Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Jerry Lee Lewis’ music:
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” -1957 (original 1955)
“Now let’s get down real low one time now. Shake/baby, shake, All/you gotta do honey, is, kinda stand in one spot Wiggle/around just a little bit that’s, what you got.”
This tune is attributed to Roy Hall (under the pseudonym “Sunny David”), a Nashville piano player and owner of the Music Box (later named Musicians Hideaway). In 1954, Hall took a trip to the Everglades with Dave “Curly” Williams (about whom there isn’t much biographical information to be found, other than the fact that he was a black musician), and together, they penned “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Soon after, Hall signed a contract with Decca, and in September 1955, Hall recorded the original version of the song.
Around that same time, Jerry Lee Lewis began working for Hall as a pianist at the Music Box. When he heard Hall perform “Whole Lotta Shakin’” in the joint, Lewis started incorporating the song into his own act, which was just beginning to feature Lewis’ characteristic stage business (playing while standing, kicking over the piano bench, etc.) He brought the song to Sun Records to record in 1957, and as soon as the record hit the market, Lewis leapt to international fame. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, #1 on the country chart (#8 in the UK), and #3 on the pop chart.
Lewis’ public appeal and image were secured with his rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin.’” His former employer, however, was left in Lewis’ dust: Hall often does not get credit as the writer, partially due to confusion caused by his pseudonym, Sunny David (which supposedly he took on to avoid paying taxes on royalties, and because he was drunk while signing his copyright papers). In fact, Hall couldn’t even profit from the song’s handsome royalties because his ex-wife sued him, and the court awarded his share of the royalties to her. While Hall hopped from small gig to small gig to get by for the rest of his life, Lewis was well on his way to becoming a rock icon.
Let’s listen to Roy Hall’s original 1955 recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_IrqRhAwlQ
Here’s a young Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” on the Steve Allen Show, 1957: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7SBF-35Es
And, a more frenzied Lewis performance in 1964: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dC0DseCyYE
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Wednesday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, now through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!