December 2, 2022

‘Great Balls of Fire’ Rocker Jerry Lee Lewis Dead at 87

The controversial musician was the first person inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986


Rock n’ roll legend and controversial musician Jerry Lee Lewis has died. He was 87.

Known as The Killer, Lewis died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, on Friday, with his wife, Judith Brown Lewis, by his side. According to a press release confirming his death, he told her in his final days that he was not afraid to die.

“He is ready to leave,” Brown Lewis had said just before his death. “He said he was ready to be with Jesus.”

According to the release, Lewis also reflected on his career near the end of his days and said, “Who would have thought, it would be me?”

Lewis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this month, but he was unable to make the ceremony due to a bout with the flu. Instead, Kris Kristofferson presented him with the award at his bedside.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MAY 17: Jerry Lee Lewis speaks at the Country Music Hall of Fame 2022 inductees presented by CMA at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

“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,” he wrote in a letter to fans. “My sincerest apologies to all of you for missing this fine event, but I hope to see you all soon. To be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame is the highest honor in Country music. Through over 60 years singing music professionally, country has always been the genre where I felt the most at home. Most of all, thanks to God for allowing me to experience this honor while I am still here.”

The rock star suffered a minor stroke in March 2019, but despite his health scare, he was still eager to make music.

“I feel the crowd out on the first song. I want to look into their eyes and see the emotion,” he told PEOPLE in 2017. “Sometimes [it’s] the commotion too! It always works out good either way. I give them what they want. I just love music. I’m a musical person. I live for my music.”

“When I cut sessions, I go home to my little small studio, I put my records on and I play them day in and day out,” added the star. “I listen to my music because it’s soothing and I love it. It’s good … You just can’t beat rock and roll.”

(Original Caption) 8/1957: Portrait of rock-and-roll recording artist Jerry Lee Lewis. He is shown full-length, playing piano.

Raised on country, blues and gospel music, Lewis began his trailblazing career in rockabilly, a rock-country hybrid that put his early singles on both the pop and country charts. Such 1950s hits as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” are now considered among rock’s most iconic songs, and his role in the genre’s birth was rewarded in 1986 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of its first class.

He has since joined a select group — which includes Elvis PresleyRay Charles, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton — to be in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Though credited as one of the original pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis’ life was filled with countless personal tragedies, health woes and scandals. Two of his sons died in freak accidents —3-year-old Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool, while Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. was killed after flipping his Jeep, and two of his wives also died premature deaths.

Over the years, he also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. In 1981, he suffered an adverse reaction to a painkiller that tore a hole in his stomach, nearly killing him.

Portrait of pianist and singer Jerry Lee Lewis leaning on a piano. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A crucial part of his story is his infamous marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. The scandal surrounding their union nearly torpedoed his career in 1958, leading to boycotts of his music, blacklisting at venues and dwindling performance fees. After rock ‘n’ roll turned its back on him, Lewis ultimately found a home in the Nashville music scene.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Lewis’ music mostly made its home on the country chart, reaching No. 1 with “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” and a cover of “Chantilly Lace.” Other hits included signature ballads “Middle Aged Crazy” and “Thirty Nine and Holding.” In all, he placed 28 singles in country’s Top 10, compared with only six singles in pop’s Top 40.

Joe Galante, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lorrie Morgan
Joe Galante, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lorrie Morgan. JASON KEMPIN/GETTY

Lewis is survived by his wife and his four remaining children: Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster.

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