Great Balls of Fire: the rise and fall of Jerry Lee Lewis

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This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

When you are born in Louisiana in the 1930s and you belong to a poor family, you have very few chances for distractions or fun, especially if you are trying to not starve because of the Great Depression. Jerry Lee Lewis lived in Ferryday and since childhood he had been fascinated by the music coming from the radio and the songs he listened to when he snuck into Haney’s Big House, the place where Delta Blues was officiated as a religion.

But his relationship with spirituality would later on become a problem, such as when a young Jerry Lee was kicked out of the Christian college he attended; the one that was supposed to turn him into a representative of religious music. A fiery version of My God Is Real showed how unorthodox the approach of the blond pianist was in the songs dedicated to the Lord, and for that reason he was invited by the presidency of the college to switch to other activities, to go beyond sacred songs.

But the call of the music was too strong, and Jerry Lee had a natural talent: if he couldn’t sing for the Lord, then he would do it for the Devil. What other chance did he have to escape from the deep south and live a better life?

His parents knew it, and for this reason they bet everything on him and his talent, mortgaging the house for a piano and paying for his lessons. And soon, his skills and the nerve that set him apart him from an early age would lead him to the top of the music business – they were sure of it.

He tried to knock on the doors of some record companies in Nashville, but he couldn’t leave a mark, nor arouse much interest in auditions. He had to go to Memphis, which at that time was the capital of the new rampant religion among young people: rock ‘n’ roll.

Sam Phillips’ Sun Records was the place that Elvis Presley had timidly approached to offer his talent to the world. Lewis, like many of his future colleagues, wanted to do the same, following the footsteps of the King of rock ‘n roll.

The money was not much and the trip to Tennessee was too expensive for the sparse finances of his father Elmo, who had been supposed to accompany his son. Lewis did some maths and found out by that selling thirty-three dozen eggs at the market, and adding to that a lot of thrift, he would be able to pay for the journey for the most important occasion of his life.

Both father and son managed to earn that money and suddenly, the way to Memphis looked easier. In 1956, Sun smelled like success and money: Elvis’s contract had been sold to RCA for a figure never seen before; money that was immediately reinvested to launch the careers of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his first song, Crazy Arms, under Phillips’ right arm Jack Clement and then returned home, waiting for a sign from Memphis. And from his fate.

My troubled mind knows soon to another you’ll be wed
And that’s why I’m lonely all the time

After a week the phone rang at Lewis’ home: on the other end was Sam Phillips, announcing his trip to Ferriday.

This time, the trip wasn’t going to be a problem.

Crazy Arms was published in 1957 and sold pretty well, but the song that really consecrated the rising star of rock ‘n roll was next one: Whole Lotta Shakin ‘Goin’ On, which showed the wild and rebellious Lewis who, just like Elvis, was the best product for conveying a white rocker with the style of a black musician.

Well, I said come on over baby
We got chicken in the barn

Phillips decided to bet everything on his new, ambitious, reckless artist who had established himself in the charts with his song and had become the rock ‘n roll killer, ready to undermine Presley’s reign. But to take the next step, a hit was necessary, and for this they relied on the pen of Otis Blackwell, one of the best authors of the period. He was the one who wrote Great Balls Of Fire for Lewis.

I learned to love all of Hollywood money
You came along and you moved me honey
I changed my mind, looking fine
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

Blackwell probably had a great time conceiving the piece, which was based on a vulgar expression that was very much in vogue in the southern United States, and therefore known to the pianist. The “Balls of Fire” of the title was a little word pun, taking up an idiomatic phrase which had been used to express exasperation, but that was also used to show appreciation for something in a colourful way. The expression came from biblical passages and had then evolved into an exclamation of amazement. It can be compared to “Great Scott!” as used by Doc in Back to the Future. Or, more simply, today we would say: “Cool!”

Great Balls of Fire told, through the many allusions and ambiguities that were typical of early rock ‘n roll songs, a story of sex between two novice lovers, aware they were doing something forbidden, but who were unable to stop.

You kissed me baby, woo, it feels good
Hold me baby, learn to let me love you like a lover should
You’re fine, so kind
I’m a nervous world that you’re mine mine mine mine

The rhythm of the song is composed by just two instruments – the drums and the piano, the latter played by a frightened Lewis, who infuses all his overwhelming and anarchic impetuosity.

Great Balls Of Fire is the manifesto of Lewis’ style, who on the one hand conquered young people with his provocative, rebel sensuality, while on the other disturbing their the parents, who were terrified by the seductive capacity of this blond Lucifer. And seduction was in fact one of Lewis’ distinguishing marks – especially when you consider that at the time of Great Balls Of Fire’s release he was already on his third marriage. His new bride was Myra Gale Brown, a 13-year-old distant cousin: something that Phillips and his entourage were very careful to hide from the press, so as not to create unnecessary scandals for the restless Lewis. But in the long run, the story came out.

In 1958, when Lewismania was at its peak and there a profitable tour in England was about to come, the Killer demanded to have the girl next to him on the trip, underestimating the risks. The identity and the age of Myra were discovered by the English press, which massacred Lewis and depicted him as a monster that not only infested radios with his diabolical songs, but also represented an incestuous corruptor of girls.

The tour was cancelled, and Lewis departed with his tail between his legs. The scandal of course reached also the United States and ultimately, he had no chance. After only one year as a king, Jerry Lee Lewis had a radiant past behind him, while his future was more uncertain than ever.

Everybody drifted away and no one remained by his side, forcing him into years of darkness. At the end of the sixties, Lewis recycled himself as a country singer and succeeded in getting some satisfaction, but the regret of the past never abandoned him.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a violent, sudden fire that burned everything in a short time and then disappeared, leaving only floating ash. But as long as it lasted, it was “cool”.

I cut my nails and I twiddle my thumbs
I’m really nervous but it sure is fun
Come on baby, you drive me crazy

This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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