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

Top 10s – The 1950s

Time for a Top 10… Usually I rank the ten best singles from a particular artist (last time it was The Kinks) but I thought I’d fiddle with my criteria a little, and rank my favourite #1 singles from an entire decade.

Starting with the singles chart’s very first decade. Back where it all began, when rock ‘n’ roll was but a twinkle in Elvis’s eye. The list is in chronological order – not ranked in order of preference – and to choose the songs I went back and read through my recaps to see which ones I dug at the time, live, as it were…

So, without further ado, the ten best #1 singles of the 1950s, according to me:

1. ‘Look at That Girl’, by Guy Mitchell – #1 for 6 weeks in Sept/Oct 1953

Only the 12th-ever number one single, from one of the decade’s biggest chart stars, and a runner-up in my first recap. This was the very first whiff of rock ‘n’ roll at the top of the UK charts (a very faint whiff, but still) and I think it appealed more than it probably should have because I’d waded through so much Eddie Fisher and Mantovani to get to it. Still, a catchy, upbeat tune. As I wrote in my original post:

“It sounds to me as if a battle is taking place here, between traditional easy-listening and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. On the one hand you’ve got the usual twee backing singers and floaty trumpets, parping away at the end of each line; on the other you have the hand claps and the guitar solo.”

3dfa9028eb05e4f4072a50a1d556666a--american-artists-classic-rock

 

2. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray – #1 for 1 week in April/May 1954

Johnnie Ray was known for his emoting, which lent him two spectacular nicknames: ‘The Prince of Wails’ and ‘The Nabob of Sob’. But for his 1st of three #1s he was overcome with a slightly more enjoyable emotion… lust! By far the sauciest number one of the pre-rock era, I awarded it ‘Best Chart-Topper’ in my 1st recap. I’d go as far as saying it was the best #1 single ever… Until 1957 came along. My original post is here:

“…what makes it, and elevates it to a classic, are Ray’s vocals. Like Doris Day before him there’s an effortlessness to his voice that draws you in and yanks you along. But his voice is nothing like the clean-cut, honeyed tones of Miss Day. ‘Such a Night’ isn’t being sung here – it’s being ridden, it’s being humped… it’s being performed!”

cb7c74a231dcd2dd49842e43981cd00f--josephine-musicians

 

3. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen – #1 for 3 weeks in Jan/Feb 1955

I remember noting, back in the early days of the charts, that it felt like the girls were having all the fun. Guys were being boringly earnest – Al Martino, Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield all proclaiming overwrought, undying love over heavy orchestration. Meanwhile Rosemary Clooney, in her 2nd #1, was singing in cod-Italian about fish bacalao (which is Portuguese, but whatever.) It’s a song that resonates to this day, with a 00s remix and a 2011 pastiche by Lady Gaga. I named it a runner-up in my first recap:

“…while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.”

clooney-94b833378517905808a9405ad88dff3bcfe05e4b-s900-c85

 

4. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra – #1 for 2 weeks in April/May 1955

Another saucy slice of Latin pop, which I named the very best song in my 2nd recap! Again, my opinion of it was probably exaggerated because of all the pre-rock easy-listening mulch surrounding it. It is catchy, though. Just you try not swaying along. Can’t be done! I tried summing up the record’s appeal in my original post

“…it allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.”

R-582429-1341876426-2330.jpeg

 

5. ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan – #1 for 2 weeks in July 1955

The 3rd #1 from 1955, making it officially the best year of the decade… (Hmm…) ‘Dreamboat’ is just a spectacularly fun pop song, sung with a giggle and a wink by perhaps the biggest British female star of the pre-rock age. As I wrote at the time:

“…there isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones so far.”

de565d5d80ca47f8aae75ff675d21485--vinyl-records-singers

 

6. ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon – #1 for 3 weeks in July/Aug 1956

Regrets, I have a few… One of them being that I named this classic as a runner-up to Perez Prado in my 2nd recap. What was I thinking? ‘Cherry Pink…’ is great and all, but this is timeless. The first number one by kids, for kids – the Teenagers were all, you guessed it, teenagers – is one of the catchiest, golden pop moments of all time, let alone the decade. As I wrote

“… it’s just a great song. A summer smash. It oozes New York city: steam, water spraying from a sidewalk valve, the sun blasting down, the Jets and the Sharks… (I dunno. I grew up in small town Scotland.)”

Frankie_Lymon_and_the_Teenagers

 

7. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, by The Crickets – #1 for 3 weeks in November 1957

Perhaps the most obvious choice of the ten… What else needs to be said. Press play, gasp at the spectacular intro, and enjoy two and a half minutes of rock ‘n’ roll perfection…

“…Buddy Holly’s voice dances and flirts – toys, almost – with the listener. He coos, he pauses, he growls… The Crickets play tightly, but also very loosely. There’s a great, rough-around-the-edges feel to this record that contrasts with the polished cheese of Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’, whose bumper run at the top this track ended.”

13b76502b2e66b8af543e51889003212

 

8. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis – #1 for 2 weeks in January 1958

But… I didn’t name ‘That’ll Be the Day’ as one of the very best chart-toppers. Oh no. In my 3rd recap, that honour was reserved for The Killer. On any given day, I could wake up and prefer ‘Great Balls…’ to ‘That’ll Be the Day’, or vice-versa. What’s the point in debating?  These two records were nailed-on to make my 50’s Top 10. Pure rock ‘n’ roll greatness…

“…It’s just an absolute blitz, an assault on the senses, a two-minute blast which takes rock ‘n’ roll up another notch.”

jerryleelewis22

 

9. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, by Connie Francis – #1 for 6 weeks in May/June 1958

A spot of schadenfreude in the decade’s sassiest #1 single. Connie got dumped, and is now taking great pleasure that the tables have turned on her ex in his new relationship. You had your way, Now you must pay, I’m glad that you’re sorry now… Who says girls in the 50’s were all sweetness and apple pie? The twang in her voice when she launches into the final verse is something to behold. As I wrote at the time…

“A lot of the female artists we’ve met previously on this countdown have been cute, and flirty, and fun to listen to – Kitty Kallen, Kay Starr, Winifred Atwell… But no girl has brought this level of spunk to the table.”

Connie_Francis_1961

 

10. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin – #1 for 4 weeks in July 1959

Last up –  a record that encapsulates everything great about the 1950s, mixing rock ‘n’ roll with swing, doo-wop and a touch of pre-rock crooning, to create pop perfection. Another runner-up to Jerry Lee in my 3rd recap, but there’s no shame in that. In my original post, I wrote:

“…I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song.”

MI0002749454

And there we have it! The ten best #1 singles of the 1950s!

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

jerry-lee-lewis-great-balls-of-fire-1957

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.

jerryleelewis22

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.