There was a reason they called Jerry Lee Lewis “The Killer.” Jerry Lee was bombastic, wild, crazy charismatic and endlessly energetic on stage. He could barely sit down on the bench as he played his rollicking piano. He shook his head up and down, wavy hair flying through the air. His eyes flared and he stomped on the keys with the heel of his foot. Limbs flailing everywhere. The audience would be so caught up in the performance that no one wanted to follow him on stage. Jerry Lee was a killer. When his performance was finished, so too was the audience.
Legend has it that Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry were playing a double bill in 1957, and there was a disagreement about who have the coveted spot of closing the show. Berry had more hits to his credit, so Jerry Lee would play first and Berry would get to be the closer. But Berry obviously forgot. He forgot that Jerry Lee was The Killer. Jerry Lee got on stage, and his hair flailed. He stood up and banged on the keyboard with his feet. He gave it everything he had. And then he poured gasoline on the piano from a Coca-Cola bottle and lit a match. Jerry Lee played that piano as it burned, smoke billowing from its belly. The audience erupted in shock, awe and jubilation. As Jerry Lee walked off the stage, he smiled at Berry and said “There. Try to follow that.”
Turns out, it may be that Jerry Lee Lewis was a killer both on stage and off, as there is real, tangible evidence that he probably murdered one of his many wives, maybe two of them. We don’t know for sure, but we do know for sure that Jerry Lee married his underage cousin. We know that he evaded paying taxes, that he shot his bass player in the chest, and that he was arrested one night trying to break into Graceland so he could murder Elvis Presley.
“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”
We also know that Jerry Lee Lewis made great music, and while he has had a long, tumultuous and fascinating career, in many ways, his career begins and ends on October 8, 1957 when he recorded “Great Balls of Fire” in Memphis, TN at the famous Sun Studios. Written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, Lewis recorded the song with only himself on piano, and studio musicians on bass and drums, who he would never see again.
The song begins with a quick four notes played by piano, bass and drums in unison, and then they stop. Jerry Lee sings, the first line with no instrumentation, then the band plays five notes together, and then stops, followed by five more notes. The interplay between the staccato music and the A Capella vocals creates a delicious tension. The rubber band is being wound tighter and tighter as Jerry Lee’s voice cracks on the last line of the opening stanza as he sings “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!”
The the band breaks loose and is off to the races. All three instruments playing in unison as Jerry Lee’s hands race up and down the entirety of the piano keyboard.
“I laughed at love ’cause I thought it was funny
You came along and you moved me honey
I’ve changed my mind, this love is fine
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire”
“Great Balls of Fire” is a song about love and passion, but Jerry Lee heard the title phrase itself at church while growing up in Ferriday, Louisiana when they talked about hell and damnation. While the tape was rolling in that little back office studio in the autumn of 1957, Jerry Lee and producer Sam Phillips debated and argued about heaven and hell, and whether or not a good Christian could record a song called “Great Balls of Fire.” For over four minutes the tape rolls, and Phillips works tirelessly to convince Jerry Lee that it is OK to record this song, that rock and roll is not evil, and that they would not all be going to hell for heresy. It’s a fascinating conversation, and a wonderful insight into the ethical struggles certain people were experiencing at the time with this new music they loved so much.
The song is lean and sinewy. The tension builds and releases throughout the recording. At the bridge, we start to get into some details, and we understand why Jerry Lee might have been concerned.
“Kiss me baby, ooh, feels good
Hold me baby
Well, I’ll still love you like a lover should
You’re fine, so kind
Got to tell this world that you’re mine, mine, mine, mine.”
The piano rolls a bit as the bridge begins, and Jerry Lee quietly begs her to give him a kiss, “…feels good.” The band stops while Jerry Lee sings “You’re fine” followed by same staccato notes we heard at the beginning of the song, “so kind” and as the band falls in behind him Jerry Lee loses it as he tells the world that “your mine, mine, mine.”
“I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs
I’m real nervous but it sure is fun
Come on baby, you drive me crazy
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.”
Ultimately, Jerry Lee would be his own worst enemy. Though he had a string of hits in the late 1950’s, the PR backlash to the marriage to his underage cousin almost ended his career. He had a resurgence in the 1970’s with some excellent country music recordings, but never with the passion and success of his. early recordings. Jerry Lee Lewis continues to record and perform today at 85 years old.
“Great Balls of Fire” is truly one of the great songs of the rock and roll era, and it is up to you if you can still enjoy music created by someone who you know has done some pretty terrible things. Sadly, the history of rock and roll music is densely populated with such characters (I’ll let you do that research on your own), but goodness gracious, this is one perfect song.
“Great Balls of Fire”
Written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer
Performed by Jerry Lee Lewis
Released November 11, 1957