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23 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    The great Southern writer and Lewis biographer Rick Bragg wrote this obituary.


    Somewhere in the world, in a mean little honky-tonk or big music hall or church basement rec room, someone is playing a Jerry Lee Lewis song. Wherever there is a piano, someone is shouting…
    You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
    Too much love drives a man insane…
    “But they won’t play it like the Killer,” Lewis liked to say, as if he needed to make sure the whole world was hearing him right, hearing the pounding genius of it, in songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
    “’Cause,” he liked to say, “ain’t but one of me.”
    You broke my will
    But what a thrill…

    Lewis, perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, whose marriage of blues, gospel, country, honky-tonk and raw, pounding stage performances so threatened a young Elvis Presley that it made him cry, has died.

    He was there at the beginning, with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the rest, and watched them fade away one by one till it was him alone to bear witness, and sing of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
    “Who would have thought,” he said, near the end of his days, “it would be me?”
    Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!

    He suffered through the last years of his life from various illnesses and injuries that, his physicians have often said, should have taken him decades ago; he had abused his body so thoroughly as a young man he was given little chance of lasting through middle age, let alone old age.
    “He is ready to leave,” his wife Judith said, just before his death.
    Lewis, who performed everything from “Over the Rainbow” to Al Jolson, who played the Opry and the Apollo and even Shakespeare, was 87 years old.

    Some music historians have wondered if Lewis, regarded by his fans and many music historians as rock’s first, great wild man, might be indestructible; his obituary has been written, re-written, then shelved, gathering dust for a day that seemed inevitable, but seemed to never come. He defied death in his old age just as he shrugged off the hard-driving, self-destructive lifestyle of his younger years, to play his music to a worldwide audience across seven decades, decorate the walls of his home with Grammys and gold records, and spawn a million outrageous stories — most of them true.

    Once, when asked by a biographer: “Is it true that…”
    “Yeah,” interrupted Lewis, without waiting to hear the particulars, “it probably was.”

    His beginnings sounded like myth. His father, Elmo, and mother, Mamie, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano, after he climbed onto a piano bench and, without ever having touched a keyboard before, began to play. His nickname, Killer, had nothing to do with his playing, but came from a schoolroom fight in Ferriday when he tried to choke a grown man with his own necktie; still, it fit the man, the musician to come, but there was more to him than a barroom piano pounder who sometimes kept a pistol in his pants.

    Musicians and music journalists called him a true virtuoso, whose music was so rich and complex that some of them swore there were two pianos on stage instead of one. He played honky-tonk and blues across the same keyboard in the same instant, could play melody with both hands. He sang rockabilly before he knew it had a name, sang blues, gospel and country in the same set and sometimes the same breath, to become No. 24 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Sam Phillips, who launched the careers of Elvis and Lewis at Sun Records in Memphis, called Lewis the most talented person he had ever seen. A talent that made him one of the very few to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986 and, most recently this past week, at long last, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    As Lewis stacked hits on the charts in ’57 and Elvis received his draft notice, the reigning king of rock ‘n’ roll drove to Sun Records in tears, to tell Lewis: “You can have it.”
    But if Jerry Lee’s life was a comet that streaked across the sky of American music, it was also a thing that scorched him inside and out, and so many of the people around him.
    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.

    Born into the Assembly of God church in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, he never stopped believing, even when his lifestyle made the specter of hell seem closer. His greatest fear, that he would be condemned to a lake of fire for playing what many in his Pentecostal faith called “the devil’s music,” haunted him. He shared his fear with Elvis, who begged him to never mention it again. Lewis thought Elvis, also a Pentecostal, was the one person who might understand, but he died in ’77, leaving Lewis to wonder, alone.

    He had prayed every day across his long life for forgiveness, and for salvation. His was a church that believed in miracles; why, he sometimes wondered, should he not be one of them? He found peace near the end of his life in a simple idea: that a music that brought such joy to so many could only come from God, “and the devil,” he said, “didn’t have nothin’ to do with it.”
    “He said he was ready to be with Jesus,” said Judith.

    His last album was a gospel record with his cousin, lifetime televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who had preached against his music when they were younger. In Jerry Lee’s final months, they took turns at the keyboard, singing songs they learned as children: “Old Rugged Cross” and “Lily of the Valley” and “In the Garden.” Lewis, though his voice and body were weakened by his injury and a recent stroke, seemed happy, content.

    Much of his life, Lewis had seemed determined to leave the world in the great fire he sang about. He set pianos ablaze, busted hecklers in the head with the butt-end of his microphone stand and rammed the gates of Graceland with his Rolls Royce. He shot holes in the wall of his Memphis office with a .38 revolver, shot his bass player in the chest, “by accident,” with a .357. His life, at different times, was a blur of high-speed chases and Crown Royal. The DEA met his planes on the runway. Fortunes came and went; all the wild rock musicians who came after him, he said, were mostly amateurs. Keith Richards tried to toss up a bottle of Crown Royal and catch it by the neck, like him, “but he never did it right … wasted a bunch of good liquor.”

    But if you asked him, in his waning years, what he hoped people would say about him, he had a simple answer.
    “You can tell ‘em I played the piano and sang rock ‘n’ roll.”
    His career, like his body, seemed doomed a dozen times.

    After soaring to the top of the charts in ’57 with songs like “Shakin’” and “High School Confidential,” he was castigated in the press for his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra. His rock’n’ roll star seemed to burn out even as it began to rise, and after a few big hits in the early 1960s his career seemed to be over. He responded by loading two cars with instruments and musicians and hitting the road, to play some big rooms, still, but also every honky-tonk and beer joint that would pay him to perform. He fought his way out of beer joints in Iowa, then drove all night and all day to another town and another show.
    Sometimes he gave them magic and sometimes, if the mood was on him, he gave them less, but in his old age he swore he gave them the magic all the time. In ’64, record producers taped his show at a Hamburg, Germany, nightclub and made what would become music history. Live at the Star Club would be regarded as one the rawest, wildest, and greatest live albums of all time.

    Then, in a twist that surprised many of his rock fans, Jerry Lee Lewis went country. “Another Place, Another Time,” was just the beginning of a string of soulful country chart-toppers that made him rich and famous all over again. He had more than 30 songs reach Billboard’s Top 10, including “To Make Love Sweeter for You” and a haunting “Would You Take Another Chance on Me.” It seemed only natural to Jerry Lee. He had always believed that Hank Williams hung the moon.

    In this new stardom he finally played the Grand Ole Opry, the organization that had once snubbed him, and ignored the two-song protocol to play what and for long as he pleased, even playing through the commercials. Then, in perhaps the oddest twist of his musical career, he was cast as Shakespeare’s sinister Iago in a musical production in Los Angeles; he was a natural.

    Once again, he flew around the world, sometimes on his own plane, and once again his lifestyle made almost as many headlines as his music. Tragedy followed him; he buried two sons. His health began to fail, marriages failed, but somehow he always rallied, always kept playing, for big paydays, or for free in a Memphis nightclub, living the life he sang about in his songs.

    In 2006, his Last Man Standing album sold a million copies, his best-selling album of his long career. He followed that with another success, Mean Ol’ Man. You could hear the ghosts of the old honky-tonks in them, as if Jerry Lee Lewis had, truly, found a way to stop time. He did a duet with Springsteen.

    His Lifetime Achievement Grammy was a kind of crowning achievement, and he appeared at Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame shows to accept his due and to school the whippersnappers on how it was done.

    In 2012, when he was 76, he fell in love and married Judith, and they lived quietly – quietly for Jerry Lee Lewis – in northern Mississippi, though Lewis continued to do shows here in the U.S. and abroad. That year they took a trip to Ferriday to visit the family cemetery, and to drive across the bridge to Natchez where, as a boy, Jerry Lee used to dangle over the girders high above the brown water of the Mississippi and the passing boats below. The other boys begged him to get down, but he just hung there, grinning, till they were in tears. When asked if he was scared, a lifetime later, he just looked surprised. The Killer didn’t get scared. But looking down at the river as an old man, he said he might have been crazy.

    Later, they drove past the church where he beat the piano to pieces with his cousins Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, who would go on to country music stardom, pounding a little blues and honky-tonk into the hymns they were supposed to be practicing.

    Just across town from the tiny church had once stood the other temple of his musical education, a blues joint called Haney’s Big House, where some of the biggest acts in the country came to play. As a little boy, he snuck in the door and hid under the tables to hear rolling blues piano and wicked guitar. And somewhere in between it all, between the hymnals and the beer joints, between Hank Williams and Ray Charles, he found something that was his alone. It was always a waste of breath to ask if he had any regrets.

    He had a million, and he had none. It all just depended on the song that was running through his head at the time.
    “I’ve had an interesting life,” he said, in his 2014 biography, “haven’t I?”

    Written by Rick Bragg

  2. Duane Arnold says:


    Mourning with you… the last of the originals…

  3. Captain Kevin says:

    Michael, I know this is difficult. I’m sorry.

    The Pharisees can shove their pronouncements where the sun doesn’t shine. Grace wins the day for both Elvis and Jerry Lee.

  4. Michael says:

    Thank you, my friend.

  5. Michael says:

    Thanks, CK…

  6. pstrmike says:


  7. Dan from Georgia says:

    Sad day to lose an icon. But much more gained by the man. I love this sentence in you TGIF:

    “Some of you are going to be gravely disappointed by this, but Jerry Lee did not bust hell wide open, but there is a whole lotta shakin’ going on inside the gates of glory.”

    Love. It.

    I can’t think of anything more milqtoast and boring that singing the same dull songs in pasty white robes. Love musicians who have fire in their belly and heart. It shows up in their art.

  8. Michael says:

    Amen, Dan…

  9. Muff Potter says:

    So who are the great ‘they’ who think that he (Lewis) is in hell?
    The same ones who assured us that Rachel Held Evans is in hell too?
    They ain’t got a goddang thing to say about it.

  10. Michael says:


    Heaven is going to be uncomfortable for some …for a bit…

  11. Em says:

    R.I.P. indeed!

  12. Reuben says:

    It’s a good thing Al Jazeera reports on such things or I would have never known. I read about his passing just now over coffee.

    I am a huge fan of music. Chuck Berry was my favorite of that genre (mostly because I appreciate guitar), but there is no doubt Jerry was one of the greats.

    Sorry to hear about this, Michael.

  13. pslady says:

    Michael I thought of you immediately when hearing that Jerry Lee had passed. Your story of how he affected your life was so interesting. I first heard Jerry Lee when I was about 10 yrs old….seeing him on tv with that wild blond hair shaking around & his crazy wonderful piano playing truly fascinated me…one of a kind. We will see him again!

  14. Shawn says:

    Thanks for posting the Rick Bragg article. His book All Over But the Shoutin’ was one of the first books I sold multiple times after leaving the ministry to sell books for a living (out of necessity). After reading that obituary I can now see why.

    After becoming a Christian I swore of all attachments to “worldly” music at the behest of some well-meaning believers. However, in a strange twist of fate in some of my darkest or most trying times “wordly” music drew me closer to God. Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man” really helped me sort out the turmoil of those early days. Then when I almost lost my entire family to the Paradise fire it was Right Before My Eyes by Cage the Elephant that came to my aid though I am acutely aware that the meaning of the song was vastly different. Still though it helped me process a complex and difficult time both before and after.

    Now on occasion I revisit some favorites from the past like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and even dare I say it… Iron Maiden. The last are in my opinion are one of the best lyrically especially considering that they often wrote on deeply complex topics like the threat of Nuclear War in Two Minutes to Midnight, The abuse of Native Americans in the western expansion in Run to the Hills, or simply composing a thirteen minute metal epic based off Samuel Coolridge Taylor’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

    I have found that quite often “secular” musicians will often get pretty closer to the foot of the cross than some of the vain and seemingly endless repititions of modern worship Choruses. I appreciate the grit and honest struggle they often convey over emotional and psychological religious musical manipulation.

    So I can understand your affinity with Jerry Lee Lewis. Admittedly I have never been a fan of his music because I never knew much beyond Great Balls of Fire. Today though I look forward to becoming better acquainted with his music as I attempt to mourn with those who mourn.

  15. Dan from Georgia says:

    Shawn….I’m into Iron Maiden. One of the few metal bands out there with intelligent lyrics.

  16. Michael says:


    Yes, we will…

  17. Michael says:

    God bless you Shawn…well said…

  18. Dan from Georgia says:

    (more for Shawn)…I agree the secular musicians and music seems a bit more natural and real. Too much Contemporary Christian music (CCM) today is overly refined, filtered, sometimes dishonest, and frankly boring and dull. It (CCM) tends to be so refined that it comes across as fake at times, and they try so hard to get THE message across that it comes across as forced. The last CCM musician I appreciated is the late Rich Mullins, as well as the (not late) Nicole Nordemann.

  19. pstrmike says:

    Dan from GA,

    ” boring and dull.” Pretty much. I rarely listen to the radio, even less Christian stations. (sorry Skip)

  20. SHAWN says:

    Dan glad to see someone else has good taste in lyrics. Lol. I agree that Iron Maiden’s lyrics are extremely intelligent. While I enjoy music I always been drawn to the lyrics especially to those who are actually saying something. Now there is a Christian metal band out of Georgia that writes some really great lyrics too. I am not sure if they are still playing. The band is called Theocracy. They are one of the few Christian bands that I still listen too.

    I agree that often CCM seems both forced and insincere but even worse it is lyrically unimaginative. It seems like everybody is trying to capture the “magic” of the latest congregational hits. Furthermore, and believe me I can go even further, the lyrics are shallow and more often than not if they involve something taken from Scripture it is grossly out of context.

    Anyways, Rich Mullins was an anomaly to me. I can’t say I enjoyed all his music but I will say I appreciated his creativity and willingness to be cut from a different cloth so to speak. I wish I could remember the name of the album published after his death which had recordings made into a portable radio/cassette player. I listened to that one quite a bit. So I guess upon further review I really liked his music. Lol. I don’t recall listening to Nicole Nordeman but I recently heard a song I rather enjoyed for the depth of honesty involved in articulating struggling with one’s faith.

  21. Dan from Georgia says:

    Shawn…I think I have heard of Theocracy. I think we chatted about this band before…? I will look them up today. I agree in the much of CCM is lacking depth. Rich Mullins wrote from his heart and didn’t shy away from tough stuff. I went to one of his shows in 1997 a few months before he passed away and believe me, he shocked a few people with his honesty….not something that today’s CCM artists are willing to do (seems like CCM artists always have to have their best foot forward, always have the right thing to say, etc). Nichole Nordeman is currently a worship leader at her church, in addition to doing live shows. Her lyrics are deep and well-written.

    Re: Maiden…very well written lyrics, and coming from a guitar player (me), just flat out a talented group of musicians! I’m a bit of a metalhead and classic rock fan, so Maiden, Scorpions, Megadeth, and Whitesnake have special places in my heart and ears LOL…

  22. Shawn says:

    Dan- we share some similar tastes with Scorpions, Maiden, and (especially) early Megadeth. Love classic rock but I also have an affinity for classical music especially Scriabin and Rachmaninoff or a well played and Moody violin riff. I have fiddled with the guitar for 30 years as a means of songwriting. I play mainly rythmn (probably spelled wrong). My main thing is writing lyrics. About a year ago I started posted stuff on bandlab. It has been a great experience. It is funny though I played music and even led some worship when I was in the ministry but it was not until I exposed my original music to mostly those outside the faith that I was actually called a musician. Not only that but I am constantly encouraged by them which is something that never really happened in the church. I was never really allowed the space use the gifts God gave me except for when I was in a band for a short time. Well it is a blessing to know that I have a kindred spirit who shares the same faith too.

  23. Dan from Georgia says:


    I am not a fan of classical music, but haven’t listened to it in a while either. Sorry your music wasn’t well-received in the Church…is that what you meant? I understand the Church has a funny/odd relationship with the arts. It’s too bad that what is usually considered art in the Church is, well, kinda bad. I paint, and I don’t want someone in the Church telling me I have to paint “nice”…like flowers or sunsets over mountains, or Jesus holding a lamb, or an angel hovering over a man praying for a sick son. Same goes with music in my mind. Too much Christian music is “nice” and doesn’t make you think.

    What is your favorite Maiden song and/or album?

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