Jerry Lee Lewis has died, The Associated Press reports. A cause of death has not been revealed, but, in recent years, Lewis dealt with various illnesses, such as acute bronchitis, which forced him to miss a birthday celebration in 2016. The controversial rock’n’roll pioneer, often referred to by his nickname “The Killer,” was 87 years old. Lewis’ death was erroneously reported by TMZ earlier this week.
Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. From an early age, he played music with his cousins. He studied blues musicians at the local honky-tonk. He enrolled briefly at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahatchie, Texas, but was kicked out for playing wild piano renditions of hymns. He eventually got a job in 1956 as a session musician at Sun Records in Memphis. One day, Lewis found himself in a session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins—they were famously dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Sam Phillips let Lewis record in his spare time, and, while he didn’t find success with some of his first records, he found hits with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” His star turn came in 1957 on The Steve Allen Show, where his reputation as a piano-attacking rockabilly wild man was on full display. In 1958, he famously set a piano on fire when he was told that he would open for Chuck Berry (and not the other way around).
He became an international star, and when he arrived in London for a 1958 tour, he stepped off the plane accompanied by his new wife, Myra Gale Brown, who was 13 years old and Lewis’ third cousin. Lewis, who was 22 years old, told the press that Brown was 15, but reporters discovered her real age, and the news of Lewis’ underage wife hit newspapers all over the world. The media, audiences, and industry rapidly turned on the rock star over the incident. Concerts were canceled and his songs appeared on the radio far less often. This period of his life was chronicled in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder.
Nevertheless, his career didn’t end there. He appeared in the film High School Confidential in 1959, performing the title track on the back of a moving flatbed truck. His 1964 album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg was critically acclaimed. He pursued a career as a country and gospel musician in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually playing the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1973.
He released music regularly throughout his career and earned his biggest hit album with 2006’s Last Man Standing, which featured Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, and others. His last album was 2014’s Rock and Roll Time.
Lewis found himself embroiled in legal trouble and controversy throughout his life. He was candid about his misuse of drugs and alcohol. In 1976, he accidentally shot his bass player Butch Owens in the chest, but Owens survived the attack. That same year, he was arrested after crashing into the gates of Graceland, waving a gun at Presley’s security guard, and throwing a champagne bottle through a closed car window. The deaths of two of his former wives, Jaren Gunn Lewis (who drowned in a swimming pool in 1982) and Shawn Michelle Stephens Lewis (who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1984), were the subject of a Rolling Stone investigative report.
Like many of his peers, Lewis was a Christian who was frequently criticized at the height of his popularity for playing “the devil’s music.” His most famous song was about hellfire, but he also recorded gospel music. “I was always worried whether I was going to heaven or hell,” he said in a 2015 interview. “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?”