Friday, November 23, 2007

50 years ago: “Great Balls of Fire” charted

Great Balls of Fire

Jerry Lee Lewis

Writer(s): Otis Blackwell, Jack Hammer (see lyrics here)

First Charted: November 23, 1957

Peak: 2 US, 2 CB, 2 HR, 12 CW, 3 RB, 12 UK, 1 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, -- UK, 5.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 0.51 video, 98.8 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Some of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest architects walked a fine line between their religious Southern upbringings and the shockingly sexual and aggressive style that defined early rock music. With a musical prowess birthed as much from the black honky-tonks as the Assembly of God Church, AC Lewis concocted an uncomfortable blend of music inspired by God and the devil. He got booted from Bible college AC for “playing hymns boogie-woogie style.” TB His “onstage terrorization of the piano” FR earned him the nickname “The Killer.”

Nowhere was Lewis’ musical dichotomy more on display than with “Great Balls of Fire,” a song that “transcends everything doctrinaire and theoretical.” DM This is “nerve shaking, frame rattling, brain charring – rock ‘n’ roll at its most primal.” DT Jerry Lee’s signature song was “full of Southern Baptist hellfire turned into a near-blasphemous ode to pure lust.” RS500 Lewis realized the shock in 1957 of such sexual innuendo coming from a Southern music man SF and initially refused to sing the song. RS500 He argued with Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips that “recording the song would send him straight to hell.” SS Phillips eventually won out, thanks to the ever-flowing liquor during the session. RS500

The song came to Lewis via songwriter Otis Blackwell. He was a poor kid from Brooklyn, New York, the first black man to really tap into the Nashville sound, dominating the country and rock charts in the mid to late-‘50s. AC He wrote “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” for Elvis Presley. After seeing Lewis perform on TV, he sent a demo of “Great Balls of Fire” to Sun Records. Both Phillips and Lewis knew it was a hit AH worthy of following Lewis’ breathrough hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Regarding Blackwell’s writing partner, Jack Hammer, several accounts say his sole contribution is coming up with the title and selling it to Blackwell. LW

The song was a “refinement of the ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ formula but it has a few differences that give the song far more impact.” AH “Great Balls of Fire” “has a much more dynamic opening, one that sets the tone for the whole record with its stop-start exclamations” AH that are reminiscent of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.”

It wouldn’t be much longer before Lewis’ career would come crashing down in flames. In May 1958, he was in the UK for a tour and the press asked who the girl was with him. It emerged that it was his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra – and his bride. The tour was cancelled and Lewis returned home in disgrace. He would revive his career years later on the country charts, but would never again reclaim the pop and rock glory he had in the 1950s.


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Last updated 8/23/2023.

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