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How Jerry Lee Lewis’s career survived scandal of marrying 13-year-old cousin

Lewis was all about lust and gratification, with his leering tenor and demanding asides, violent tempos and brash glissandi, cocky sneer and crazy blond hair.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1968. Photo: PA/PA Wire© PA

Jerry Lee Lewis acknowledging the applause of fans at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1975. Photo: AP Photo/Rene Perez© AP

Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old bride Myra© PA

Singer Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958. Photo: AP Photo/Leonard "Buster" Brown, File© AP

Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (left) as they attend a reception in New York in January 1986. Photo: AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett, File© AP

Hillel ItalieAP

Jerry Lee Lewis – the untameable rock ’n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on such definitive records as Great Balls of Fireand Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On– has died aged 87.

With a career that survived the scandal of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, he was the last survivor of a generation of performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

He died at his Mississippi home, representative Zach Farnum said. The news came two days after the publication of an erroneous TMZ report of his death, later retracted.

Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the new genre’s attraction and danger as unforgettably as the Louisiana-born piano player who called himself “The Killer”.

Tender ballads were best left to the old folks. Lewis was all about lust and gratification, with his leering tenor and demanding asides, violent tempos and brash glissandi, cocky sneer and crazy blond hair.

He was a one-man stampede who made the fans scream and the keyboards swear, his live act so combustible that during a 1957 performance of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ Onon The Steve Allen Show, chairs were thrown at him like buckets of water on an inferno.

“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ’n’ roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” a Lewis admirer once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.

But in his private life, he raged in ways that might have ended his career today – and nearly did back then.

For a brief time, in 1958, he was a contender to replace Presley as rock’s prime hit-maker after Elvis was drafted into the US Army. But while Lewis toured in England, the press learned three damaging things: At the age of 22 he married 13-year-old (possibly even 12-year-old) Myra Gale Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his previous wife.

His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from the radio and his earnings dropped overnight to virtually nothing.

“I probably would have rearranged my life a little bit different, but I never did hide anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journalin 2014 when asked about the marriage. “I just went on with my life as usual.”

Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes and physical illness.

Two of his many marriages ended in his wive’s early deaths.

Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old bride Myra© PA

Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s and would later allege physical and mental cruelty that nearly drove her to suicide.

Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry eventually forgave him, long after he stopped having hits.

He won three Grammys, and recorded with some of the industry’s greatest stars. In 2006, Lewis came out with Last Man Standing, featuring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones.

In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, first published in 1975, he recalled how he convinced DJs to give him a second chance.

“This time I said, ‘Look, man, let’s get together and draw a line on this stuff – a peace treaty you know,’” he said.

Lewis would still play the old hits on stage, but on the radio he would sing country.

Lewis had a run of top 10 country hits between 1967-70, and hardly mellowed at all.

He performed drinking songs such as What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me), the roving eye confessions of She Still Comes Aroundand a dry-eyed cover of a classic ballad of abandonment, She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.

Jerry Lee Lewis acknowledging the applause of fans at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1975. Photo: AP Photo/Rene Perez© AP

He had remained popular in Europe and a 1964 album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, is widely regarded as one of the greatest concert records.

A 1973 performance proved more troublesome: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules – no swearing and no non-country songs.

“I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherf*****,” he told the audience.

Lewis married seven times, and was rarely far from trouble or death.

His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while suing for divorce.

His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis had married Kerrie McCarver, then 21.

She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity.

They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (left) as they attend a reception in New York in January 1986. Photo: AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett, File© AP

Another son by a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis (3) drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and son Jerry Lee Jr died in a traffic accident at 19 in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and is survived by his wife Judith.

His finances were also chaotic. Lewis made millions, but he liked his money in cash and ended up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service.

When he began welcoming tourists in 1994 to his long-time residence near Nesbit, Mississippi, he set up a phone number fans could call for a recorded message at $2.75 a minute.

The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and the cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana.

Singer Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958. Photo: AP Photo/Leonard "Buster" Brown, File© AP

As a boy, he first learned to play guitar, but found the instrument too confining and longed for an instrument that only the rich people in his town could afford – a piano.

His life changed when his father pulled up in his truck one day and presented him a dark-wood, upright piano.

He took to the piano immediately, and began sneaking off to juke joints attended by black people and absorbing everything from gospel to boogie-woogie.

Conflicted early on between secular and sacred music, he quit school at 16, with plans of becoming a piano-playing preacher.

Lewis briefly attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible college, but was expelled, reportedly, for playing the “wrong” kind of music.

Great Balls of Fire, a sexualised take on biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and Whole Lotta Shakin’were his most enduring songs and performance pieces. Lewis had only a handful of other pop hits, including High School Confidentialand Breathless, but they were enough to ensure his place as a rock ’n’ roll architect.

“No group, be it (the) Beatles, Dylan or Stones, have ever improved on Whole Lotta Shakin’for my money,” John Lennon said in 1970.

A classmate at Bible school, Pearry Green, remembered meeting Lewis years later and asking if he was still playing the devil’s music.

“Yes, I am,” Lewis answered. “But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.”


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