbed Lewis “the most talented man I ever worked with, Black or white. One of the most talented human beings to walk on God’s earth.”
Lewis, also known as “the greatest piano player that’s ever lived,” went on to record dozens of iconic songs over the decades, including “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Middle Age Crazy” and “Great Balls of Fire,” to name a few. His songs were a hit with country, R&B and rock and roll fans. Though the Country Music Hall of Fame noted that Lewis’ career stirred some controversy in the 1950s and 1960s when he was married to his underaged first cousin once removed, the legendary artist never stopped pushing his career forward. He moved from Sun Records to Smash Records and went on to pursue rock & roll- and country-influenced music.
Lewis was inducted into the Cleveland, Ohio-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, becoming one of the members of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. The Class of 1986 also included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers and more.
“The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has lost its last inaugural inductee,” the Rock Hall shared in a statement on Friday. “Jerry Lee Lewis sang and played the piano with wild abandon, setting the world on fire with his electrifying performances and rebellious persona. His hits ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ served as a foundation of the sound and spirit of youth culture. Jerry Lee was a genuine pioneer, and his music and rock and roll swagger lives on forever.”
“Raising hell with the devil’s music,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame states of Lewis, noting that he was inducted in the performers category by Hank Williams Jr. “That’s what Jerry Lee Lewis does best. He pounded the piano with such abandon that it’s a wonder it didn’t come apart. He is a defiant, reckless, indefatigable wild man that can rock you into oblivion.”
Lewis always knew his own talent, too, saying at one time: “I’m the greatest live show on earth. I’ve seen them all, and I’ve never seen no cat, however, no way, that could follow me.”
The Killer — whose famous nickname “had nothing to do with his playing, but came from a schoolroom fight in Ferriday when he tried to choke a grown man with his own necktie,” his obituary reads — previously suffered a stroke in February of 2019, and suffered mobility issues in the months that followed. He booked his first recording session in five years and, drawn to the piano, miraculously managed to start to play even though he “thought I would never play again,” he told Rolling Stone at the time.
Lewis shared via his team on social media that he was “too ill with the flu” to attend the Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony on October 16. Lewis was inducted along with late singer-songwriter Keith Whitley and industry executive Joe Galante. Some artists paid tribute to Lewis during the star-studded ceremony, including Lee Ann Womack, The McCrary Sisters and Chris Isaak. Delivered a powerful speech about Lewis and read a letter on his behalf. Kris Kristofferson accepted Lewis’ medallion and traveled to Memphis to deliver it personally. Lewis' wife, Judith, and others also attended the ceremony in the legend's honor.
The Country Music Hall of Fame released a statement from CEO Kyle Young on Friday: “Jerry Lee’s indelible mark as a rock & roller in no way obscures his impact as one of the greatest country singers of all time. He was the ultimate stylist, taking songs to places they could never have gone without his unique voice and soul. Known as ‘The Killer,’ in reality he was a reviver, resurrecting music and emotions. The country records he made with producer Jerry Kennedy will never be replicated or surpassed, and we were honored to recently welcome him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among the greatest of artists, he was, as his friend Kris Kristofferson put it, ‘a table-thumpin’ smash.’”
“It is with heartfelt sadness and disappointment that I write to you today from my sick bed, rather than be able to share my thoughts in person. I tried everything I could to build up the strength to come today - I've looked so forward to it since I found out about it earlier this year,” Lewis said in his note read by Williams, in part. “Thank you all for your support and love and for electing me into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and most of all, thanks to God for allowing me to experience this honor while I am still here.”
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. Lewis is preceded in death by parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis, sons Steve Allen Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., siblings Elmo Lewis Jr. and Frankie Jean Lewis and cousin Mickey Gilley, his obituary states.
Memorial service information will be announced at a later date. Lewis’ family requests, in lieu of flowers, donations in Lewis’ name to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares, the non-profit organization established by the GRAMMYs and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.