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Jerry Lee Lewis: The US rock star who set the piano alight, sometimes literally

Jerry Lee Lewis: the US rock star who set the piano alight, sometimes literally (PA) (PA Archive)
Jerry Lee Lewis: the US rock star who set the piano alight, sometimes literally (PA) (PA Archive)

Known for setting the piano alight, both figuratively and sometimes literally, Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the last remnants of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

The world famous US musician – nicknamed The Killer – ran with other historic greats including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Little Richard – though he outlasted them all.

Lewis emerged as one of rock music’s early showmen in the 1950s, and was known for his innovative and flamboyant piano-playing style, having been influenced by the styles of preachers and black musicians as a child.

Lewis was born on September 29, 1935.

From humble beginnings in Ferriday, Louisiana, he found his way to Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked as a session musician for Sun Studios.

While working at Sun, he and Carl Perkins jammed with Presley and Cash in a session that would later be referred to as being played by the “Million Dollar Quartet”.

The music was recorded at the time, but it was not released until much later.

His first single, a cover of Ray Price’s Crazy Arms, was recorded in 1956 and did well locally, setting Lewis on a path to musical greatness.

Then 1957 saw his career go from strength to strength, first with the release of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, which became a hit on the pop, country and R&B charts.

He followed up with his next single, the well-known song Great Balls Of Fire, and the following March he struck again with Breathless, which made into the top 10 of the pop charts.

By this time, Lewis had also developed some of his famous stage antics, such as playing standing up and even setting the occasional piano on fire.

He had such energy and enthusiasm in his performances that he earned the nickname The Killer for the way he “knocked out” his audiences.

Throughout the 60s and 70s he turned his hand more towards country music, though he did not leave the wild world of rock ‘n’ roll behind completely.

When he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986, there was a strong resurgence in his rock ‘n’ roll career and music, while a new generation of listeners were introduced to Lewis through the 1989 biopic Great Balls Of Fire, in which he was played by actor Dennis Quaid.

Even until relatively recently, the lifelong musician and singer continued to record new music and perform around the world.

Lewis enlisted the help of such famous admirers as Sir Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy for his 2006 album Last Man Standing.

Collaborator Kristofferson described Lewis as “one of the few who can do rock ‘n’ roll, country or soul, and every song is authentic”.

He told USA Today that Lewis is “one of the best American voices ever”.

In April 2013, the musician opened Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk on historic Beale Street back where it all began – in Memphis, Tennessee.

The venue is filled with one of The Killer’s pianos, a motorcycle, photos, and memorabilia – along with food and live music.

In 2014, Lewis kicked off his “80th Birthday Tour” with shows across the country, from California to Tennessee to New York – as well as shows in Europe.

The same year he released a biography with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg, titled: Jerry Lee Lewis – His Own Story.

At the time, he told Rolling Stone magazine: “This is a rock ‘n’ roll record… That’s just the way it came out”.

He once said of his career: “I just think it’s a blessing from God that I’m still living… and I’m still rocking.”

He is survived by his wife Judith.