Jerry Lee Lewis Was an SOB Right to the End

The talented hell-raiser of early rock and roll died at 87.

Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in 1982.
Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in 1982. Photo: Thomas S. England/Getty Images
Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in 1982.
Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in 1982. Photo: Thomas S. England/Getty Images

Jerry Lee Lewis was known as the Killer, and it wasn’t a casual sobriquet — a schoolmate called him that after he tried to strangle a teacher. He once shot his bass player in the chest; just about all of his seven wives, including one who was a child, said he beat them; and there’s a lingering suspicion that he murdered wife No. 5. He was the very model of a high-functioning sociopath and somehow defied hard living, drug and alcohol abuse, and serious health problems to make it well into his ninth decade.

The pianist, singer, and showman, who was one of the three or four people who decisively ushered in the rock-and-roll era — and utterly personified an unbridled and dangerous part of the music — died today, his family announced. He was 87 and, after the death of Little Richard in 2020, the last man standing from the dawn of rock and roll.

Like most of his remarkable and rambunctious peers, Lewis got himself into trouble of his own making. He never backed down, and he viewed the world with a maniacal severity that hid a bleak sense of mischief that itself hid another layer of severity beneath it. He was a thief, a bigamist, an adulterer, a sexual predator, a family abandoner, and a liar, and felt — knew — society’s rules didn’t apply to him to such an extent that he acknowledged the fact flatly. There is one filmed interview with Jerry Lee Lewis that could be mistaken for an outtake from Mindhunter.

At least two of Lewis’s songs — “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” — stand with Little Richard’s work at the very outer limits of ’50s rock-and-roll extremity. Their titles alone capture Lewis’s character — his unbridledness — and by extension the music he came to personify. His other claim to fame was less elevated: Overnight, he vaporized what could have been a top-tier career with the most consequential sex scandal of rock’s early days.

Lewis could play by ear and re-create any song he had listened to even once from memory. But he also heard something deeply meaningful — something that just made sense — in all the music he’d absorbed as a child and teen: the hillbilly country, rollicking New Orleans piano, southern gospel, and deep blues.

He played with a concussive boogie-woogie beat, but that’s like saying Jackson Pollock painted. He didn’t have a friendly, ingratiating manner like his fellow Louisianans Fats Domino or Professor Longhair. In the compact three-minute packages that made his name, Lewis sat before his piano and — amid that boogie-woogie foundation — banged out maelstroms of intricate runs and cascading and sometimes dissonant chordage. It was a trip down a treacherous musical mountain road with no guardrails. Over this racket he keened, howled, and caterwauled in a way that gave fairly innocuous lyrics — what’s the big deal about “shakin’,” after all? — a lusty, unmistakable carnality that left very little to the imagination. When he pounded the piano and bounced up and down, the slicked-down hair on his head came loose from its grease and bounced with him, absurdly.

It seemed like chaos — but one of his secrets was, paradoxically, control and dynamics. Lewis in many ways was a slyly deliberate showman; he ratcheted up the intensity and emotion into a crossfire hurricane of sound and then brought it back down again, several times in the space of a single song. However unhinged his delivery, there was always a sense of detachment and control. Lewis knew what he was doing.

In his prime, he was the most musically sophisticated of the time’s wildest interpreters. Sam Phillips of Sun Records — who personally tended to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, among others — called Lewis “the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white — one of the most talented human beings to walk God’s earth.”

The great rock writer Robert Palmer put it this way: “There has never been another American pop musician with Lewis’s particular mixture of egotistical self-confidence, innate taste and sensitivity, eclecticism (he will play Chuck Berry, Hoagy Carmichael, Jim Reeves, Artie Shaw, spirituals, blues, low-down honky-tonk or all-out rock & roll, as the mood strikes him), formidable and entirely idiosyncratic technique (both instrumental and vocal) and sheer bravura.”

Or, as Lewis himself said: “I never said I was the greatest. I’m the best.”

Lewis was not yet 10 when he became enraptured with the sound of the piano; he was soon devoted to the music he heard when the family could finally afford electricity and with it a radio — Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman,” whose lonesome cowboy yodels made him a superstar before his early death; Al Jolson, the most popular crooner of the era; and then Hank Williams, father of modern country music. Elmo Lewis, Jerry Lee’s father, was a pianist himself; when he heard his son deliver a version of “Silent Night” by ear at another family’s house, he managed to get him a sorry but serviceable instrument. By his early teens Jerry Lee was playing — with his cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley — at church on Sundays. Lewis broke his hip playing high school football, but even in a thigh-high cast he continued to play, sitting half-sideways to the keyboard, one leg sticking out to the side.

Having discovered a musical calling, he didn’t know what to do with it, so he haunted the Black roadhouses in his hometown, seeing blues acts blow through. The oft-told story is that the young white boy hid under tables to see the great blues stars of the day until the proprietor ejected him. In the meantime he occupied himself by skipping school and embarking on a life of burglary. He went to a Bible college in Texas — and forever swore he could have been a great preacher — but was quickly thrown out for playing boogie-woogie in church. Back home, his criminal activities continued until a close call with a prison term at Angola straightened him up; then he tried selling sewing machines door to door.

People like Lewis are reflexively referred to as having come from a religious background, but the influence this upbringing has on their actual behavior can take almost any form. For example: Lewis married in 1952, at the age of 16 — properly, in a ceremony at his rich uncle’s house. The bride was a 17-year-old preacher’s daughter named Dorothy Barton. Lewis rued the union on the morning after the wedding night. He didn’t pay much attention to his wife moving forward.

As he began to play in public as a teenager, Lewis delved into the music of his past, Black and white — the ragtime and honky-tonk, the swing and boogie-woogie; the blue artists, the hillbilly country, and the swampy but percussive piano stylings of oddballs like Moon Mullican (who had played on Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya”). Lewis could do what they did and sometimes more, blasting out blistering, implacable lines with his left hand — a jazzy walking bass, steady as a piston — while his right hand dazzled with melodic, sometimes chaotic, sometimes mischievous melodies. Later even those with sophisticated understandings of music on their own would marvel at Lewis’s deep knowledge and understanding of everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Frank Sinatra, B.B. King to Gene Autry. Lewis began to develop as a showman, too, turning his body to face the audience, shooting the piano stool off with his legs as he burst to his feet, banging the keys relentlessly, jumping on top of the instrument itself to dance.

The tale of the marriage to his second wife, Jane Mitcham, is somewhat murky; in one telling he’d met her in Natchez in between his spells at a local whorehouse. Mitcham got pregnant, and their wedding happened after her brothers tracked Lewis down in his hometown — never mind that he was not divorced from Dorothy. This was during his ascent to stardom, and he paid even less attention to Mitcham than he had to his first wife, even after the birth of their son, Jerry Lee Jr. It was an acrimonious four-year marriage; Jane Lewis once knocked out every one of the windows in his car. A second child, named Ronnie Guy, Lewis refused to acknowledge.

By 1954, Elvis Presley had come to popular acclaim and presented a world that Lewis could see himself in. He had an enormous appreciation of his own talents, and presented himself to RCA, Presley’s new label, and the Grand Ole Opry as well. Neither of them bit. Finally, he and his father made the significant trek to Memphis to meet Sam Phillips at what was then called the Memphis Recording Services, home of Sun Records. They shared a tiny (and expensive for them) $1.50-a-night motel room, the first time they had slept in a structure with running water. But Phillips was out of town; they were instead heard by a producer named Cowboy Jack Clement. Clement, another of the idiosyncratic geniuses who helped create the sound of rock and roll, spent hours listening to Lewis play. “He played that piano with abandon,” he recalled, and eventually he set him up for a formal audition with some local players.

“It was like hearing a whole different music that you’d never heard before,” Sun session guitarist Roland Janes told Phillips biographer Peter Guralnick. “He played equally well with either hand. He could do full-ons with his left hand as good as most people do with their right hand, [and] he had this rhythm, this fantastic bass rhythm — I mean, the music never stopped.”

Sam Phillips could barely be contained when presented with the results, and Lewis was signed. His first single: a lazy swing number that had been a big hit for Ray Price, “Crazy Arms.” It was credited to “Jerry Lee Lewis With His Pumping Piano.” It sold a little and got on the charts. Emboldened, Lewis left wife Jane and their son and moved from Ferriday to his cousin JW Brown’s house outside Memphis, where he became a fill-in session piano player at Sun. He also embarked on a punishing touring regimen, including a month across Canada playing every night. It was the start of decades of wild, exhausting touring fueled by liquor; pills; rushed, casual sex; and sometimes violence.

Back at Sun in Memphis, one storied afternoon, Lewis was playing piano on a new single by Carl Perkins, a killer guitarist who’d written and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes.” By this time, Elvis Presley was a star but would still drop by the studio on occasion, as he did that day. In one version of this famous story, Phillips called Johnny Cash and alerted the local newspaper; a posed picture shows Presley at a piano with Lewis, Perkins and Cash arrayed behind him. This gathering became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, which would many decades later become the inspiration for a successful Broadway jukebox musical about the Sun studios.

The photo, however, belied the group’s actual personal relationships. Lewis was far from a star. It was in fact Presley’s first experience with Lewis, and he was cordial and complimentary, telling the reporter, “That boy can go. I think he has a great future ahead of him.” For the rest of his life, Lewis carped about how he should have been sitting at the piano instead of Presley. “Elvis came to see me,” he’d insist.Carl Perkins was just there to make a record — another flop — and Johnny Cash came by to take advantage of the situation.”

Lewis’s name would be made with his next release. It was February 1957. Clement had brought Lewis one candidate for the important second single, a ditty the producer himself had written called “It’ll Be Me.” For the B-side, Lewis wanted to do a revved-up take on a tune called “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The producer reluctantly let Lewis proceed — and in some versions of the tale gave him only one take to do it.

The song is a good example of the percolating musical fusions coming together at the time — and Lewis’s recombinant sensibility. It was originally recorded by blues singer Big Maybelle, with Quincy Jones producing. In this recording the sound is brassy, with a thin guitar behind; her delivery is almost stately. Lewis apparently heard a different version that had been recorded by its co-writer, Roy Hall, as a jaunty white blues that was more insistent and had a guitar riff mixed up high.

Lewis brought his own hillbilly-country approach — faster moving and, in his hands, piano driven. Fats Domino may have made records that sounded something like that first, but Lewis’s version of the (slightly retitled) song — with its implacable drive, dramatic mood swings, raging vocals, and the frenzied finish — is not just a classic but an elemental piece of our cultural firmament.

Phillips was specifically on the hunt for new rock-and-roll hits out of his studio and could recognize something sensational. Even so, there was worry the label couldn’t release the song, so unbridled for the time was the record’s sound. But it was released. An appearance on The Steve Allen Show brought Lewis to widespread national attention and ultimately took the song to No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts. (It was a country and R&B No. 1.)

It also faced societal resistance for its smoldering, focused energy. Lewis went out on the road again, this time with Cash and Perkins and other rockabilly pioneers like Wanda Jackson (19 at the time, with her father along as chaperone). Lewis’s onstage audacity was immediately apparent, as was his arrogance. Tensions arose as Lewis’s dazzling playing and emergent showmanship pushed him to the top of the bill. Jackson recalled him being unhappy with an upright piano he’d found at a gig. “It was an old upright that had seen better days,” she wrote later. “He said, ‘Who would bring a piano like this and expect me to play it? I’ll tear this thing up before my show’s over so nobody else will have to use it. I’m gonna put it out of its misery.’ And he did, too, boy. He kicked the bottom of it in, put his feet up on those keys and busted as many of them as he could. He kind of frightened me. I didn’t want to be around Jerry Lee too much.”

Lewis followed “Shakin’” with “Great Balls of Fire.” (It was written by Otis Blackwell, author of Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up.”) This is actually a friendlier song than his first big hit; while plainly carnal, it has an unusually high-energy, almost a cappella opening, a whoop of a chorus, and some brutally hard piano playing leading back into the verses. This song, too, took off on the charts. Soon Lewis was playing in almost unimaginable places — at the Paramount Theater in New York, for example, with Fats Domino, for 12 days, breaking the house box-office record, or in Australia with Buddy Holly — and again generally found himself at the top of the bill as his touring cohort decided they couldn’t go on after him. (“Nobody, not even Elvis,” Johnny Cash would write years later, “wanted to go on after Jerry Lee.”)

There is one famous story that, on a trip the next year to New York, Lewis was feuding with Chuck Berry about going on last; Lewis is said to have gone on second to last and to have ended his show by setting the piano on fire and saying, “I want to see you follow that, Chuck,” as he walked off stage. (In some versions of the tale, he uses a racial epithet.) Lewis himself told this story to great effect, but there’s little evidence it actually happened. According to Bruce Pegg’s well-researched account of Chuck Berry’s life, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, it doesn’t square with the realities of the time: Berry didn’t care about going on last, Lewis was closing the shows in any case, and there’s no mention of fire in reviews of the evening. If there ever were an actual eyewitness to such a spectacle, he or she has never been quoted in any of the books on the era. Pegg also reports, however, that bad blood between the two culminated in a physical fight later in the tour; an eyewitness says both Lewis and his father used the N-word in a battle with Berry.

As society began to catch up to and accept rock and roll, the explosive “Great Balls of Fire” was a major step forward for Lewis’s career and celebrity. His next single was subtler, but still molten in its attack: the focused, sexy, riveting “Breathless.” It went to No. 7. On deck, Lewis had a fourth single, the relentless “High School Confidential” — you’ve heard it; the chorus goes “dancing at the high school bop” — pegged to a movie of the same name.

It was 1958. Lewis had had three top-ten hits. Elvis Presley was being inducted into the Army and would be largely out of the public eye for two years. To some, very much including Lewis himself, he was Elvis’s heir apparent.

That’s not how things worked out.

Where Presley passively went along with the career plans manager Colonel Tom Parker laid out for him, Jerry Lee Lewis — canny, opinionated, and pantingly desirous of stardom — didn’t have that sort of backstage support. And the sensible advice that he did get — from the Phillips brothers and others — was precisely the sort of thing an insensible man like Jerry Lee Lewis would ignore.

While living at his cousin JW Brown’s house, Lewis, then 21, grew close to the family’s 12-year-old daughter, Myra Gale. The pair spent increasing amounts of time together and, in Lewis’s own telling, after an evening spent messing around in his car, he resolved to marry her. By this time, Myra had turned 13. Technically, she was his first cousin once removed; Jerry Lee’s grandmother and Myra’s great-grandmother were the same person.

Lewis was clearly a predator, even within a culture where early marriages were common. (His own sister had married at 12 and then again at 15. Cousins had been marrying in his family for generations, too.) On this issue and many others, Lewis remained defiant, in blockheaded fashion, throughout his life. “She was a woman,” Lewis told Rick Bragg, unapologetically and unappetizingly, in his 2012 authorized biography. “She looked like a grown woman, blossomed out and ready for plucking.”

In reality, he was savvy enough to plan the wedding secretly — he was, after all, still married at the time. He took a preparatory trip south over the Mississippi state line with an older female friend to procure a fraudulent wedding license. A week later, he picked Myra up after school and drove her back to Mississippi, where they found someone to marry them — with no family or friends, much less a wedding ring, on hand. He took her home and dropped her off immediately after the wedding with no word to her family. It took a few days for the pair’s secret to come out. (JW is said to have been at least a bit exercised over the union. Myra Lewis wrote later that she got a “whoopin’.”) The two settled into a new house just south of Memphis and soon embarked, with Myra’s family, on Lewis’s first overseas tour, a trip to England.

The trouble began as soon as the group got off the plane in London. Reporters gathered around the star after he embarked; a more enterprising one cornered little Myra Lewis to ask who she was. According to Myra, the same writer came to their hotel room a short while later and Jerry Lee shared the whole story with him. By the time of the press conference that afternoon in the lobby of the hotel, the story was out, and Jerry Lee Lewis was facing an uproar.

It would be a highly amusing case study in failed celebrity damage control were there not an abused 13-year-old in the middle of it. At first, he was canny enough to lie but seems to have been caught between the exculpatory and the plausible. He told the reporters Myra was 15, perhaps thinking that this might translate to, “Well, she’s almost 16.” The British reporters smelled blood, and the papers the next morning carried blaring reports about the young American pop star’s very young wife.

Jerry Lee was stung, but, unaccountably, he kept talking, that day and the following ones, as the story in the U.K. grew bigger and bigger. The more ambitious papers discovered the bride’s real age and the messy details of the groom’s first two marriages, and still Lewis wouldn’t shut up. “It wasn’t nothin’,” Lewis insisted and embarked on ever-more-elaborate arguments about why this was so.

Indeed, in some interviews he argued that, since he hadn’t divorced his first and second wives before he’d remarried the second and third times, it might actually be the case that he wasn’t legally married to his 13-year-old cousin in the first place. The creativity of this tale was undermined by the fact that, if true, it meant that Lewis was sleeping with a 13-year-old girl he wasn’t legally married to. Myra Lewis chimed in, too. Heck, she told a reporter that back home, “you can get married at 10 if you can find a husband.”

The tour collapsed. The papers were insatiable — filled with news about the pair and official investigations into child abuse. Myra Lewis wrote later that an angry mob formed outside their hotel; after the extended family got into the limousine to take them to the airport, they were chased as they left.

On returning home, Jerry Lee found that audiences looked at him differently. He was chagrined to find that mainstream television talent bookers felt the same way. He kept recording tracks for Sun, but the label was paralyzed in the face of public reaction. To the end of his life, he marveled at what had happened. “I didn’t know the hole I was diggin’ was that deep,” he said many years later.

“High School Confidential” dropped off the charts. His career imploded; he was never a commercial threat on the pop charts again. Meanwhile, Presley duly went to Germany for his military service. Little Richard, who had sexual demons Jerry Lee couldn’t conceive of, had taken himself out of the pop game. The next year, a plane carrying Buddy Holly would crash on tour in Iowa. A few months later, Chuck Berry would be arrested on Mann Act charges and ultimately sent to prison. Rock and roll suddenly seemed as if it could be the passing fad its detractors always said it would be.

The cauterization of Lewis’s career that the marriage scandal accomplished meant he was never able to achieve his commercial potential. Lewis’s self-titled album debut on Sun, which did not include “Shakin’’ or “Great Balls of Fire,” lay dead in the water after the scandal; his second studio album, not released until 1961 and curiously called Jerry Lee’s Greatest, included “Great Balls of Fire” but not “Shakin’.” Neither made the charts. Sun had recorded scores of songs, of every imaginable musical genre, with Lewis before the scandal; most would not be heard for many years.

Phillips did what he could in an impossible situation, but it wasn’t enough for Lewis. Perkins and Cash had both soured on Phillips and ultimately left the label. Lewis handled things differently: He attacked the producer physically. Frustrated, he went back on the road with his small band. He survived on anger, pep pills, and the adrenaline that is always there when on any given night, for good reason or not, you might need to smash a microphone stand into an audience member’s face or whip a female fan with a fiddle bow.

With money suddenly tight, the Lewises had to give up their house outside Memphis. Lewis sent his pregnant wife home to live with his parents in a single-intersection town called Clayton, Louisiana — Myra Lewis said there was one drive-in restaurant in the town, called the Toot and Tell — and Lewis spent a large part of his time on the road. She had a son, Steve Allen Lewis, at age 14, in 1959, and then a daughter, Phoebe Allen. Myra later wrote that the pair had spent a total of 14 nights together alone at their home over 13 years of marriage.

As the 1960s stretched on, Lewis kept touring and even went back to England. He moved to Smash Records — Mercury Records’ Nashville imprint — and tried to get back into the rock world with an album called The Return of Rock. That didn’t work.

But then, almost accidentally, he became a country star. A label executive sensed he could sell Jerry Lee to a less persnickety audience. It started with a timeless track, Lewis’s reading of “Another Place, Another Time” — his voice effortlessly hitting the notes, some deep well of craft shaping his phrasing and emotions. It’s a perfectly realized piece of country heartbreak, a courtly, rueful modernization of the Hank Williams balladry he loved.

That and a few other ballads, like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” established Lewis in the country firmament, and from the late 1960s through the ’70s he had an impressive string of top-ten country hits. Given his highly regional appeal, it seems fair to say even this understates his prominence in the South. The musical legacy from this period is mixed, however; after those promising beginnings, there are many inferior covers, mediocre slow numbers, and tepid novelty things. Lewis never retained good producers, and most of his country output is schlocky and tedious.

As time marched on, he would embark on truly bizarre projects, like playing Iago in a rock-and-roll version of Othello in Los Angeles and appearing in a psychedelia-themed Monkees TV special. He could always be relied upon to do the wrong thing. One day at a Nashville recording studio, according to Dylan biographer Howard Sounes, a producer he knew brought by another artist recording in the building:

‘Jerry Lee, this is Bob Dylan,’ said Bob Johnston, making the introductions.


‘Man, maybe we could do something together some time?’ suggested Bob, politely.

‘No!’ exclaimed Jerry Lee, and pounded his piano with fury as Bob and Johnston made their retreat.

His tours became even wilder rides, with cars full of pills, cash, and guns, punctuated by occasional arrests and occasional announcements that he was giving up rock and roll for Jesus. Full pages of the Hellfire biography are filled with accounts of his various arrests for drunk driving, car accidents, drug possession, and assault. In 1976, drunk, he drove to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion, and rammed the gate with his Lincoln; he emerged from the car half-dressed and bleeding, brandishing a gun. “You tell him the Killer is here,” Lewis told the guards. Presley told his guards to call the police, and Lewis was arrested. That same year, drunk on his 41st birthday, he was playing around with a .357 revolver and shot his bass player in the chest.

He was a determined tax cheat as well, and never seemed to learn. Periodically, the IRS would raid his house and cart off most of his belongings to sell at auction; one time they did the same to one of his estranged wives. In 1984, he was tried on tax charges; he was not convicted but was still left with a $600,000 bill. In 1988, he declared bankruptcy, citing some $4 million in debts. In 1993, trying to escape the tax authorities, he moved to Ireland. More legal problems followed there. At one point, Lewis’s lawyers had to explain to a judge why he was purportedly too sick to come to court but not too sick to embark on a new concert tour.

Even in the 1980s, journalists were describing Lewis as frail, noting the debilitating effects the drinking and pills and other drugs were taking on him, but the star’s tough constitution held him together. “I thought [tonight’s show] was the best damn show you ever seen in your whole life,” he said to a Creem writer in 1987. “And if you give me a bad write-up, you dead.” Biographer Bragg talked to a man who saw Lewis in a juke joint playing four hours or more in a single set: “He played every song I’d ever heard in my life, including ‘Jingle Bells’ and the Easter Bunny song. And it was July.”

Jerry Lee Lewis onstage at the Ritz in New York, August 7, 1980. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Lewis was away when his son Steve Allen, then 3, died by drowning in the family’s swimming pool. His marriage to Myra staggered along for another eight years, each bleaker than the next, as she contended with his atavistic views of women (she wasn’t allowed to cut her hair or dress up), drug use, and ongoing infidelities. They divorced in 1970. By the end of 1971 he had married again, for the fourth time, to a woman named Jaren Gunn Pate; she moved out within the month. She had a child, Lori Leigh Lewis, but again Lewis insisted he was not the father. He and Pate never lived together but were married for nearly a decade, a non-alliance punctuated periodically with child-support suits. She was found dead in a swimming pool in June 1982.

Lewis lost his son with his second wife, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., in a car crash in 1973. Wife No. 5 was Shawn Michelle Lewis, whom he married in 1983. She was found dead in Lewis’s house after 77 days of marriage. Her death was examined by investigative reporter Richard Ben Cramer in a very long Rolling Stone story the next year. In Cramer’s telling, the marriage included episodes of violence, alternating with Lewis’s fixation on having Shawn participate in a threesome with her sister. What exactly happened the night of her death remains a mystery, but all sorts of evidence — including the blood and broken glass in the house and the fact that the body had been moved after she died — suggests that the full story has not been told.

A year later he married wife No. 6, Kerrie McCarver, who ended up nursing him through a succession of severe illnesses, including infections in his thigh — he’d been using needles to inject speed into his system in his leg — and a ruptured stomach that nearly killed him. They had a child, Jerry Lee Lewis III, in 1987, then separated but stayed married for another 17 years.

In interviews during this period, Lewis spoke of the Lord and the devil and Jerry Lee Lewis, dominating every conversation, interrupting captiously, correcting his questioners, and mixing history, boasts, and fabrications in a way that makes it difficult to keep track. To one interviewer he made plain his place in the pantheon: “You’ll never find anyone that Jerry Lee Lewis has taken anything from, brother. I’m a stylist. Just like Jimmie Rodgers — the late, great Jimmie Rodgers— just like Hank Williams — the late, great Hank Williams — just like Al Jolson — the late, great Al Jolson. There’s only four stylists, and that’s Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rod­gers. Rest of ’em are just imitators.”

His last years were relatively quiet save for one last twist in the branches of his incestuous family tree. Myra Lewis wrote a memoir in the 1980s, Great Balls of Fire, designed by her publisher to exploit her tale of marrying Lewis at 13. (This was the basis for the insipid 1989 biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder.) In her less-noticed second book, The Spark That Survived, published in 2015, Myra Lewis looked back in a clearer-eyed fashion; while obviously ghostwritten and filled with the homilies of a 70-something southern lady, the book is a fairly raw survivor’s story that fairly convincingly sets the record straight on many aspects of the Jerry Lee Lewis mythos. Myra’s version of her wedding day — a 13-year-old girl leaving school that day not knowing she would never return, being picked up by Lewis, driven to Mississippi and married, and then dumped back at her parents’ house — is particularly bleak. She persuasively details Lewis’s dominance and abuse of her over the course of their marriage and presents an insider’s view of the family that is both tonally and factually at odds with much of the other books written about Lewis over the years. She says flatly, for example, that her father and Lewis had an important partnership, including a corporation they had formed together, that the Lewis family, who didn’t understand such mechanisms, eventually abrogated. In an elegant bit of trolling, she also further complicates the clouded paternity of the children of Jerry Lee’s various marriages, claiming that a DNA test at the time showed that Jerry Lee Lewis III, who was born during Lewis’s marriage to Kerrie McCarver, is not actually his child.

After Lewis and McCarver divorced, daughter Phoebe brought on a woman named Judith Brown to be her father’s housekeeper in 2010. Judith Brown was Phoebe’s aunt; she’d gotten the name Brown from her husband, Rusty Brown — a brother of Myra and another child of Lewis’s bass player JW.

Judith Brown eventually divorced Rusty — and took up with Jerry Lee Lewis. The new couple began to square off with his daughter over money and eventually locked Phoebe Lewis out of the house. In 2012 Lewis married her: 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. Judith Lewis survives him. Myra, now Myra Williams, 77, ended up working in real estate in Atlanta and has been happily married to a fellow agent for more than 30 years.

Jerry Lee Lewis Was an SOB Right to the End