May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire!

3 min read
Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis

One of the founding fathers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, put out his #1 hit, “Great Balls of Fire,” on this day (Oct 8th), in 1957. This pianist, with god-like talent, recorded “Great Balls of Fire” at Rock ‘n’ Roll headquarters, Sun Studio, in Memphis, Tennessee. Sun Studio recorded some of, if not, the greatest talent of this generation. Along with great single hits, like the aforementioned, Lewis is famous for being part of the Million Dollar Quartet, which consisted of himself, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. If you aren’t familiar with these names, they are “Great Balls of Fire,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” respectively.

If you still don’t know these people…

What universe are you from? Or you must be from the Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber generation. Either way, you are hopeless.

Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis

But back to Great Balls of Fire. This great hit had overtly sexual undertones, which made Lewis uncomfortable. This song was so provocative in nature that Jerry Lee Lewis was hesitant to record it; he wasn’t going to record it, but Sam Phillips encouraged him too. He had reason to worry though. After the release of this song, many stations boycotted it.

It was during an argument about recording this song that Lewis is quoted as saying,

I got the devil in me!

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He had an interesting past though, especially with any reference to religion. In Johnny Cash’s autobiography he mentioned Jerry Lee Lewis had a continuous internal struggle about the music he wrote. Lewis believed that his music was sinful and would lead himself and his listeners to hell.

Lewis was brought up in a very religious household. His older cousin was the famous televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart. In 1950, Lewis’s mother sent him to Southwest Bible Institute (SBI) in Waxahachie, Texas, so that he could continue his career path in music performance. This was so Lewis would learn and exclusively sing evangelical songs. At a church assembly talent show, at SBI, Lewis played his personal, boogie-woogie version of “My God is Real.” This did not go over well and the next day Lewis was expelled. Several years later, one of his friends from SBI had the following conversation with him:

“Are you still playing the devil’s music?”

Lewis replied, “Yes, I am. But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.” [1]

Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown
Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown

So, Great Balls of Fire is released, Jerry Lee Lewis becomes famous, and he started to tour. On a British tour, in May of 1958, the Jerry Lee Lewis scandal unfolded, ending his hopes of furthering his career. It was found by a journalist that Lewis’s current wife (number three of seven) was not only a thirteen-year-old minor, but his cousin. Lewis, at the age of twenty-two, his manager, and his wife (Myra Brown) tried to tell the media that she was fifteen. Once this news was public, his tour ended and Lee came back to America. Once back in America, he still had rough times ahead of him. He was blacklisted from most venues and almost vanished from the face of the earth.