1958’s charts began with a bang. The simplicity and energy that rock’n’roll brought to popular music is perhaps never better showcased than in this song – one of the best number 1s of the decade, if not, THE best. The only number 1 with an intro to rival it to date had been Rock Around the Clock, but Great Balls of Fire has aged better. Not only did conflicted wildman Jerry Lee Lewis bring the piano to the forefront for the first time, attacking it with the same reckless abandon that Jimi Hendrix later did with the guitar, he also made the subject of sex overt. Yes, there had been hints creeping in, but Great Balls of Fire is pure lust – a subject matter that Lewis wrestled with, that proved to be his downfall.
Lewis was born into a poor family living in Ferriday, Concordia Parish, Louisiana on 29 September 1935. He loved playing the piano from an early age, so much so that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him one. He became influenced by fellow musical family members, The Great American Songbook and Hank Williams. In an early sign of Lewis’s waywardness, his mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, where she hoped he would begin performing evangelical numbers. Lewis was expelled for playing boogie-woogie versions.
Rock’n’roll was growing in popularity, and was the perfect home for Lewis, who travelled to Memphis Tennessee to audition for Sun Records in November 1956. He passed and began recording his own material as well as assisting greats such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Recordings exist of the three of them jamming with Elvis from that December. Two months later, Lewis recorded his classic version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, which rightly shot him to fame.
His raucous live performances were also making him a force to be reckoned with. He had originally knocked his piano bench over by mistake, but the audience loved it, so it set Lewis free to run riot on his instrument, pounding the keys, climbing on top of it and changing the image of pianists forever.
Great Balls of Fire had originally been written by singer-songwriter Jack Hammer. He had submitted it to Paul Case, who was working on the music film Jamboree (1957). Case didn’t like the song, but loved the title. He went to Otis Blackwell, an established hitmaker who had written Elvis’s All Shook Up, and struck a deal whereby he and Hammer would split the royalties.
Despite Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as a hellraiser, he was a devout Christian, and he struggled with the premise of this next single, which was as racy as music got back then. Initially, he refused to perform it, asking Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, ‘How can the devil save souls?’ However, as the recording session went on, alcohol, and subsequently the devil, won out. Not only did he loosen up enough to take control of the number, leering away at the vocals and treating his piano like a whore, he is heard on bootleg tapes saying ‘I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some’. Quite the turnaround…
Nobody, not even Elvis, would have been able to make Great Balls of Fire the way Lewis did. It fitted his wild image like a glove. It’s a spontaneous, breathless performance that wipes the floor with so much of what came before. He’s a wrecking ball, a force of nature. Unfortunately, Lewis’s reckless ways may have helped make him, but they also broke him.
Four months after he hit number 1 in the UK, he toured the country. Three concerts in, a reporter discovered that Lewis’s third wife (he was only 22) was Myra Gale Brown – his first cousin, once removed. This was newsworthy enough, but Myra was only 13. Shocking stuff, obviously, and Lewis’s career never recovered. Breathless and High School Confidential also entered the top 20 that year, but it was three years before he had a UK hit again – a cover of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. It would be his last.
Three years later, Lewis recorded the acclaimed live album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, with Surrey band The Nashville Teens. It proved that he was still very much firing on all cylinders.
In 1968, ‘The Killer’ made the switch to country music, and it proved a shrewd move, as he enjoyed considerable success, if not quite the impact of his rock’n’roll days. In 1973 he played the Grand Ole Opry for the only time to date.
A year later, and only eight months before Elvis’s death, Lewis was arrested outside Graceland after drunkenly driving to visit him while in possession of a loaded gun. He maintains he had no intention to hurt him.
1986 saw Lewis become one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was back in the public eye in 1989 thanks to the biopic Great Balls of Fire!, with Dennis Quaid starring as the wildman. Surfing a wave of nostalgia, he had a new song in the film Dick Tracy, the following year.
I have to admit to being puzzled by Lewis’s marriage scandal. The 50s are always remembered as a time of conservatism, yet, and I may be betraying some ignorance of the law back then, how come he wasn’t imprisoned? How come Sun Records kept him on? In today’s climate, post-Weinstein and Savile, Jerry Lee Lewis would have been completely finished, and deservedly so. He’s still recording, and trades on his bad-boy image (his 2010 album was called Mean Old Man).
I’d always liked Great Balls of Fire, but listening to it for this blog, in the context of other 1950s number 1s, made me respect it even more. It’s truly pioneering. And yet, it also raised (and not for the last time) the decidedly dodgy subject of enjoying art by morally questionable artists. Gary Glitter also had number 1s, and is reviled, as well he should be, yet other musicians with a dubious sexual history are still considered heroes. Where should we draw the line? I’m not sure I have the answer.
Written by: Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer
Producer: Sam Phillips
Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 January)