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

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

Exactly the relationship with spirituality would later on become a problem, such as when the young Jerry Lee was kicked out of the Christian college he attended, the one that was supposed to make him 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 to switch to other activities, going beyond the 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. Which other chances did he have to escape from the deep south and live a better life?

His parents knew it and for this reason they’ve bet everything on him and his talent, mortgaging the house for a piano and paying his lessons: sooner or later his skills and the nerve that distinguished him from an early age would have led him at the top of the music business.

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 the 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 where Elvis Presley had timidly approached to offer his talent to the world: Jerry Lee, 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 dad Elmo, who was supposed to accompany his son: the cost was prohibitive. Jerry Lee did some maths and found out that selling thirty-three dozen eggs at the market, and adding to that a lot of thrift, he could be able to pay the journey for the occasion of his life.

Father and son managed to earn that money and suddenly the way for 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 side there was Sam Phillips announcing his coming to Ferriday.

This time the trip wouldn’t have been a problem.

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

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

Phillips decided to bet everything on his new ambitious and reckless artist, who with that song established himself in the charts and became the Rock’N’Roll Killer, ready to undermine Presley’s reign. But to take the next step a hit was nevessary, 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 for Jerry Lee Great Balls Of Fire.

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 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 was used to express exasperation, but which was also used to show appreciation for something in a colorful way. In his very far origins, the expression came from some biblical passages and then evolved into an exclamation of amazement. It could be assimilated to the “Great Scott!” 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 typical of the early rock’n’roll songs – a story of sex between two novice lovers, aware of doing something forbidden, but 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 Jerry Lee’s style, who on the onehand conquers the boys with his provocative, rebel sensuality, and on the other he disturbs the parents, terrified by the seductive capacity of this blonde Lucifer. And seduction was in fact one of Lewis’ distinguishing marks, also because at the time of Great Balls Of Fire he was already at his third marriage. His new bride was Myra Gale Brown, a 13-year-old far 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 Jerry. 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 that trip, underestimating the risks. The identity and above all 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 canceled 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 flew away and no one remained on his side, forcing him to years of darkness. At the end of the sixties, Lewis recycled himself as a country singer and succeeded to get 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 just his 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

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