There was quite the kerfluffle earlier in the week when TMZ was tipped off that rock’n’roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis had died at the age of 87. He wasn’t–but he was close. Maybe he rallied for a bit.
Whatever the case, it’s now official: The Killer is gone for real this time. Before this week, we’d heard untrue stories of his death several times over the years going back at least 20 years. This time, though, he’d been in rough shape for a while due to a stroke in 2019 and lately a battle with the flu.
A statement issued by his rep says “Judith, his seventh wife, was by his side when he passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis. He told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid.”
Yes, his seventh wife. He was married for the first time in 1952 when he was just 14 to 17-year-old Dorothy Barton, the daughter of a preacher. He divorced her a year later so he could marry Jane Metcham. That union lasted through a couple of children (one of whom acted as the drummer in Lewis’ band before he died in a car accident in 1973) before there was another divorce (maybe; there was some dispute if it was carried out properly making Lewis a bigamist) and Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gail Brown, the daughter of his bass player, J.W. Brown.
(She and Lewis shared a great-grandmother. This wasn’t unusual; there had been marriages within the family for generations. He actually picked her up at school and drove them to someone in next-door Mississippi who would marry them and then dropped her off back at home as soon as the wedding was over. There were another two children, including Steve Allen Lewis, who drowned in the family swimming pool when he was just three. Myra would later say that during the 13 years they were today, they spent maybe 14 nights together.
The bad press (ya think?) from his third marriage sunk his career for years. He wrote this in Billboard: “I have in recent weeks been the center of a fantastic amount of publicity, of which none has been good….I hope that if I am washed up as an entertainer it won’t be because of this bad publicity.”
Blacklisted by radio, canceled by Dick Clark on American Bandstand, and shunned by promoters, Lewis’ career hit the skids. He went from making $10,000 a night to maybe $250 in some pretty seedy places.
Wife number four was on her way to being divorced when she drowned in a friend’s swimming pool. In 1983, The Killer married again but Shawn Stephens died of a methadone overdose three months later. (There’s a theory that Lewis actually killed her after pressuring her to have a three-way with her sister.)
He managed to woo Kerrie McCarver, who lasted as wife number six. She had to care for him through a ton of health issues (an infection from injecting speed, a ruptured stomach) for three years before separating. They remained married for another 17 years before there was a divorce.
Judith Brown, his caregiver, brought in by his daughter Phoebe, married Lewis in 2012. Vice describes her as “his former sister-in-law, who was also something like a second-cousin-in-law, his ex-wife’s former sister-in-law, and his ex-brother-in-law’s ex-wife. (Got that?) She was with him to the end.
There are stories that he was a terrible husband who beat all his wives. It’s been suggested that he was a high-functioning sociopath. He once rammed his car into the gates of Graceland demanding to see Elvis. He also once shot his bass player in the chest. Lewis also ingested a lot of drugs and alcohol.
Four children remain: Sons Ronnie (a son he once refused to acknowledge as his), Jerry Lee Lewis III, and daughters Phoebe and Lori Leigh (whom he also refused to acknowledge as his). Lewis was also related to disgraced preacher Jimmy Swaggert (a cousin) and country star Mickey Gilley (another cousin).
The Killer was lost in the wilderness for many years after that third marriage but saw his public image slowly rehabilitated. He was an original inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was the subject of a 1989 biopic starring Dennis Quaid.
Lewis was one of rock’s great early showmen, playing the piano standing up (after kicking away the bench), and sometimes lighting the thing on fire. He also had long curls that fell into his face as he played which forced him to continuously shake his head. Historians of headbanging cite this as one of the first examples of this sort of thing. No, really.
Jerry Lee Lewis ranks up their with all the early greats: Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino. Of that number, he was the last to go.