Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed “the Killer,” was a world famous rock and roll singer and songwriter and one of the most influential pop pianists of the 20th century. He played the piano with his fists, elbows, heels, and rump, and often kicked the piano bench aside, sat on the piano, played standing up or even jumped on top of the piano. He set his piano on fire after a performance of his best-known hit, “Great Balls of Fire.” His first hits were produced at Sun Records in 1956, where he recorded “Crazy Arms,’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential,” followed by many other hits. He had 12 gold records, won four Grammy awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2022.
Lewis died at age 87 on October 28, 2022, from “natural causes” after developing pneumonia. He had had a stroke in 2019, which left him spending most of his time in bed and not moving around. Not moving for long periods weakens the heart so much that the person eventually dies of heart failure, in which the heart is too weak to pump adequate amounts of oxygenated blood to the brain, so they stop breathing and die. Your skeletal muscles strengthen your heart because every time you contract a skeletal muscle, the muscles squeeze the blood vessels near them to pump extra blood back towards the heart. This fills the heart with increased amounts of blood and stretches the heart muscle, and the heart muscle responds by contracting with greater force to pump extra blood through your body.
Lewis was born into poverty in eastern Louisiana, to a father who was a farmer, carpenter and convicted bootlegger and a mother who often sang songs with her husband. As a small child, Lewis began playing the piano by imitating his musical cousins Mickey Gilley (who became a popular country singer), Jimmy Swaggert (who became a famous evangelist), and Carl McVoy (a singer and pianist who gave up performing to start a construction company). When Lewis was seven years old, his father mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano for $250. Lewis was so good that his father began taking him to play wherever he could get an audience.
His mother enrolled him at the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, so that he could sing evangelical songs exclusively, but at age 16, Lewis played “My God Is Real” at a church assembly as a boogie-woogie dance. The furious dean of the school called him into his office and expelled him, so he went home and started playing boogie-woogie style in rock and roll clubs. In high school, he received the nickname “Killer”, but he later denied a story that he had earned the nickname because he tried to strangle a teacher with his necktie.
The Million Dollar Quartet
Lewis made his first recordings in Louisiana in 1952. In 1956, he travelled to Memphis and got into a jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins that was recorded at Sun Records. That famous session became known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
All four were hard-drinking pill-poppers, and Lewis was the longest living survivor of the group. Lewis said, “I never drank that much, but that is how rock’n’rollers kept going: amphetamines to speed them up, opiates to slow them down.” The pills took their toll. In 1984, he had a third of his stomach removed after he was diagnosed with ulcers, and the pills may have had something to do with his stroke in 2019.
Lewis was married seven times, including bigamous marriages and a marriage with his underage cousin, and had six children.
• In 1952, at age 16, he married Dorothy Barton, the daughter of a preacher. The marriage lasted for 20 months.
• In 1953, at age 18, he married Jane Mitcham 23 days before his divorce from Barton was final. Four years later, after having had two children, he filed for divorce. In 1973, his son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. died at the age of 19 when he overturned the Jeep he was driving.
• At age 22, while still married to his second wife, he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. He was on a European tour when news of this marriage broke, and the tour was canceled after only three concerts. (He later told the press that he did nothing wrong; Elvis Presley had moved his then-girlfriend Priscilla into Graceland when she was 14 and he was 24). They had two children and in 1962, their three-year-old son drowned in a swimming pool accident. In 1970, Myra Gale filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery and abuse, and claimed that she had been “subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable.”
• In 1971, at age 36, he married his fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate. Eleven years later, she fell into a pool and drowned.
• In 1982, after 77 days of marriage and before divorce proceedings were finalized, his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, was found dead at their home after having taken 10 times the safe amount of his methadone. They had one daughter, Lori Lee Lewis.
• Mary Kathy Jones of San Antonio, Texas, testified at an income tax evasion trial in 1984 that she had lived with Lewis from 1980 to 1983. (He filed for bankruptcy in 1988, claiming that he was more than $3 million in debt).
• In 1984, he married his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver. They remained married for 21 years and they had one child, Jerry Lee Lewis III.
• In 2012, Lewis married his seventh wife, Judith Lewis Brown. They had met at a concert she was attending with her husband, Rusty, in Los Angeles. Rusty asked his wife to take care of Lewis as he had been hospitalized and was debilitated from poor health for several years. She claimed that for the first six months, the relationship was strictly that of caregiver and patient. However, after six months, “Jerry and I knew something was happening between us, but we weren’t really sure what was going on.” In 2010, she filed for divorce from Rusty, and received a ring as a Christmas present from Lewis. They remained married until his death.
• On September 29, 1976, he aimed a .357 Magnum at a Coke bottle in his bedroom and the bullet ricocheted and hit bassist Butch Owens in the chest. Owens survived the accident.
• On November 23, 1976, he was arrested outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland home for allegedly intending to shoot Presley. Lewis claimed that he was at a Memphis nightclub drinking champagne when someone gave him a gun. He remembered that Elvis wanted to see him, so at 3:00 AM he drove to Graceland with a loaded pistol on his dashboard and a bottle of champagne under his arm. He accidentally smashed into the entrance gate outside Graceland, and the guard reported that Lewis tried to throw a champagne bottle through a closed car window. Elvis saw the entire event on his closed-circuit television and told the guards to call the police. When they arrived, he told them to lock Lewis up.
Why Pneumonia is Such a Common Cause of Death
Pneumonia is the eighth leading cause of death in North America today, killing more than 60,000 people and causing more than 960,000 hospital admissions per year. People older than 65 and younger than two are the ones most likely to die from pneumonia. People with weakened immune systems are at increased risk (Exp Gerontol, 2011;46:953-957), as are people whose cilia have been damaged by smoking or working in polluted areas such as coal mines or with asbestos (Am J Respir Crit Care Med, 2001;163(4):983–8).
Every breath you take brings in air full of germs, dirt and pollutants. Your bronchial tubes are supposed to produce mucus and the cilia, the little hair-like structures lining your bronchial tubes, are supposed to sweep in rhythm and push the pollutant-and-germ-filled mucus up to your mouth where you swallow it with your saliva. However, if your cilia are damaged, as in chronic bronchitis, or destroyed, as in emphysema, they cannot sweep up the mucus. Your bronchial tubes fill up with this filthy mucus and you become short of breath from breathing through a layer of mucus. Then if you develop an infection from a virus, bacteria, or fungus, called pneumonia, you are at increased risk for smothering to death from the accumulation of fluid.
Smoking is perhaps the most common cause of damage to the cilia, and today’s seniors grew up at a time when virtually everyone smoked. Even if a person stopped smoking many years ago, the cilia do not recover or regrow, so that person is always at greater risk for lung problems including pneumonia. Even non-smokers from that era are likely to have been affected by the heavy, universal second-hand smoke in homes and public places. As these generations who lived through the years of heaviest cigarette use pass on, it will be interesting to see if the rates of death from pneumonia go down.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com