The last man standing of the original wave of rock & roll pioneers, Jerry Lee Lewis died on Oct. 28 at the age of 87.
The man nicknamed the Killer practically needs no introduction. Wielding his Pumping Piano like a weapon, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and the other inventors of rock & roll in the 1950s. The Louisiana native’s hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless,” “High School Confidential,” and, of course, “Great Balls of Fire” remain indelible parts of the American musical landscape over half a century after their original release.
The scandal of his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin in 1957 may have derailed his career for a while, but he made his comeback in the country music arena, wracking up hits like “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “Middle Age Crazy,” “Thirty Nine and Holding,” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).” A chaos agent who resisted playing it safe, Lewis may have been persistently dogged by personal and professional troubles throughout his long career, but he remained a respected elder statesman, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and just this year entered the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. His final album was The Boys From Ferriday, a collection of gospel songs played and sung with his cousin Jimmy Swaggert.
Lewis taped a single episode of Austin City Limits during Season 9, broadcasting in 1984 – an episode now considered a classic, receiving a commercial release on New West Records in 2007. Years later, ACL producer Terry Lickona offered him another taping, but the Killer demurred, saying he “could never do another show better than the first one.” See for yourself in this excerpt, featuring Lewis’ biggest hit: “Great Balls of Fire.”