Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s real wild one gets to reassert his greatness

The popularity of the 1987 film La Bamba (based on the brief life of Ritchie Valens) and its accompanying soundtrack, no doubt prompted Hollywood into considering adapting the lives of other ‘50s rockers to the big screen (Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran come to mind, but have yet to materialise). So when the story of rock ‘n’ roll renegade Jerry Lee Lewis was presented as a possible candidate, it clearly made sense.

Born and raised in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee came from humble southern stock. Like a lot of white boys at the time, his musical influences included hillbilly, country, gospel, and black rhythm and blues. Learning the piano at a young age, Lewis showed a proficiency that betrayed his early years, and while his evangelical beliefs would often go on to dominate his psyche (as it also would other musical contemporaries such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard), Lewis couldn’t resist in blending traditional gospel hymns with his own unique style of boogie-woogie.

Sam Phillips, the man behind the iconic Sun Records, who had been responsible for launching the career of Elvis, saw enormous potential in the singer/pianist, believing that Jerry Lee had the necessary talent to go all the way to the top, thanks to hit singles “Great Balls Of Fire,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

The only problem was that Jerry Lee was as mad as a cut snake, and an unpredictable figure at best, whose soul seemed to be divided between God and what was often seen as the work of the devil, i.e. rock ‘n’ roll.

And so in 1989, an adaptation of Jerry Lee’s life and times, Great Balls Of Fire, hit cinemas around the world. Dennis Quaid (who has apparently a few demons of own) was picked to portray the wild vintage rocker, and despite the film’s somewhat glossy almost Grease-like moments, the film remains an engaging piece of entertainment – which leads us to the obligatory soundtrack.

While Lewis might have hated the movie (he described it “great balls of shit”), the LP for which Jerry re-corded some of his most well-known and classic material is far more memorable and deserving of praise. Many of the songs which put him on the map are here: “High School Confidential,” “Breathless,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and naturally “Great Balls Of Fire” itself. For someone who was in his 50’s at the time, Lewis was still the consummate performer, proving that he had lost none of his zeal and passion when as a younger man.

These were songs which celebrated the libido of youth, and though they might seem rather tame today, lyrics like “I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs/I’m real nervous but it sure is fun/C’mon baby, you drive me crazy/Goodness gracious, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE.” Back in the ‘50s this was pretty licentious stuff, and the sort of thing Presley wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole.

Written by Aussie rocker Johnny O’Keefe (who himself was a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer in his own right), “Wild One” could have been composed by Lewis, and here he makes his own, singing and pounding the piano with thunderous abandon. The steamy “Breathless” is followed by a remake of “Crazy Arms,” consisting of a duet between the Killer and Quaid. Also noteworthy is a version of “That Lucky Old Sun,” a song covered by everyone from Pat Boone to Frank Sinatra.

Filling out the album is a fine “Big Legged Woman” by the relatively obscure singer/pianist Booker T. Laury, a virulent version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by the late Valerie Wellington, plus the original 1951 recording of Jackie Brenston And The Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” a tune which some music historians declare as being one of the earliest ever examples of rock ‘n’ roll (perhaps hence its inclusion).

Great Balls Of Fire, the soundtrack, is a fun and thoroughly enjoyable reminder of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true mavericks, whose impact on popular culture back in the day should never be underestimated. Jerry Lee Lewis truly was one of a kind. Yes, many of the stories surrounding him are copious as they are legendary, but one story in particular is worth remarking, that is of the time when Chuck Berry and Lewis had a heated exchange over who should close the show one night.

When Lewis lost the dispute, he decided to pull off one of the wildest performances of his career, setting fire to his piano in the middle of “Great Balls Of Fire” thanks to a healthy amount of lighter fluid. Something which, come to think of it, reminds me of another great performer…

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