Rock 'n' roll star Jerry Lee Lewis dead at 87

Best known for his classic 'Great Balls of Fire', Lewis died of natural causes

Jerry Lee Lewis performing in California in 2005. Reuters
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Jerry Lee Lewis, a kingpin of 1950s American rock and roll who played a pivotal role in shaping the genre's nascent sound, has died. He was 87 years old.

Famous for his flowing blond locks, rowdy piano beats and outrageous stage presence, the star best known for his classic Great Balls of Fire died of natural causes, his publicist told AFP on Friday.

“He is ready to leave,” his publicist quoted the artist's wife Judith as saying.

A friend and rival of Elvis Presley, Lewis's career spanned more than half a century and generated a wealth of wild stories about his numerous wives, drunken rampages and run-ins with the government over back taxes.

It also generated a string of indelible hits.

Born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis took to the ivories at age 9. The following year, his parents Elmo and Mamie mortgaged the family farm to buy him an upright piano.

In 1956, Lewis struck out for Memphis, Tennessee, a southern American city famous for being a cradle of soul, blues and rock.

Lewis, Presley and Johnny Cash got together with Carl Perkins at the studio for the famed Million Dollar Quartet jam session that year, which was later released to great acclaim.

Lewis soared to fame the next year with his breakout hit Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, whose provocative lyrics shocked some radio stations that at first refused to play it.

His follow up, Great Balls of Fire, remains one of the best-selling singles of all time, and was also the name of a 1989 docudrama about Lewis that starred actor Dennis Quaid.

By the summer of 1958, Lewis — nicknamed “The Killer” — was rocketing to the top, with fans packing into shows, money flowing in, and a third hit, Breathless, working its way up the charts.

In an era when rock was still wet behind the ears and even the slightest lower body gyration by Presley caused a sensation, Lewis carried it further, thumping on the keys with hands and feet, at times leaping on top of his grand piano to squeals of delight.

“Who would have thought it would be me?” a statement from his publicist quoted the rocker as saying in his final days.

Confirmation of his death came after an errant TMZ report of his death earlier in the week, which was retracted.

Updated: October 28, 2022, 6:28 PM