Goodness gracious! Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ & beyond

Jerry Lee Lewis - Great Balls of Fire

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Singer Jerry Lee Lewis sparks Jamboree (1957)

Article from The Sedalia Democrat (Missouri) January 5, 1958

A Louisiana boy with the fervor of a music with-the-modern-beat is burning up the radio, television and film industries with an impact not felt since Frank Sinatra, Johnny Bay or Elvis Presley became triple threats.

He is 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, of Ferriday, Louisiana.

Jerry Lee skyrocketed to the top of popularity and record sales with a catchy number entitled, “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,”‘ and on the strength of his singing appearances on national television shows, he was cast by Warner Bros. in “Jamboree.”

Jerry Lee Lewis

The film premieres today at the Uptown Theatre, and features 17 top-name recording artists and 19 of the nation’s favorite disc jockeys in what is promised to be the hottest jam session on celluloid ever.

“Jamboree,” a full-length musical filmed in New York and produced by Max Rosenberg’s Vanguard Productions, introduces Jerry Lee and a song written especially for him — “Great Balls of Fire.” The song was written by Otis Blackwell, the tunesmith who gave Elvis PresleyDon’t Be Cruel” and other top-sellers.

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The Louisiana singer portrays himself in “Jamboree,” highlighting a music convention and a national telethon where he introduces his “Great Balls of Fire” rendition.

Billboard Nov 11, 1957 Jamboree

He made a tremendous impact on the nation’s television audience last July with his “Shakin'” song on the Steve Allen Show. So overwhelming was the mail and demand for a return visit that Jerry Lee returned on Allen’s show to repeat the same song. It was the first time an artist had been brought back for an encore within two weeks.

Jerry Lee, a taciturn individual of rugged appeal, sings what he calls “music with a modern beat.”

His stint in “Jamboree,” “Great Balls of Fire,” had all the technicians bouncing with the infectious beat, and Director Roy Lockwood called for two repeats even after a satisfactory screen filming had been made just to appease Lewis’ aficionados on the set.

“Jamboree” features 20 new songs to be introduced with the release of the film.

Jerry Lee Lewis - Great Balls of Fire

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Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Great Balls Of Fire”

As seen on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show on February 14, 1958. (The song starts at 1:10 into the video.)

YouTube video

Dick Clark, Pat Boone and Jerry Lee Lewis 1958
Dick Clark, Pat Boone and Jerry Lee Lewis 1958
The Ed Sullivan Show was a launchpad for legends (1948-1971)

Jerry Lee Lewis’ single “Great Balls of Fire”

From Billboard Nov 25, 1957

MORE: Hear his hit songs here!

Billboard Nov 25, 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis Great Balls of Fire

Jerry Lee: Profile of a pumping piano (1970)

By Jack Hurst, The Tennessean (Memphis, TN) February 8, 1970

He came out of the Frantic Fifties, James Dean days when teen queens — a pony-tailed, white socks-and-blue jeans lot — fainted dead as he laid it down.

“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain — Yo’ kind o’ love drive a man insane…”

Long and lithe after 15 years of rattling concert stages, causing teen riots, and raising international musical hell, he stopped at the bottom of the Ramada Lounge steps and peered abruptly into the dimness. His face had the old ears-laid-back took of a generation that thought of itself as Bad.

The man who wanted to talk rose and introduced himself.

“Good to meet you, Killer,’’ Jerry Lee Lewis said generally. bringing the words out around a large green cigar that did not look much like Teensville.

He slid in behind a table and ordered a beer, his dark blonde hair combed and set in the way it has always looked when he steps onto a stage, before he gets going good.

There are a few more lines around his eyes now, but Jerry Lee does not seem to have aged as much as some of his old-time hard-rolling Memphis buddies. But like them — Johnny Cash and CarL Perkins and that crowd — the man’s got style.

“I never learned nothin’ from nobody,” he said as he chewed rather than puffed a drag from his cigar. He exhaled, removed the cigar from his mouth, and studied its ash.

“Ever’thing I ever learned I learned from me. First thing I learned how to play on the piano was ‘Silent Night’ — and I played it Jerry-Lee-Lewis-style.”’

That style, though it has had its imitators, has never quite been duplicated. Jerry Lee was a white Southern pianist-singer when most of the prominent rock pianist-singers were Southern black men.

In those days — when old Sun Records in Memphis used to hill him as “Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano’ — his instrumental licks may have sounded sometimes a little like some of his black competitors, men like Fats Domino and Little Richard.

Plain, Old White

But the voice the “pumping piano” accompanied never sounded the least bit like any of them. It was plain old, white, almost-Mississippi — straight out of the Assembly of God Church (and certain “clubs”) in Ferriday, La.

“The stuff they call rock now isn’t anything like the rock we played,” he said when asked about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and today’s West Coast Hard Rock.

“I don’t see much connection between it and the stuff Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis and me did. There are a few singers around who have some of the same flavor — Joe South, for instance. But most of what they call rock now isn’t the same kind of thing.”

The thing Jerry Lee Lewis played in the late 1950s, in his earliest 20s, included landmark songs of rock and roll which sold in the multi-millions.

Now He’s Country

Now he classifies himself as a country singer as he appears on the network television shows of such people as Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, and Johnny Cash. One week not long ago he had the No. 1 Country Single and the top two Country Albums in the trade magazine charts.

“But ever’ time I get on a stage I have to play some of the old ones — people’d want their money back if I didn’t,” he said. “And how’m I gonna kick somethin’ that made me a million dollars?”

Good question.

Jerry Lee was born in Ferriday, a little Louisiana farm town nine miles across the River from Natchez. Miss. He had two sisters and no brothers, and his daddy was a farmer who did a little carpentering. He and his sisters and parents — and a number of first cousins — sang at home and in the local Assembly of God Church.

‘Old Pro’

When the Lewises’ one son began trying to get into the recording business, he was 20 years old. He had been playing the piano for 12 years, six of them as a pro.

“I started workin’ in the clubs around Ferriday when I was fourteen,” he recalled over the beer. “You could do that then — it was different. The club owners’d just tell the law I was 21.”

He went first to Nashville. Nashville’s country executives must not have liked his revved-up piano, for those were days when departures from the norm were regarded as anathema. Departures from the norm went to Memphis.

“I read an article somewhere about Elvis getting started at this Memphis company called Sun, and I figured that was where Id try next, We sold 31 dozen eggs and headed for Memphis, my daddy and me.”

Sun producer Jack Clement, now a prestigious Nashville producer who owns his own new studio, auditioned Lewis and liked him, Sun president Sam Phillips signed him to a contract.

Perkins Remembers

Carl Perkins, a Johnny Cash Show regular who was in the process of selling two million copies of “Blue Suede Shoes” for Sun at the time, remembers Jerry Lee’s first days in Memphis.

“He just played piano in the studio there at Sun for a while,” Perkins says, ‘‘He played on my ‘Matchbox,’ I remember, and a few of John’s (Cash’s) records, Then one day he came up with this rockin’ beat on the old country song ‘Crazy Arms’ and they let him record it.”’

Jerry Lee’s first Sun personal appearance tour was with Perkins and Johnny Cash.

“He was a great piano player and a great singer, but at first about all he did was sit there at the piano and sing,” Perkins recalls. “Then one night up in Calgary, Canada, some of us asked him why he didn’t just kick that old piano stool and really lay it on them.

“Well, he did. He kicked it so hard he almost knocked it off the stage, and his hair flopped, and the audience come up on the edge of its seat. He tore the house down, and he’s been doing the same thing ever since.”

One of the Biggest…

About this time he recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a recording that was to become one of the biggest hits of the rock and roll era, But it did not start off that way.

Its millions of sales came hard, for Jerry Lee — whose piano already had been too raunchy for country music and whose stage performances now were beginning to resemble those of the controversial Elvis — was patenting a style that challenged the status quo,

“Whole Lotta Shakin'” — which exhorted some nameless teen queen to ‘shake it, baby, shake it’ before any other record had done so — was adjudged obscene by radio stations. When its sales had reached a respectable 60,000 copies or so, it was banned from the air.

“But Steve Allen (whose Steve Allen Show was staging price fights with competitor Ed Sulli- van for the shaking, crooning Elvis Presley) heard the song and liked it,’ Jerry Lee said.

“I was an unknown, and people like Steve Allen usually didn’t invest a lot of time or money in unknowns. But he got me to do the song on his television show, and that record took off and started selling 50,000 and 60,000 a day.”

He grinned with a cynicism he has come by honestly.

“Course, they took the ban off of it then.”

He said that spot on the Steve Allen Show was the most important date he ever played.


Months went by as he rocked through some more big ones — “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,”’ “High School Confidential” (and a role in a rock movie of the same title). These did not sell as many millions of copies as ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’,” but then hardly anything does. But they were all million-sellers.

Then, in England, he hit the skids in a press conflagration of controversiality that proved to be too much even for an irrepressible country boy like Jerry Lee Lewis, who thrived on it.

It concerned the fact he had married a cousin of his who was in her early teens (and who is the woman to whom he is married now, a decade later).

‘‘My records started not getting distributed and it seemed like nobody would get the business problems straightened out,”’ he said. ‘“People still liked me, but they couldn’t find my records anywhere, and you know, man, that makes it a little tough.” 

He said he still made a lot of money on personal appearances throughout a long dry spell of record sales. But during that time he is known to have played a few places that were not exactly plum-bookings.

“But you can’t keep that kind of talent down,” Perkins said the other day as Jerry Lee Lewis warmed up for his videotaping of a guest shot on ABC-TV’s Johnny Cash Show.

Coming Back

After a few years of at least relatively hard times, Jerry Lee switched labels — to Nashville’s Smash, for which Roger Miller also records — sporting a slowed-down enunciation and the same old pumping piano he brought with him from Sun.

Now a cowboy-booted ve Lee (in the old days he wore Joafers) is back in the saddle again. 

‘‘We’re sellin’ more records now than ever,” he said that afternoon at the Ramada, although he was maybe pushing it a little.

Thursday night, he sang a couple of his recent big country hits — songs like ‘‘What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)” and ‘‘She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”

But of course, before it was over he had to lay back his ears. and hit me with the old unstoppable Lewis that has managed to survive, and live comfortably with, the controversiality of its own energy:

“Now just kind of stand there in one spot and… kind of wiggle it around just a little bit,” he cooed lasciviously in the middle of the ‘obscenest’ part of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ ” that night as the cameras rolled…

The piano stool had long gone over backward and the blond hair was falling awry.

And old Jerry Lee was being predictably and masterfully outrageous.

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