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Dec 03

JERRY LEE LEWIS – “Great Balls Of Fire”

Popular9 comments • 2,207 views

#66, 10th January 1958

Scrape the crust of legend off this record and you might be surprised, like I was, at how goofy it is. What did I know about this song? I knew that Jerry Lee was a hellraiser and married his cousin. And I knew the chorus, mostly from a 70s Edam advert which went “Goodness Gracious, great balls of cheese!”. So what was I expecting? The chorus and a bit of snarling. And what do I get? A great ball of cheese ‘ and I mean that in the very best way.

Playing a song at the same time as laughing at it – and still having it come out great – is a terribly hard trick. But listen to “Great Balls” and tell me that Lewis is doing it with a straight face. Of course, this is before straight faces became compulsory (a rule that’s troubled the albums chart more than the singles one, thankfully) – even so, Lewis’ deliveries of “She broke my will / But what a thrill” are so gleefully arch I can’t help but grin along. Rocky Horror is born here. So is The Darkness, for that matter.

The music is as hellbent on entertainment as the singing ‘ the teasing intro phrases, the demented arpeggios, that awesome one-note solo thing. And the way Lewis rides his music can be electric ‘ his long possessed “oooooooooh” ties the whole song together before it rolls in triumph to the final chorus. There’s a word for Jerry Lee Lewis on this record, a fine old word that pop music should never stray too far from: showman.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Jerry Lee Lewis was an infrequent visitor to UK TV studios. All of these shows survive;

    ASPEL & COMPANY: with Les Dawson, Jerry Lee Lewis (1993)

    THE OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST: with Ali Thomson, Toyah Willcox, Jerry Lee Lewis (1980)

    READY STEADY GO!: with The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Keith Fordyce, Cathy McGowan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Lynch, Samantha Jones, Them, The Zephyrs (1964)

    SING COUNTRY: with Carl Perkins, Rose Marie, Frank Ifield, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys (1981)

    SING COUNTRY: with The Dillards, Mel Tillis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Drusky, Mary Bailey, Tom Gribbin, Roxon Roadshow, Monty Robbins (1982)

    SING COUNTRY: Jerry Lee Lewis Special (1985)

    SING COUNTRY: with Jerry Lee Lewis (1987)

    WOGAN: with Eamonn Andrews, Les Dawson, Jerry Lee Lewis (1983)

    These two don’t, which is a particular shame;

    THE OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST: with Jerry Lee Lewis, Country Joe MacDonald (1972)

    THIS IS… TOM JONES: with Chet Atkins, Barbara Eden, Salena Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rich Little (1969)

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 10 Mar 2010 #

    It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Jerry Lee is Rock & Roll’s first proper anti-hero. Kicked out of Bible College for playing “The Devil’s Music”, his retort was that he knew he was playing for the devil…”the others hadn’t realised it yet”. Jerry Lee fused country, rhythm & blues, boogie woogie and gospel into a frenetic and energetic style. As he played, he would jump, dance, whoop and holler, cajoling his audience into a frenzied state.

    The planned UK tour was to be his undoing, when upon Lewis’ arrival, the reporter Ray Berry learned the true age of Jerry Lee’s 3rd wife and cousin Myra Gale was 13 years old. The ensuing furore meant that Jerry Lee was forced to return home after playing only a few dates.

    When he returned, the US press had a field day with him. At 23 years old, he could have been forced to retire for good. But he fulfilled his Sun Studios contract, and played smaller venues to pay the bills. His radio play was scant with only Alan Freed regularly playing his music until he was forced off the air when the payola scandal broke.

    GBOF is a full-on Rock record. A furiously paced “killer” of a song that predicts heavy metal (imagine those piano riffs played on a guitar). That it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek, just adds to GBOF’s appeal. It stands then, as the high water mark of Jerry Lee’s career. A fine record from the only survivor of Sun Studio’s “Million Dollar Quartet”
    (Perkins, Presley and Cash the other 3 members). It’s almost tragic that such an incredible musician was not allowed a longer spell in the spotlight.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 10 Mar 2010 #

    I think Greil Marcus writes about the recording of this song in ‘Mystery Train’ and if his account is true (and he quotes dialogue from the original master tape preceding the recording) JLL was reluctant to record this song because, with his Southern Baptist upbringing, he knew that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ was pentecostal imagery applied to profane love. Having been persuaded he went ahead and sang it anyway – probably thinking he was going to hell for doing so. In the light of that I’m not sure that he’s singing tongue in cheek- more with a kamikaze grin.

  4. 4
    Tim on 10 Mar 2010 #

    Billy – I’m interested that your list of JLL UK TV doesn’t include his appearance on Blue Peter in (I think) the early ’80s. It was a surprise to me at the time, even without knowing anything about the scandal, because Blue Peter generally steered clear of pop music.

  5. 5
    Mutley on 10 Mar 2010 #

    The big names of 1950s US rock’n’roll (apart from Elvis) are poorly represented in the number ones UK charts of the 50s, and this is one of the few that reaches the top. No Little Richard, no Fats Domino, no Chuck Berry (until the dreaded My Ding-a-Ling many years later), no Gene Vincent, no Ricky Nelson, no more Jerry Lee Lewis. In that context it’s a marvel that this one made it to number one.

  6. 6
    flahr on 31 Jul 2010 #

    Jerry Lee Lewis also guest-starred (as himself) in an episode of TJ Hooker. He didn’t play this, but he did play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”, which Rolling Stone avers is the 61st best song of all time. (“Great Balls” comes in at 96.)

    Really is a thrilling song. Maybe a couple too many glissandos (I think they were a trademark of his). Also pretty impressive to watch – it takes particular showmanship to make piano look exciting. 8.

  7. 8
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Iain Duncan-Smith, politician (2002)

    Greg Dyke, Former Director-General of the BBC (2007)

    John Humphrys Broadcaster, Journalist (2008).

  8. 9
    hectorthebat on 10 Feb 2014 #

    Critic watch: This song appears on the following “best-of” lists:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 7
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 183
    Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (USA, 2003) 106
    NPR (USA) – The 300 Most Important American Records of the 20th Century (1999)
    Pause & Play (USA) – 20 Songs of the 50’s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 64
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 96
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 96
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 53
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1950s (2008)
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 127
    Mauro Ronconi (Italy) – The Best Song from the 200 Best Albums (1998)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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