Great Balls of Fire: Otis Blackwell; Jerry Lee Lewis; Sha Na Na

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Great Balls of Fire. This is one of the classic ‘roots’ rock and roll songs. We will start with the original version by Otis Blackwell, who co-wrote the song. We will then discuss covers of that song by Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sha Na Na.

Otis Blackwell and Great Balls of Fire:

Great Balls of Fire originated with songwriter Earl Solomon Burroughs. Burroughs, using the pseudonym Jack Hammer, wrote a tune in the mid-50s called Great Balls of Fire, and submitted it to fellow songwriter Paul Case.

Case liked the title, but was not enamored with Hammer’s song. So he in turn contacted colleague Otis Blackwell. Case requested that Blackwell write a tune with this name, intending for it to be used in the 1957 rock ‘n roll movie Jamboree. Blackwell wrote Great Balls of Fire, sharing the songwriting credits with “Jack Hammer.”

Below is a photo of Otis Blackwell composing at a piano, taken circa 1957.

The lyrics to Great Balls of Fire are rather simple. The singer recounts the ways in which his lover thrills and unnerves him.

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire

… You kissed me baby, woo, it feels good
Hold me baby, I wanna love you like a lover should.
You’re fine, so kind,
I’m gonna tell this world that you’re mine, mine, mine, mine

Mexican poster for the 1957 Warner Brothers rock 'n roll movie Jamboree.

Mexican poster for the 1957 Warner Brothers rock ‘n roll movie Jamboree.

The movie Jamboree was a typical rock and roll movie from the mid-50s. The Mexican movie poster is shown at left.

The film was based on a format popularized by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, whom many credit as the “godfather of rock ‘n roll.” However, this movie featured Freed’s arch-rival Dick Clark, who portrayed a DJ and host of the entertainment in the film.

The 50s rock and roll movies served as publicity vehicles for the artists who were showcased. There was hardly any plot to speak of, and the film dialogue was generally cheesy and amateurish. Jamboree featured a number of current artists including Fats Domino, Frankie Avalon, Slim Whitman, and Count Basie’s orchestra.

For the movie Jamboree, rockabilly star Carl Perkins was given his choice of two songs, Glad All Over and Otis Blackwell’s Great Balls of Fire. Although Perkins’ reaction was that “both of ‘em was junk,” the offer of a $1,000 fee was sufficiently sweet to entice him to perform Glad All Over. By the way, Perkins’ Glad All Over is an entirely different song from the Dave Clark Five hit of the same name.

As a result, the song Great Balls of Fire was given to little-known rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. This turned out to be yet another of the bad decisions and even worse luck that characterized Carl Perkins’ career. While the song Glad All Over sunk without a trace, Great Balls of Fire became a smash hit for Jerry Lee.

Great Balls of Fire sold a million copies in its first ten days after its release to the public. At the time, this was one of the fastest-selling records ever, and eventually it sold more than five million records. The song was also a gigantic cross-over hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard pop charts, #1 on the country list, and #3 on the R&B charts.

To make matters even worse for poor Carl Perkins, his ‘flop’ Glad All Over later became a much more influential song. In 1963, the Beatles recorded covers of Perkins’ Glad All Over on two occasions on the program The Beatles Live at the BBC. George Harrison was lead vocalist on both of those songs. Then in 1972, the Jeff Beck Group also produced a cover of Glad All Over on their album Orange, which was produced by Steve Cropper.

Here is the audio of Otis Blackwell singing his version of Great Balls of Fire.

Blackwell’s version of his own tune is played at a considerably faster tempo than Jerry Lee Lewis’ better-known cover. Although this version includes a honky-tonk piano in the background, the instrumental backing is dominated by the guitar. This song features a couple of high-octane guitar solos, which are more hard-edged than the rockabilly guitar licks associated with artists like Carl Perkins.

Although Otis Blackwell was not well known to the general public, and though the   recordings of his songs were rather unsuccessful, he was nevertheless one of the most influential songwriters in the early rock and roll period of the late 50s. He was particularly successful with songs recorded by Elvis Presley, for whom he wrote All Shook Up, Don’t Be Cruel and Love Me Tender.

In addition, Blackwell also had great success with the song Fever, co-written with Eddie Cooley, which turned into a monster hit in 1956 for Peggy Lee. He also wrote Breathless for Jerry Lee Lewis, and Handy Man which became a big hit for Jimmy Jones.

In 2002, Blackwell died of a heart attack and was buried in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Great Balls of Fire:

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the great early stars of rock and roll. He appeared suddenly in the mid-50s, and became an overnight sensation. His piano playing helped define rock and roll as a new and separate musical genre. As we will see, Jerry Lee was a larger-than-life performer, whose career featured a number of dramatic twists and turns.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Concordia parish, Louisiana. While young, Jerry Lee and his cousins Mickey Gillis and Jimmy Swaggart became seriously interested in music. Mickey and Jerry Lee would continue in music, while Jimmy later became a famous, indeed infamous, preacher and TV evangelist.

Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis performing in concert in England, May 1958.

After Jerry Lee showed a serious interest in music, his parents, bless their souls, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. But while Jerry Lee was interested in popular music, particularly R&B and country, his parents envisioned gospel music for their boy.

Jerry Lee subsequently enrolled at the Southwest Bible Institute. Fortunately for all of us, he was expelled from the Bible college for playing boogie-woogie at a church assembly. With a vocation in the church closed off, Jerry Lee then began to perform at clubs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1956 Jerry Lee moved up to Memphis, where he became a session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records while he attempted to score a hit record. Jerry Lee’s distinctive piano style can be heard on a number of Sun recordings of artists such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

At that time, rockabilly music tended to emphasize the guitar.  But Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano licks were creative and memorable, and influenced other producers to add piano into their instrumental mix.

In those beginning days, rock music was a distillation of several different genres of popular music, including big bands, folk and country music, jazz, and rhythm and blues. When I consider the importance of keyboards in rock music, I think of three major early influences.

Jerry Lee Lewis would be one of the greatest exemplars for piano and keyboards in rock music. The other two on my list would be Johnnie Johnson, pianist and leader of a pop group that was taken over by Chuck Berry, and southern R&B artist Little Richard.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style was an over-the-top combination of boogie-woogie stride piano,
which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat.
Jerry Lee combined this with elements he absorbed from his Southern gospel upbringing.

In Lewis’ talented hands, the results were electrifying. He was
an incendiary showman who often played with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside, sometimes climbing on top of the piano during gigs and even apocryphally setting it on fire.

For many performers, Jerry Lee Lewis was the definition of rock and roll piano artistry. Young musician Elton John recounted that
My dad collected George Shearing records, but this was the first time I heard someone beat the shit out of a piano. When I saw Little Richard at the Harrow Granada, he played it standing up, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually jumped on the piano! … Those records had such a huge effect on me.

The following clip shows Jerry Lee Lewis performing two of his biggest hits, Great Balls of Fire and Breathless, on the Dick Clark Show in 1958.

I greatly enjoy this video, even though what we see here is the “restrained” Jerry Lee. No jumping on the top of the piano, no playing the piano with his feet, elbows, or butt – just ‘The Killer’ pounding away at the keyboard, accompanied only by guitar and drums.

Furthermore, this is a great introduction to Jerry Lee’s playing style. It clearly originates with boogie-woogie piano, but Lewis has subtly transformed it into rock and roll. You can also see why he earned the appellation as “rock and roll’s first wild man.” Perhaps more precisely, he should be credited as “rock and roll’s first white wild man,” since contemporaries like Little Richard and James Brown were equally capable of whipping their audiences into a frenzy.

It’s also neat to see the reaction of the kids watching the performance. The boys are nearly all dressed in coats and ties, but all of the audience are clearly loving the excitement and sexual tension that were so evident in Jerry Lee’s music.

In fact, several radio stations refused to play Jerry Lee Lewis’ records on the grounds that they were too sexually explicit. Well, duh – surely sexual innuendo was an important element in 50s rock and roll, particularly when expressed by artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee.

His huge hits in the mid-50s made Jerry Lee Lewis a celebrity, as he experienced a meteoric rise to super-stardom. However, in 1958 his career suddenly hit the rocks. As he embarked upon a tour of England in 1958, a reporter inquired about Lewis’ recent bride, Myra Gale Brown. Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis and his wife Myra in 1958.

It was revealed that Myra, Jerry Lee’s third wife and his first cousin once removed, was just 13 (Jerry Lee was then 22). When news of Myra’s age became known, Lewis was immediately enveloped in scandal. He had to cut short his British tour after just three  shows.

When he returned to the States, Jerry Lee’s American career also underwent a catastrophic decline. He was blacklisted from the radio, and Dick Clark dropped him from American Bandstand. Lewis felt that his producer, Sun Records’ chief Sam Phillips, also betrayed him.

Poster for the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire.

Poster for the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire.

This period of Jerry Lee’s life is featured in the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire, which was based on a book by Myra Lewis. The poster for the movie is shown at left.

Although that film provides a rather simplistic portrait of Jerry Lee’s career, actor Dennis Quaid manages to give a spot-on characterization of Lewis’ personality. Furthermore, the film features many closeups of the hands of the piano player in action, and that’s the genuine Jerry Lee playing the piano.

Almost overnight, Jerry Lee Lewis went from headlining the top rock and roll shows, to showing up at juke joints. It took him a few years to get out of his Sun Records contract and on his feet again.

Then, paradoxically, in late 1963 British Invasion artists like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, for whom Jerry Lee Lewis was a major inspirational figure, came along and essentially wiped out Jerry Lee’s comeback attempt.

So, Jerry Lee experienced a real roller-coaster ride, from a young unknown artist to worldwide superstar, and then back to obscurity.

Jerry Lee Lewis was seriously conflicted about his own music. He had been brought up in a deeply religious family, and he sincerely believed that his choice of rock and roll meant that he was playing “the Devil’s music.” Jerry Lee’s cousin, evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart, never failed to remind him of his sinful ways.

In addition, Jerry Lee had major issues with both alcohol and pills. He was not only a wild man onstage, but a prodigious drinker offstage as well. He also ingested copious quantities of amphetamines to fuel his manic lifestyle.
“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. … “That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”

In the late 60s, just when it appeared that Jerry Lee’s musical career was pretty much over, he re-surfaced as a country artist. His new career began with a couple of surprise country hits. It turned out that his songs were extremely popular with country fans.

A defining event for Jerry Lee was his first appearance on Grand Ole Opry in 1973. Back in 1955, near the beginning of his career, the unknown artist Jerry Lee Lewis had played some clubs in Nashville, and then interviewed for Grand Ole Opry.  Not only was Jerry Lee turned down for appearances on both Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride country shows, but they suggested that he consider switching from piano to guitar!

So when Grand Ole Opry finally brought him onstage in 1973, Jerry Lee had something to prove. He introduced himself as follows:
“Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherfucker!”

While typical Grand Ole Opry performances consisted of two songs and lasted no more than eight minutes,
Lewis played for 40 minutes … He also blasted through … a host of his classics before leaving the stage to a thunderous standing ovation.

For the past 40 years, Jerry Lee Lewis has continued on as a living legend in rock and roll. He was one of the inaugural group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and by now he has received nearly every award in the music industry.

In May 2013 he opened a club in Memphis, and to the best of my knowledge he is still performing as of May 2016. As befits the title of his 2006 album, Jerry Lee Lewis is truly the Last Man Standing. He has survived a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, so long may he continue.

Sha Na Na and Great Balls of Fire:

Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group. They were formed in the late 1960s, and took their name from a series of doo-wop syllables that first appeared in the 1957 song Get a Job by the Silhouettes (remember the iconic “Sha na na na, sha na na na na … dip dip dip dip”).

Advertising poster, designed by Arnold Skolnick, for the 1969 Woodstock Festival

Advertising poster, designed by Arnold Skolnick, for the 1969 Woodstock Festival

The members of Sha Na Na had been part of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen (no relation to the Seattle one-hit-wonder group of the same name, who recorded the garage-band classic Louie Louie).

In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band called Sha Na Na, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. The band quickly achieved cult status when they appeared at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. At left is the advertising poster for Woodstock.

Sha Na Na appeared immediately before Jimi Hendrix on the program. The group was also  featured in the concert film Woodstock, where they performed a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.

At that time, Sha Na Na had roughly a dozen performers. Typically, three of them were dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits, while the remaining members appeared in 50s “greaser” attire.  Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in live performance, in 1975.

Sha Na Na had a dramatic impact on popular culture. Their focus on fifties rock and roll helped spark a 1950s nostalgia craze that inspired similar groups in North America, as well as the Broadway musical Grease, the George Lucas feature film American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days.

Sha Na Na appeared in the 1978 movie Grease as the (fictional) band Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. There, they sang two songs from the Broadway play of the same name, and also versions of four 50s oldies.

Here is the band Sha Na Na singing a live cover of Great Balls of Fire. The song features Screamin’ Scott Simon on piano and lead vocals.

The group hosted a self-titled TV variety show from 1977 to 1981. The show had high ratings, and generally featured a series of 50s songs, sketches and guest artists.

I struggle with my reaction to Sha Na Na.  If one considers their music to be an appreciation of 50s rock, then I enjoy them. On the other hand, when their act seems more a parody of rock music and 50s culture, then I am sort of offended.

In actuality, it seems that their music is partly an affectionate look backward, and partly parody. My impression is that the “parody” aspects were more strongly emphasized in the band’s TV show. This was particularly true with two of the most popular band members at that time, bass singer Jon “Bowzer” Bauman and pianist Screamin’ Scott Simon.

Although some of the group members have been successful in the music business, it should not be surprising that a singing group composed of Columbia University students would produce several distinguished alumni.

For example, former Sha Na Na members include physicians (notably a sports medicine physician who serves on the medical staff for our national soccer team), lawyers (e.g., the VP for production and features at Columbia Pictures), and professors (faculty in linguistics, English, and religious studies).

It is perhaps surprising that the group was also indirectly associated with a notorious criminal. In 1974, Sha Na Na’s lead guitarist Vinnie Taylor died from a drug overdose. At that time, escaped child murderer Elmer Edward Solly assumed Taylor’s identity as a musician, although he never played with Sha Na Na. Eventually, this led to Solly’s being discovered and re-captured.

Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although they have now undergone dozens of changes in personnel.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Great Balls of Fire
Wikipedia, Otis Blackwell
Wikipedia, Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia, Sha Na Na
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Rick Bragg, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
This entry was posted in Country music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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