Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

Last time I did a ‘Remembering’ post, it was on the universally loved and cherished Olivia Newton-John, about whom nobody had a bad word to say. Jerry Lee Lewis, though…

We’ve met some wrong ‘uns in our journey through the chart-toppers of yore. Bad types with equally bad music (Rolf Harris), bad types with music that I couldn’t help but enjoy (Gary Glitter). Jerry Lee Lewis was possibly that baddest of them all. ‘The Killer’, so named because he had allegedly tried to strangle a teacher at his high school – or so he said – lived a life that would make your average, run-of-the-mill criminal blush. Drug arrests, assault arrests, two wives dead in suspicious circumstances and – the one that effectively ended his mainstream chart career before it had truly started – a marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin.

He was, in his own words, an unrepentant hillbilly. Unpleasant and aggressive towards his fans, his family, journalists, and other musicians. (When he met John Lennon, he did so after berating the Beatles and their peers as ‘shit’ from the stage. Lennon, legend has it, still kneeled down to kiss Lewis’s feet.) Why then, does he seem to have gotten away with it? Any current artist who did a quarter of the things Jerry Lee allegedly did would have been cancelled into the dust. Is it because it was all so long ago? Is it because people were more able to seperate art from artist? Or is it because he was just so good?

For, no matter how terrible a person he was, he is rock and roll royalty. One of the five deities: Chuck, Elvis, Buddy, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee. Elvis used his voice (and his body), Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry their guitars. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had their pianos, which put them at an immediate disadvantage, as pianos are not hugely conducive to rocking and rolling. Pianos are for classical music, for Beethoven and Mozart, for respectable ladies’ front rooms. You have to sit down to play them, and sitting down is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

So you have to do what Jerry Lee, and Little Richard did. Pound the keys, assault the keys, stamp on them, jump on them… Set the goddamn piano on fire if you have to. (Which Lewis allegedly did when angry at being lower down a bill than Chuck Berry. ‘Follow that, boy’, he said as he left the stage.) Which leads to Jerry Lee’s one and only British chart-topper: ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Quite often, as with many genres, by the time rock ‘n’ roll made it to the top of the charts it had been diluted. Elvis’s first #1 was the smooth ‘All Shook Up’. Buddy Holly had one chart-topping rocker: ‘That’ll Be the Day’. Berry had to wait until the nonsense that is ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Little Richard never had one. Which means that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is probably the purest rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper. It’s unadulteratedly dangerous, and sexy. It has a title that is at once biblical, yet also sexual. Watch the live performance below, probably quite restrained by his standards, and listen to the shrieks form the audience every time he pauses, when he stands, and when he leers at them. The sweat on his brow, the glint in his eye. Anybody capable of that sort of performance was going to have a few skeletons in the closet. He was complicated, unpleasant, the ‘killer’, but he was rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis

September 29th 1935 – October 28th 2022

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part III – Mae West

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

Our next two covers come from a lady not best known for her recording career… the one and only Mae West. (Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see her…?)

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‘Day Tripper’, by Mae West (1966)

(Originally reached #1 in 1965, with The Beatles.)

After spending decades scandalising and chucking saucy bon-mots around like confetti, the Queen of Camp turned to rock ‘n’ roll. Bear in mind that she was seventy-three when she recorded this… I love that she is now the ‘big teaser’, the one who only does one-night stands. And check out the scuzzy solo mid-way through, accompanied by some lascivious moans…

‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Mae West (1972)

(Originally reached #1 in 1958, with Jerry Lee Lewis.)

A few years later, she repeated the trick. This one isn’t so much a cover version as a re-imagining, with some ridiculous new lyrics: My bells they ring when you shake that thing… Sung by a woman born in 1893. Both this album, and ‘Way Out West’ are surprisingly good, and not completely tongue in cheek. She also does a rocking version of ‘Shakin’ All Over’, and an outrageous re-write of ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’. I’ve gone for ‘Great Balls of Fire’, though…

All together now: You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, I just adore your sensational frame…

Phew. I’ll give you time to recover, and see you tomorrow for two more…

66. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis

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Great Balls of Fire, by Jerry Lee Lewis (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 10th – 24th January 1958

My usual writing process for this blog – in case you’ve ever found yourself wondering – is to preview the next song after I finish writing a post. I listen once, take notes and can thus get straight into writing when I return. Except, upon lining ‘Great Balls of Fire’ up in Spotify and pressing play, my ability to take notes suddenly disappeared. I felt frozen, tied to the tracks, zapped by a Taser… This record seriously impairs your ability to think.

And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s not that it’s dumb, or monotonous, or anything like that. It’s just an absolute blitz, an assault on the senses, a two-minute blast which takes rock ‘n’ roll up another notch. I think everyone’s pretty familiar with the opening salvo:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, Too much love drives a man insane, You broke my will, But what a thrill, Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire…!

Jerry Lee then sets off on what is basically GBH of a piano – he stabs, he pounds, he slides his fingers down the keys (a ‘glissando’, apparently, though that sounds far too delicate a term for the noises made here). He goes from high to low seemingly at random – though obviously not ‘at random’, you know what I mean – poking and prodding away. You hope he at least bought the piano a drink afterwards.

I mentioned in my post about The Cricket’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ that we were entering a new phase in rock ‘n’ roll, one in which the kids were taking centre stage away from oldies like Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray. This record’s arrival at the top of the chart confirms it. Ol’ Johnnie may have dialled up the raunch on the wonderful ‘Such a Night’, but even that pales in comparison with ‘Great Balls…’ Lewis doesn’t just make the old pre-rock stars sound dated; this makes 1st generation rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for example, sound slow and babyish. And it is an absolute palate cleanser – the tangiest of sorbets – after the schmaltzy ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ which preceded it!

Is this a lyrically shocking record? There are a few choice lines: Kiss me baby – Mmmh, feels good…! I wants to love you like a lover should…! C’mon baby, you drive me crazy! Not truly top-shelf stuff, but we are still in January 1958. No, actually I think the most outrageous thing about this record is the piano-playing. We get to the solo and it is an all-out attack – you can really picture Lewis standing hunched over the keys, as he did so famously, thumping and sweating away. It’s great to have both a completely piano-led rock ‘n’ roll number, as 1957 was a bit guitar heavy, and to tick another ‘Legend of Rock’ off our list. ‘The Killer’ won’t be back at the top of the charts again. In fact, he would only return to the UK Top Ten on two occasions following this. His career stuttered when he married his thirteen-year-old cousin (marrying thirteen-year-olds will do that to a career…), but he is still a-hoppin and a-bobbin to this day, aged eighty-two.

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Unlike Elvis and Buddy Holly, Lewis is not someone whose back-catalogue I’m terribly familiar with. I first truly became aware of ‘Great Balls of Fire’, as most people of my age surely did, through that scene from ‘Top Gun’ (Take me to bed or lose me forever!). Though I actually danced on stage to a ‘version’ of this song in a school play long before that – when I was but ten years old. The song was really a pastiche of loads of different rock ‘n’ roll standards, called ‘Surfin’ The Web’, but I’m sure I remember the line: ‘You shake my mouse and you rattle my keys…’ (It was the mid-nineties, when computers were still enough of a novelty that you could write comedic songs about them). I played a character called Rocky Rom: a doll competing against lots of other dolls for a boy’s attention. Rocky was a total brat, but he was the toy du jour, and quite confident of getting chosen. He didn’t, obviously. A tatty old teddy bear with one eye got the pick – it’s who you are inside that counts, kids.

A song truly has entered the public consciousness, you’d have to say, when it’s getting ripped off for primary school plays forty-odd years later.