In Blog, Remembrance

There’s a whole lot less shakin’ goin’ on these days. Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis—whose pounding piano, impassioned vocals and raw, uninhibited performing style captured the rebellious essence of the new genre—died on October 28, 2022 at age 87.

Nicknamed “the Killer,” Lewis’ story was the stuff of legend. In 1957, when Sun Records of Memphis released “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” the bootlegger’s son became an international star. He was a rock ’n’ roll wildman who embodied everybody’s nightmares about crazy rednecks.

But almost immediately, the news of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin—it was his third matrimony and second bigamy—torpedoed his career. Left to eke out an existence playing bars and honky-tonks, he became a star for the second time—in country music. Yet again and again, there were sprees of drunkenness, assaults, divorce, scandal and addiction.

He was still, as he put it, “hanging in like Gunga Din.” In the ’80s, Lewis became a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. By the ’90s, he had overcome his obstacles and continued to be a hard-rockin’ concert attraction. He drew a worshiping crowd of all ages at the Grizzly Rose in Denver on a nippy December weeknight in 1997, and for fans of rock ’n’ roll, there was no more heartwarming sight than that of the 62-year-old man romping over his piano.

He was still a singer and player of great stylistic range. He boogie-woogied with intensity, tackled doleful country ballads and plowed through blues shuffles. In the one-hour set, Lewis stormed through his hits and other favorites (“Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Johnny B. Goode”).

His tight band included guitarist James Burton, who used to enliven the work of everyone from Rick Nelson to Elvis Presley. Even Lewis’ critics would have been swayed by his endurance and vitality. He claimed to be off the pills and alcohol.

He no longer slammed himself all over the stage, playing the keys with his heels and dancing on his piano. He wore a cable-knit sweater and blue polyester slacks.

But he was still a little crazy. He showed up just five minutes before the gig. At its end, he kicked over the piano stool, hitched up his pants and swaggered off the stage.

Someone gave Lewis an 86-proof shout: “Keep on playing, Jerry Lee!”

“Okay, killer,” he said with a smile.

“I love my music and I love my fans—they’re my life,” he said moments later. “I’m working a lot, three nights a week.” He gave a little frown. “I can’t do more than that anymore.”