The troubling history of Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis came storming out of the Deep South in the 1950s with his frenetic piano-playing and hot-and-bothered lyrical delivery to become an architect of the new, dizzying genre of rock 'n' roll. A little bit of Little Richard and a whole lot of Elvis Presley, Lewis also became a living blueprint for the rock star. He lived a wild life, particularly on-stage. The man wasn't afraid to kick over a piano stand or light his instrument on fire to fully sell this sexy, establishment-threatening music to America's youth. 

But when he wasn't churning out influential hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" and "Great Balls of Fire," Lewis' personal life was one full of scandal, tragedy, violence, addiction, and lots of other issues. The 80-something legend is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and one of the most respected American musicians of all time, but none of that could save "the Killer" from his many demons. So as you might expect, Jerry Lee Lewis has an incredibly troubling history.

Jerry Lee Lewis has been married seven times

Depending on how you view the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis has been married seven times, he's either extremely lucky in love, or "the Killer" is a real killer with the ladies, convincing that many women to marry him. However, almost all of his marriages could be considered problematic in some way. "I was 14 when I first got married," Lewis told People in 1978. "My wife was too old for me; she was 17." According to Rolling Stone, that marriage to preacher's daughter Dorothy Barton fell apart when Lewis started spending more nights out playing live music. But Lewis got hitched again before he was 20, this time to a woman named Jane Mitcham. "One day she told me she was going to have my child," Lewis explained to People, adding that her brothers forced the two to marry, which Lewis claims wasn't a legally valid union.

Lewis' longest-lasting marriage was his sixth, to Kerrie McCarver, with whom he had a child during the 20 years they were together before splitting in 2004. In 2012, the then-76-year-old singer married his seventh (and as of press time, last) wife, Judith Brown. Interestingly, Judith was once married to Rusty Brown, and that takes things to a whole new level of weirdness. After all, Rusty is Lewis' cousin ... and the brother of the Killer's third and most controversial bride, Myra Gale Brown.

He married his cousin ... his 13-year-old cousin

Jerry Lee Lewis was an extremely young 14 when he got married for the first time. However, that's still older than the age of his third wife when he married her. While not yet technically or legally divorced from his second wife, according to People, Lewis tied the knot once more with Myra Gale Brown. Not only was she his cousin, she was only 13 years old. Lewis — a rising star in early 1958 thanks to smash hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Breathless" — headed to the U.K. to play a series of concerts and brought along his literal child bride to parade her in front of the media, lying that she was 15 and not 13, as if that would be any better.

Despite this relationship immediately derailing Lewis' career and painting him as a sleaze, Lewis and Brown stayed married for 13 years. According to Rolling Stone, the two only ever spent three nights at home together because Lewis was out on the road trying to make a living, while Brown had to stay behind and take care of her husband's mother and sister, as well as her two children with the rock star, son Steve Allen Lewis and daughter Phoebe Allen Lewis. Yeah, that's right. (He got a teenager pregnant.)

Scandal muted a promising career for Jerry Lee Lewis

Rock 'n' roll was born out of African-American musical traditions in the South, but it gained traction in the rest of the United States because of two media-friendly performers — meaning they were white in the segregated 1950s — Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Presley, with his drawl and swinging hips, quickly became the biggest musical act in the world, while Lewis rivaled him in popularity with his blistering, exciting, piano-based tunes like "Great Balls of Fire" and energetic stage performances. However, Presley went on to become "the King of Rock n' Roll," while Lewis became an also-ran thanks to the fallout from the scandal of marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Seriously, this one moment killed his career momentum like instantly.

After revealing his marriage to reporters in Europe, Lewis' tour was canceled, and according to Rolling Stone, disc jockeys across the U.S. stopped playing his records, and TV variety shows wouldn't book him either. Mere weeks after playing huge theaters for a fee of $5,000 a night, Lewis wound up scraping out a living in bars and roadhouses for no more than $350 a pop. Lewis was just 22 years old, and his time as a superstar was over.

His three-year-old son drowned in a swimming pool

A bright spot of Jerry Lee Lewis' troubled and ultimately truncated marriage to his teenage cousin Myra Gale Brown is the fact that they had a couple of kids together. Along with a daughter named Phoebe (who would grow up to become her father's manager), Brown gave birth to a boy named Steve Allen Lewis in February 1959. The kid's first and middle name was a salute to TV host Steve Allen, who gave the elder Lewis the opportunity to perform "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" on national TV after a number of radio stations had banned it for being too risqué, according to People. A Rolling Stone feature would later claim that Steve was Lewis' "favorite" son, a fact that makes the boy's tragic death even more heartbreaking. In 1962, Steve Allen Lewis drowned after falling into the Lewis family swimming pool. He was only three years old.

His 19-year-old son died in a car accident

With his second wife, Jane Mitcham, Jerry Lee Lewis had the first two of his six children altogether, starting with Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. in 1953. The young Lewis apparently inherited his father's aptitude for music, and by the time he was a young adult, he'd joined the elder Lewis' band as an apprentice drummer, per People. He also struggled with a slew of personal problems, checking into a series of mental hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers a total of five times. While living with his father in Nesbit, Mississippi, Lewis Jr. took his Jeep out for a drive one night in 1973, and on a rough county road, he lost control and flipped over the vehicle. Lewis Jr. reportedly snapped his neck and died in the accident. He was only 19, just 11 days shy of his 20th birthday.

That devastating personal loss, along with the previous deaths of his mother and other son, triggered a downward spiral for the elder Jerry Lee Lewis. "The loss of my mother and two sons got to me," Lewis told People. "I was drinking heavy. I needed a fifth of tequila just to sober up."

His fourth wife died right around the time they divorced

Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Gale Brown divorced in 1970, but Lewis moved on from the end of his inter-family romance quite quickly, marrying wife number four, Jaren Gunn Pate, in late 1971. According to The Village Voice, she was already pregnant, and the relationship never did settle down. They separated and sued one another for divorce and then reconciled multiple times. During a 1979 filing, Pate accused Lewis of "cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, habitual drunkenness, and habitual use of drugs." As they appeared to be split up for good, Pate reportedly called Lewis one day to discuss financial arrangements. He told her money shouldn't matter much because she was "not going to be around very long anyway." Coincidentally — as no charges were ever filed — Gunn drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 at the home of a friend in Tennessee. She was only 38, and her divorce from Lewis was just on the verge of being finalized.

However, the horrible deaths don't stop here. Lewis and Gunn's daughter, Lori Lancaster, was born six months into their marriage. In 2011, she was arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide after her five-month-old child was found dead, smothered under Lancaster who was allegedly under the influence of muscle relaxants. Interestingly though, Lewis denies Lancaster is his daughter.

His fifth wife died just weeks after they married

Less than a year after the death of wife number four, Jerry Lee Lewis married wife number five, a former cocktail waitress half his age named Shawn Stephens. Stephens, 26, died less than 80 days into the marriage. According to The Village Voice, Stephens didn't wake up the morning of August 24, 1983. Worse still, she was covered in bruises, and both Stephens and her room were coated in blood. On top of that, there was dried blood underneath her nails ... and as noticed by a paramedic, there were claw marks on the back of Lewis' hand.

The autopsy, however, blamed Stephens' death on a methadone overdose. That evening, Lewis talked to Stephens' sister on the phone and told her, "Your sister's dead, and she was a bad girl." According to Rolling Stone, that same sister had another terrifying conversation with Lewis a few weeks before Stephens' death, when the musician asked, "You scared of me? You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?"

Jerry Lee Lewis struggled with drugs

Jerry Lee Lewis might've been very successful on the stage and radio that fueled early rock 'n' roll, but offstage, he had lots of problems with relationships, money, and substances. According to Rolling Stone, during a search of his home related to his tax evasion issues in the '70s, authorities uncovered a fair amount of cocaine and marijuana. Lewis got the drug charges reduced to only the marijuana possession, for which he paid a $2,000 fine and didn't even have to appear before a judge. 

But the hits just keep on coming. From 1976 to 1978 (per People), he was arrested more than once on drug- and alcohol-related incidentsRolling Stone reports that in 1981, Lewis nearly died after developing a two-inch ulcer related to overconsumption of alcohol, amphetamines, and barbiturates. In fact, after the death of his wife Shawn Stephens in 1983, Lewis was mostly concerned with keeping up his drug habit. According to The Village Voice, he called a local bar because he was after hypodermic needles, claiming that the "cops cleaned [him] out" in their investigations after discovering Stephens' body earlier that day. In 1986, Lewis had to be hospitalized for drug detoxification in Nashville, after which he was transferred to the Betty Ford Center in California for rehab.

He made the IRS very angry

Not only was Jerry Lee Lewis a pioneer in rock 'n' roll, but he was also among the first to engage in the commonplace rock star tradition of failing to pay one's taxes. Needless to say, the government did not approve. 

In fact, the feds were so adamant that Lewis pay taxes on what had become substantial concert tour earnings that they raided his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi. As the Associated Press reports, in 1979, the IRS seized Lewis' property in an attempt to settle an outstanding $274,000 tax debt. They took the Killer's cars, motorcycles, a tractor, jewelry, musical instruments, electronics, and guns. Agents held a property auction in 1980 on all those goods, but only 150 bidders showed up, and the event raised a mere $91,382. 

The case dragged on into the '80s, with Lewis being found innocent of tax evasion in 1984 but still on the hook for what he owed the government, leading to another seizure in 1985 of cars, a jet ski, and most sadly, a mechanical bull. In 1988, Lewis went ahead and filed for bankruptcy, citing personal debts of $3 million, of which $2 million were comprised of taxes.

Jerry Lee Lewis enjoys a little gunplay

At his 41st birthday party in September 1976, according to Nick Tosches Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis played around with what he'd later tell police was an empty .357 magnum handgun. However, it wasn't empty, as he accidentally (but non-fatally) shot his bassist, Norman "Butch" Owens, in the chest.

Then in the middle of the night on November 23, an angry, screaming, gun-waving Lewis drove up to Graceland and demanded an audience with Elvis Presley. "He was outta his mind, man,'" Graceland gate guard Harold Loyd told Elvis Australia. Loyd called into the main house, where an associate of Presley urged the guard to call the police. When Officer Billy Kirkpatrick arrived and approached Lewis in his Lincoln Continental, he saw that the singer had a .38 caliber pistol sitting on his knee. Lewis wouldn't step out of the car, repeating his sole desire was only to talk with Presley, so Kirkpatrick had to pull him out. The officer grabbed Lewis' (unlicensed) firearm, which was loaded and fully cocked. Lewis — slurring his speech, unsure on his feet, and reeking of alcohol — was arrested. The musician later told the president of his fan club that he only went out to Graceland because "Elvis called him and asked him to come out of the house to talk to him," and that he didn't have a permit for the gun in his possession because he'd just been gifted it by a policeman.

Jerry Lee Lewis sued his own daughter

Around 2000, Phoebe Lewis-Loftin moved into the Nesbit, Mississippi, home of her father, Jerry Lee Lewis, in order to serve as both a business manager and in-home caretaker for the aging musician. While she had no experience in these lines of work, she signed on and agreed to a deal in which she received half of all her father's musical income. Plus, she was granted power of attorney. 

But according to a suit filed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Lewis-Loftin deposited every cent her father earned into bank accounts to which only she had access. Shortly after Lewis married his seventh wife, Judith, in 2012, he fired Lewis-Loftin as his manager, revoked power of attorney, and the parties saw each other in court over charges of theft and — in the case of Lewis-Loftin's husband, Zeke — defaming "the Killer" on Facebook. In May 2019, shortly after the 84-year-old Lewis suffered a minor stroke, a judge dismissed most of the suit, ruling that the statute of limitations had passed.