The Seven Wives Of Jerry Lee Lewis
The rise of rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s marked a revolutionary shift in both music and culture. Iconic personalities such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis discarded conventions, embracing a wild, and loud musical style that seamlessly blended the best elements of R&B and country.
Onstage, they shook things up, banged their instruments, and passionately sang about youthful love and desire. Jerry Lee Lewis, a major force in '50s rock, produced memorable, piano-driven hits like "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "High School Confidential," solidifying his status as a pivotal and influential figure in the era.
As much as he helped lay down the charged-up sound, frenetic vibe, and undercurrent of rebellion that would all come to define rock 'n' roll, Lewis was also a pioneer behind building the perception of rock n' roll stars living wild, messy, and chaotic personal lives. One reason why the early rock superstar was prevented from evolving into an enduring rock figure: His romantic life was so tumultuous, controversial, and fraught with perceived immorality and illegality. Here's a look into the long and turbulent relationship history of the late Jerry Lee Lewis.
Marriage Number 1 - Dorothy Barton
According to Nick Tosches' "Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story," Lewis and the woman who would become his first wife met in the summer of 1951, in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana. Dorothy Barton was the daughter of a local Pentecostal minister, Reverend Jewell E. Barton. In February 1952, after Lewis turned 16 and Barton was 17, they went to get a marriage license at the Concordia Parish Court House. Lewis lied on the application, claiming to be 21, and Barton listed her correct age, although he later claimed that he was even younger. "I was 14 when I first got married," Lewis told People. "My wife was too old for me." To support her, Lewis agreed to follow in the footsteps of her father and become a preacher. But he never got around to it, preferring instead to play music in bars.
By mid-1953, Barton had left Lewis and filed for divorce. According to Newsweek, that split hadn't been legally finalized when Lewis remarried later that year. Technically, the union lasted just 20 months.
Marriage Number 2 - Jane Mitchum
Less than a year after splitting up with Dorothy Barton, Jerry Lee Lewis was ready to get hitched again — or maybe not, because he claims that he was forced to do so by his second wife's family. According to HITC, in 1953 Lewis married the former Jane Mitcham. "One day she told me she was going to have my child," Lewis recalled to People.
He apparently didn't act quickly enough to ensure that the child wasn't born out of wedlock, so Mitcham's siblings spurred Lewis into marital action: "Her brothers were hunting me with whips. I was real worried, so I married her, but never properly."
Nevertheless, the early days of the marriage led to the burgeoning rock star's first child, a boy they named Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. In 1957, the marriage ended, but there remains some mystery as to how and why. Lewis claims the wedding was never legally valid, rendering Mitcham's filing for divorce unnecessary. Still, what was left of the marriage, legally speaking, hadn't been completely dissolved by the time Lewis had moved on to wife No. 3.
Marriage Number 3 - Myra Gale Brown
After two brief marriages before he was of legal voting age, Jerry Lee Lewis got married again, at age 22. But when the specifics of that relationship became known to the public, the backlash was so severe that Lewis' tremendous early career momentum was cut off. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Lewis exchanged vows in December 1957 with Myra Gale Brown, daughter of his supporting bassist, J.W. Brown. She was also Lewis' cousin — and she was 13 years old when she walked down the aisle.
In early 1958, Lewis headed to England for a tour that should have expanded his fame and popularity, which were on a rapid rise in the U.S. with hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," according to Cuepoint. He brought his wife of 5 months with him, and when he landed in London, reporters wanted to talk about nothing but his bride. He introduced her as his wife, but he unsuccessfully tried to downplay the scandal by telling the press that Brown was 15, not 13. No longer welcome in England, Lewis returned home, where the news about his teenage bride had preceded him, further damaging his celebrity. Radio stations refused to play his records and his earnings from live appearances, when he could find one, dropped from a reported $10,000 a night to just $250.
The marriage lasted 13 years and produced two children, Phoebe and Steve. The former Myra Gale Brown alleged that Lewis abused her physically and mentally. "It was all my fault — she caught me cheating," Lewis later admitted.
The Death Of Their 3-Yr-Old Son
Rock 'n' roll was so brash and controversial at its outset that Jerry Lee Lewis' early hit "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" was banned by many radio stations that alleged it was indecent.
But popular TV host Steve Allen invited Lewis onto his eponymous talk show in 1957 to perform the song, according to People. Lewis and his third wife, Myra Lee Brown, welcomed their first of two children in February 1959, a son, and they named him Steve Allen Lewis in tribute to the entertainer who had provided such a big opportunity and vote of confidence.
The family lived in a large house in Memphis, complete with a swimming pool. It would be the site of a tragic event that haunted Lewis for years — at age three, Steve Allen Lewis drowned in the pool, according to Find a Grave. The death was the first of several that would send Lewis into a self-destructive spiral in which he self-medicated with copious amounts of alcohol and narcotics.
The Deaths Of His Eldest Child And His Second Wife
The marriage of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jane Mitcham, wife No. 2, produced two children, the eldest being Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., born in 1953. The younger Lewis took after his father musically, and while just a teenager he joined his father's band as a drummer, according to People.
In November 1973, just days after performing with his father in a comeback attempt on the live-music TV series "Midnight Special," and a week after his 19th birthday, Lewis Jr., known by relatives as Junior, died in a car accident near Hernando, Mississippi, according to The New York Times. He was driving alone in a Jeep near his father's farm on a rural route when he flipped it over. He was killed instantly. The death of Junior, closely following the cancer-related death of his beloved mother, pushed the elder Lewis into substance abuse. "I was drinking heavy," he told People. "I needed a fifth of tequila just to sober up. It wasn't the marriages that brought me down. It was just the passing of the caskets."
Marriage Number 4 - Jaren Gunn Pate
In Myra Gale Brown's court filings, she alleged that her estranged husband had threatened to hire operatives to throw her into a river and to attack her with acid, according to the Village Voice.
After that divorce was finalised in 1970, the 36-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis got hitched again the same year, marrying a 28-year-old Memphis woman named Jaren Gunn Pate, with whom he'd been having a dalliance. By the time they wedded, Pate was already pregnant with Lewis' child. Over the course of the 1970s, Lewis and Pate separated, then got back together, sued each other for divorce, patched things up, separated once more, and tried for divorce once more. Through all that, according to Vulture, the pair lived together in the first month of the marriage and never again.
In a 1979 filing, Pate alleged that Lewis had victimized her with adultery, prolific alcohol and drug use, and cruelty. The marriage was poised to be legally dissolved in 1982, but Pate's sudden death precluded that.
With a divorce settlement in motion and almost legally complete in the early 1980s, ending a stormy decade of marriage, Jerry Lee Lewis' fourth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, told a Mississippi court that when she'd called her soon-to-be-former husband to discuss the financial terms of the arrangement, he told her it wouldn't be an issue. "You are not going to be around very long anyway," he reportedly threatened, according to the Village Voice. Pate petitioned a Mississippi court to force Lewis to pay spousal and child support — she was raising their 10-year-old daughter, Lori, alone, and had to resort to food stamps to help offset costs.
In June 1982, according to the Associated Press (via the Tuscaloosa News), Pate's body was discovered in the swimming pool at the home of a friend in Collierville, Tennessee. She was declared dead at a local medical facility. Pate was 38 years old. Per the Village Voice, soon before her death, she had called Lewis to talk about a financial settlement in their divorce proceeding. According to the UPI, authorities later ruled that the drowning was accidental.
Amid the tumult of his relationship with Jaren Gunn Pate, Jerry Lee Lewis' fourth wife gave birth to a daughter named Lori. As part of the dramatic and tragic circumstances of that relationship, which would culminate in separation, divorce, and the sudden death of Pate, Lewis, according to WMC-TV, denied he was the father of the child, who went by the name Lori Lancaster.
In 2011, Lancaster made headlines for her own shocking reasons. Police in Germantown, Tennessee, arrested Lancaster on a charge of criminally negligent homicide following the death of her infant son, per WMC. According to police, Lancaster ingested muscle relaxants. At a local hospital, her five-month-old was declared dead from smothering. Lancaster was released after posting bond.
The identity of Lancaster's father was front and center in the Washington Post: When Lewis died in 2022, Lancaster was listed in the obituary as one of his children.
Marriage Number 5 - Shawn Stephens
Jerry Lee Lewis' fourth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, died on June 8, 1982. Almost a year to the day later, on June 7, 1983, Lewis married Shawn Stephens.
Per Rolling Stone, J.W. Whitten, Lewis' road manager, steered the band to play in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1981. Lewis met Stephens there and invited her to a party in his room.
Stephens married Lewis, moved in, and the relationship took several downward turns, with reports from people close to the couple recalling incidents of domestic violence and Lewis growing obsessed with setting up a sexual encounter between him, his wife, and his wife's sister.
Just 78 days after the wedding, Shawn Lewis was dead, according to the Village Voice. When she didn't wake up on the morning of August 24, 1983, Lewis' household staff investigated and found the former Shawn Stephens with heavy bruises on her arms and hip, and blood in her hair, on her hand, under her fingernails, and on her undergarments, the carpet, and the furniture. A first responder noted that there were fingernail-type claw marks on Lewis' hand. An autopsy was conducted, and her death was attributed to an overdose of methadone. The fifth Mrs. Lewis was 25 years old. According to the Evening Times, she was believed to be pregnant at the time of her death.
Marriage Number 6 - Kerrie McCarver
In April 1984, Jerry Lee Lewis, 48 years old, married wife No. 6: 21-year-old Kerrie McCarver, who made "the Killer" her second husband, per Action News 5. McCarver was a musician too, part of the McCarver Sisters vocal trio with her siblings Sherrie and Dee-Dee, popular in and around Memphis at the time. J.D. Davis' "Unconquered" noted that the wedding came 10 months after the death of Lewis' fifth wife, Shawn Stephens Lewis.
Lewis and McCarver had a son named Jerry Lee Lewis III, and in 2005, not long after his 18th birthday, the couple filed for divorce. A judge approved a financial settlement, to which both parties agreed in June 2005, in lieu of courtroom proceedings. "It's been a long day and it's been an expensive day," Lewis told reporters outside the Mississippi courthouse, declining to reveal any details because records of the case had been sealed.
He got to keep his 40-acre ranch in northern Mississippi, but he had to hit the road on a tour to make good on the financial obligations resulting from the divorce settlement. "We leave for Europe June 24," tour manager J.W. Whitten said. "We needed this to be over just so we could get back to making some money." Lewis was unattached for the next seven years, by far the longest "bachelor" period of his adult life.
Marriage Number 7 - Judith Brown
At age 76, Jerry Lee Lewis married for the seventh, and final, time. According to WTHR, Lewis met the former Judith Brown Coghlan when her ex-husband gave her a job as the rock 'n' roll star's in-home caretaker. They married in a small wedding in Natchez, Mississippi, in March 2012, attended only by Brown's sister and her husband, and Lewis' sister and her spouse.
"To the people that think there's never going to be someone out there for them to love, just wait until they're in their 60s and 70s," Brown said. "It's better than ever." Brown was 62 years old, Lewis 76, according to Newsweek.
Free of the public scandal and tension endemic to so many of Lewis' previous marriages, the marriage lasted 10 years, and she was at the rocker's side when he died, per Rolling Stone. But a notable complication from their past connects back to the singer's most famous and controversial coupling. According to CNN, Brown was once married to Rusty Brown, Lewis' cousin — the brother of Myra Gale Brown, also Lewis' cousin and his third wife, who he had married in 1957, when she was a teenager.
Jerry Lee Lewis' seventh and last marriage wasn't as quiet and pleasant as Judith Brown may have suggested. According to RadarOnline, the couple filed a lawsuit against his daughter Phoebe and her husband, Ezekiel Loftin, for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other claims after Loftin authored some Facebook posts about Lewis. In the filings, Lewis and other family members accused the Loftins of unnecessarily sedating the musician, committing elder abuse, and stealing millions of dollars from his fortune. Phoebe Lewis Loftin had managed her father's personal and professional life from 2000 to 2012 (around the time he married Brown, his former caregiver, per The Sun), and she took advantage of the arrangement, Lewis and Brown alleged.
In March 2017, Tennessee judge Diane K. Vescovo dismissed the case, finding that Lewis and Brown hadn't properly proved that the matter came under the legal jurisdiction of Tennessee, where they had filed. At the time, Loftin resided in Virginia, Lewis and Brown in Mississippi.
Jerry Lee Lewis left an unparalleled legacy in the world of rock 'n' roll. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians is immeasurable, and his impact can be heard in the work of artists ranging from Elton John to Bruce Springsteen. The Killer's distinctive style, blending boogie-woogie, country, and R&B, continues to reverberate through the corridors of musical history.