Jerry Lee Lewisa man described as a pioneer of rock and roll and dubbed the genre’s “First Great Wild Man,” has died at the age of 87, according to Rolling Stone. His publicist confirmed his death days after TMZ had falsely reported Lewis’s passing (TMZ later retracted the report, stating that he was alive in Memphis.) Jerry’s passing was announced on Oct. 28, but no cause of death was shared at the time. He died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, with his seventh wife, Judith Coghlanby his side, according to Rolling Stone.
With a career that spanned more than 60 years, the man behind such hits as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless” was considered a music icon. Fans knew that Jerry’s life – one full of triumphs and controversies – was coming to an end after the singer’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis, posted a plea for prayers on Oct. 25 “Please pray for my dear brother, he’s going thru a hard time and needs our prayers and wrote positive thoughts right now,” she via Facebook, alongside a row of heart emojis. “Thank you so much.”
Jerry was due to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday, Oct. 23, but instead wrote from his “sick bed” that he regretted being unable to appear in person. “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,” he wrote in part. “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. 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.”
Prior to his death, Lewis suffered a minor stroke on Feb. 28, according to an announcement made to his official Facebook page. “He is with his family, recuperating in Memphis, and the doctors expect a full recovery. The Killer looks forward to getting back into the studio soon to record a Gospel record and on the road performing live for his fans.” After three weeks in the hospital, he was moved to a rehabilitation facility to further his treatment, according to Rolling Stone. The prognosis at the time was good, as doctors expected him to “fully recover” from this incident.
Born in 1935 to a poor farming family in eastern Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis began playing piano as a youth. His father mortgaged the family farm to buy Jerry a PA Starck piano, one he still had as of 2014, according to Rolling Stone. In 1956, Lewis’s father drove him to Memphis’s Run Records to demand a session with Sam Phillips. A year later, music history was made with the massive hit “Whole Lotta Shakin Going’ On,” which reached the Top Five on the pop, R&B, and country charts. He was considered a member of Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet, which included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.
“I had created rock & roll before they ever thought about having rock & roll,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “When Elvis came out, he was rockabilly. When I come out with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ that was rock & roll. That’s when the name ‘rock & roll’ was put in front.” The following hits – “Great Balls of Fire,” “You Win Again,” and “Breathless” – all cracked the Top 10, but his career derailed during a London 1958 trip. It was then that the press learned the then-22 Jerry Lee was married for the third time, that his wife – Myra Gale Brown – was 13 years old (after he said she was 15), that he had forgotten to divorce his second wife, and that Myra was actually his cousin.
After being shunned by the public over this marriage, he found success in the late 1960s in the country music genre. He had 30 songs reach the top 10 on the Billboard Country and Western Chart, including “To Make Love Sweeter For you,” “Would You Take Another Chance On Me,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” He continued to tour and record until his death, with his Feb. 2019 announcement saying he was planning a gospel record. In recognition of his contributions to the genre, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Jerry Lee Lewis’s personal life was marred with tragedy and claims. In 1962, his three-year-old son Steve Allen drowned in a swimming pool. His eldest son, 19-year-old Jerry Lee Jr., died in a car accident in 1973, according to The Guardian. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, drowned in a pool in 1982 after their divorce was finalized. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, was found dead from an overdose after 77 days of marriage. There were claims and speculation (most notably from a 1984 Rolling Stone article) that she was murdered, but The Guardian reports a grand jury cleared Lewis of any crime.
Jerry Lee Lewis was married seven times. His seventh wife, Judith, was previously married to the brother of Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown (the controversial dispute lasted 13 years, as Jerry Lee and Myra divorced in 1970.) Overall, he had six children and
I said, ‘Elvis, I’m going to ask you one thing before we part company here. If you die, do you think you’d go to heaven or hell?’ “Jerry recounted to The Guardian about the informative story. And he got real red in the face, and then he got real white in the face, and he said, ‘Jerry Lee, don’t you ever say that to me agin.’ I said, ‘Well, I won’t even say it to you again.’… I was always worried whether I was going to heaven or hell. I still am. I worry about it before I go to bed; it’s a very serious situation. I mean you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?”