Jerry Lee Lewis recently passed away at the age of 87 on the 28th of October, 2022. Although he’s been described as “rock and roll’s first great man” as well as a pioneer of early rock and roll and rockabilly music, his life story is full of controversy and scandals.
For one thing, it’s well established that he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, in 1957. After the scandal broke about that marriage, Lewis’ popularity quickly eroded, and he was unable to achieve the same level of success in the music industry in the decades that followed.
Lewis was also known for frequently exhibiting outlandish and, at times, violent behavior. His wild antics became so frequent that he even earned himself a less-than-flattering nickname that highlights just how unstable he could be at times.
Jerry Lee Lewis was known by many as the Killer. That moniker, however, wasn’t just a casual nickname. The strange and shocking tale behind the origin of the sobriquet is quite startling, to say the least.
Join Facts Verse as we reveal the real reasons why they called Jerry Lee Lewis “The Killer”.
Chaotic Tendencies and Musical Mastery
While Lewis was still in school, one of his classmates called him ‘the killer’ after he attempted to strangle one of his teachers in a brawl. Later on, he shot his bass player in the chest. If that’s not shocking enough, all of Lewis’ seven wives, including Myra, said that Lewis beat them. There’s even a pervasive theory that Lewis murdered his fifth wife. Stick around to hear all about that unsettling chapter of Lewis’s muddled life story.
Some have described Lewis as being the very model of a high-functioning sociopath. Despite years of hard living, drug abuse, and alcoholism, against all odds, Lewis managed to contend with serious health issues while still making it into his ninth decade.
There’s no denying the impact that Lewis made on the music industry. He was among three or four influential figures who helped usher in the age of rock and roll. In the process, he became the very personification of that unbridled and often dangerous subset of the music industry.
Much like many of his equally rambunctious peers, Lewis more often than not, was the architect of his own woes. He stubbornly refused to ever back down, and he viewed the world through an almost maniacal lens. He couldn’t care less about what others thought of him, and it was never beneath him to rile things up with a little bit of mischief.
Lewis was a thief, bigamist, sexual predator, adulterer, liar, and a family abandoner. Obviously, looking back on all of his actions, he didn’t believe that the rules of society applied to him.
Two of Lewis’s biggest songs, Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’, perfectly encapsulate his unchecked and decidedly shameless character. He, along with Little Richard who passed away in 2020, stood at the fringes of the early 1950s rock and roll scene. Jerry’s other claim to fame, unfortunately would be the very thing that virtually vaporized his promising musical career in what seemed like a blink of an eye. That, of course, would be the sex scandals that he got tied up in the early days of rock music history.
Lewis had the ability to play or re-create any song that he listened to – even just once – from memory. He also was a master of combining various elements of the music that he grew up listening to, from hillbilly country to southern gospel to New Orleans piano to the deep blues, to create something entirely new that people had never heard before.
His style was very distinct. He played with this distinct concussive “boogie-woogie” beat. But unlike some of his fellow Louisianan legends, such as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, he did so in a much less friendly and endearing way.
In his brief, three-minute proto-rock compositions, he hammered out these intricate and cascading rhythms accompanied by dissonant chord changes and, at times, manic-like vocal deliveries. Amidst all of the racket that he created, Lewis worked in lyrics that were on the surface quite innocuous. That being said, songs like ‘Shakin” featured wild, lusty lyrics that were so raw and carnal that they left little to the imagination. When pounding away at his piano, Lewis’ would bounce up and down with such intensity that the slicked-down hair on his noggin’ plastered in place by a thick slathering of pomade would often come loose and bounce along with him. To an outside observer, this sight was nothing short of absurd.
While Lewis’s performances seemed chaotic, seemingly paradoxically, he was always in control. He was a very deliberate showman who wasn’t afraid to dial up the intensity and emotion of his performances into an almost hurricane-like whirlwind of a sound. Throughout a single song, he would reach these gloriously wild crescendos only to bring the energy back down again – sometimes several times in the space of a single track.
No matter how unhinged his delivery appeared to be, there was always a sense of control and calculated detachment. Simply put, Lewis always knew what he was doing.
At his peak, Lewis was the most musically sophisticated of the era’s most outlandish interpreters. Sam Phillips over at Sun Records was famous for working with stars like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. At one point, he was quoted as saying that Lewis was the most talented musician that he had ever worked with. He even went as far to call Lewis the ‘most talented human being to walk God’s Earth’.
The Mysterious Death Of His Fifth Wife
In August of 1983, Lewis got married to his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens.
On February 23rd, 1984, just 77 days after the two got married, tragedy struck.
Lewis had thrown a party at his mansion, and at some point the following morning, there was a report that Stephens was found unconscious in one of the guest bedrooms. The first responder to arrive on scene was a medic named Sonny Daniels who was shown to the room where Stephens was found by housekeeper Lottie Jackson.
The room was dark and empty. Very little light seeped through the drapes, and there was nothing on the tables. No clothing strewn about, no dust or debri, and most importantly, no sign of a struggle. All that Sonny found was the lifeless body of Stephens on the bed, turned slightly toward the wall with the blankets drawn up to her neck.,
Sonny touched Stephen’s lifeless body to confirm what was suspected. Mrs. Lewis was cold – having clearly been deceased for quite some time at that point. Lottie had previously tried to wake her, but naturally, her efforts were in vain.
Sonny checked for a pulse just to be sure, but there was none to find. As if to cover all of his bases, he checked her pale lips to see if she was breathing, but alas, she was not. When checking her eyes, Sonny found that they were dilated – a clear sign that her brain had already completely died.
The second medic on the scene, Matthew Snyder, was a young, fit, blonde man who was barely out of EMT school. He had just started working with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Folks familiar with Lewis’s wild lifestyle knew that it wasn’t uncommon for him to wake up next to some unconscious individual, but Snyder knew that something was especially wrong with the scene that he had walked into.
Confirming Sonny’s findings, Matthew checked for signs of life only to come up empty-handed. Upon further inspection, he discovered that Stephen’s had bruising on her forearm. To him, it appeared as if someone had grabbed her with force. He also saw a little stain of dried-up blood on the web of her fingers.
Lewis showed up to the room as soon as he caught wind of what was going on. When he stepped into the hall, he looked surprised to see Lottie in Tears. He then looked Sonny in the eyes, only for him to inform him that his wife was dead.
Sonny then noticed that Jerry had two bright red scratches on the back of his hand. Despite these mysterious wounds, the autopsy report cleared Lewis of any kind of wrongdoing. Shawn Stephens, who was just 25 years old at the time of her death, had evidently died of an overdose of methadone.
Even so, it’s well known that there was trouble in her and Jerry’s relationship right from the start. At one point, he reportedly asked her if she was scared of him. He then told her that she should be because of his reputation. “Why do you think they call me the killer”, Lewis apparently asked her. Just two months later, she was dead.
It’s never been proven that Lewis had anything to do with her death, but the fact that he was known for being abusive to all of his wives coupled with those mysterious wounds on his hands, leaves a lot to wonder about.
The Graceland Incident
In the early morning hours of November 23, 1976, Jerry lee Lewis was booked on public drunkenness and firearm charges outside of Elvis’s gated Graceland estate. Just two months prior, in September of 1976, Lewis fired a .357 Magnum at a Coke bottle in his bedroom. The bullet ended up ricocheting and accidentally hit Lewis’s bassist Butch Owens in the chest. Fortunately, Owens survived, but that incident proved that Lewis wasn’t one to be trusted when wielding a gun.
The Graceland incident could have been a disaster if it weren’t for the quick thinking of Elvis’s security team. The evening of the incident, Lewis had been drinking at a Memphis nightclub called Vapors. It was there that he was given a gun.
After remembering that Elvis had wanted to see him, Lewis climbed into his brand new Lincoln Continental and headed to Graceland with the loaded pistol on his dash and a bottle of champagne tucked under his arm.
Just before three in the morning, Lewis smashed into the gates of Graceland. That evening, Presley’s cousin Harold Lloyd was manning the gates. After crashing his Lincoln, Lloyd was astonished to see the rocker attempt to hurl the bottle of booze out the window of his vehicle. Not realizing that the window was rolled up, it ended up smashing both.
Elvis had witnessed the incident through CCTV and told the guards to alert the police. When the Memphis police arrived, they found the gun in the car and Lewis hooting and hollering like a madman. Even while he was being put into cuffs, he was apparently hurling around threats.
When the cops asked Presley what they wanted them to do, he told them to ‘Lock him up’. Lewis would later say that he was hurt by this since the two had gone way back and were quite close. Lewis ended up being released on a $250 bond, and his mugshot was published in just about every major newspaper by the following morning. Nine months later, Presley died at Graceland.
Jerry Lee Lewis was no stranger to controversy. From his marriage with his 13-year-old cousin to his violent tendencies, he was clearly a man who wasn’t afraid to do anything that he wanted without considering the consequences.
Did you know that Jerry Lee Lewis was given the nickname ‘The Killer’ after getting into a brawl with one of his school teachers and that all seven of his wives claimed that he had abused them? Let us know in the comments.