Jerry Lee Lewis has died at age 87 The iconic rock 'n' roll pioneer and last living member of the "Million-Dollar Quartet" — whose meteoric rise collapsed almost as quickly as he ascended, thanks to scandal — has died at age 87.

Jerry Lee Lewis has died at age 87

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A rock 'n' roll pioneer who mystified the world with both his piano playing and personal life has died. Jerry Lee Lewis was 87. He shot to stardom and fell from grace, but always seemed to find his way back. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY LEE LEWIS SONG, "WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON")

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: It was 1957, and this was deemed obscene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON")

JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) Come on over, baby. Whole lot of shaking going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JACK CLEMENT: All I did was turn the machine on, and we cut "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" - one take.

FARMER: That's the late producer Jack Clement talking to NPR in 2000. He helped introduce Jerry Lee Lewis to the world, capturing his music in the legendary Sun Studios of Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON")

LEWIS: Oh, shake it baby. Yeah. You can shake it one time for me. (Singing) Yeah, I said come on over, baby - whole lot of shaking going on.

FARMER: Lewis would later say that he knew he had a hit if it came out in one take. He was part of a lot of Sun Studios' magic. He played piano on records by Carl Perkins and others. He was the last surviving member of a seminal moment in rock 'n' roll - a 1956 impromptu session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. They were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS")

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET: (Singing) Let us have a little talk with Jesus - tell him all about our troubles. He will hear our faintest cry, and he will answer by and by. Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning, and you will know a little fire is burning. You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

FARMER: Lewis grew up in rural Louisiana, sneaking into the Black clubs, hiding under the tables until he got kicked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM WHAT I AM")

LEWIS: Something different about it - it was blues, and it was kind of rock. But there was something about it - I just loved the blues, man. It was great, you know? It was the real thing, and I always kind of figured I was the real thing, too.

FARMER: That's Lewis from a 1987 documentary called "I Am What I Am."

His parents took out a mortgage to buy a piano when he was 8 years old, and he taught himself to play, combining the boogie beats from the Black clubs and some of what he heard on Sundays at his Pentecostal church. Religion influenced more than the music. This was a time when rock 'n' roll was deemed downright demonic. The tape was rolling during a whiskey-infused exchange between Lewis and the famed owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, who believed Lewis could do good with rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM PHILLIPS: You can save souls.

LEWIS: No. No.

PHILLIPS: You can do it.

LEWIS: No. No.

PHILLIPS: Yes. You're there to make it.

LEWIS: How can the devil save souls?

PHILLIPS: Devil ain't going to save them.

LEWIS: What are you talking about?

PHILLIPS: They ain't going to...

LEWIS: Man, I got the devil in me.

PHILLIPS: Listen. Listen.

LEWIS: If I didn't have, I'd be a Christian.

FARMER: That was the session when his biggest hit was also captured on tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")

LEWIS: (Singing) You shake my nerves, and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will, but what a thrill. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.

FARMER: Lewis took this music on tour, where his performances were sexually charged - suggestively working the microphone as he stood up and pounded the keys. Myra Lewis, his third wife, says her husband was a walking contradiction - a wild man on stage, boozing and womanizing, who wouldn't allow a drop of alcohol in his own home. She talked to WHYY's Fresh Air in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MYRA LEWIS: Jerry sat in judgment of his self continuously. He was a man who was tormented daily by this - his expectations of what he should be doing versus, in reality, what he was doing.

FARMER: But it wasn't the hard living that led to his first plummet in popularity. It was the fact that he married Myra, his second cousin, when she was 13 years old. On a tour to England, the tabloids were ruthless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEWIS: For 10 years, Jerry's records were held off the air. He could not get a decent concert date. There were certain radio stations that would not touch him at all.

FARMER: He went from making $10,000 a night to 200, but he played all the beer joints that would have him and clawed his way back. It would be a decade before he had another hit recorded in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER PLACE, ANOTHER TIME")

LEWIS: (Singing) One by one, they're turning out the lights. I've been feeding that old jukebox just to hold you tight.

FARMER: He would later play at the Grand Ole Opry, famously declaring from the stage that he was a rock-'n'-rolling, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues-singing expletive. He earned the nickname "The Killer" not for his music or wild life, but because that's what he called everybody else when he couldn't remember their names, so that's what they called him. Lewis would get married and divorced several times more. He'd run afoul of the IRS, the DEA and the Memphis Police when he drunkenly slammed his car into the gates of Graceland with a pistol on his dash.

RICK BRAGG: Most of us are amateur sinners at best when compared to Jerry Lee. But then, there are times when he is evangelical.

FARMER: Author Rick Bragg wrote a bestselling biography of Lewis in 2014. Bragg says, in his old age, Lewis tried to set things right and was able to find redemption. He gave Hank Williams credit for getting the white working man off his knees long enough to enjoy some music.

BRAGG: But it was Jerry Lee that put them to dancing. And I thought that was the prettiest thing he said. And how can that be a sin?

FARMER: Or, as Lewis himself put it to NPR in 2010...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEWIS: I've been up and down the road. And it's been some hard living and some hard rocking and some hard rolling, but I'm still rocking on.

FARMER: For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")

LEWIS: (Singing) So kind - got to tell this world that you're mine, mine, mine, mine. I chew my nails, and then I twiddle my thumbs. I'm real nervous...

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