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:
“Great Balls of Fire” –1957
“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!”
This riotous tune was written by Otis Blackwell, an African-American composer who got little credit during his own time for his contributions to rock ‘n’ roll, but is responsible for such hits as “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Fever,” and many more. Blackwell saw Lewis perform “Whole Lotta Shakin” on “The Steve Allen Show” earlier that year, and pitched “Great Balls of Fire” to Sam Phillips, sure that Lewis was the perfect guy for the song.
Lewis felt some trepidation when Phillips approached him with the tune. He remained a faithful Christian despite being expelled from Bible school (for playing boogie-woogie at a church assembly), and he still wrestled with his involvement in “the devil’s music.” Lewis worried that the song was too scandalous, with the title coming from a Southern exclamation that referred to the Pentecost, on top of the song’s explicit lyrics.
Thankfully, Phillips coaxed Lewis to get over his reservations, and since Lewis laid down that single in December 1957, rock ‘n’ roll has never been the same: “Great Balls of Fire” was one of the fastest-selling records of the time, selling a million copies within the first ten days of its release. The song performed fantastically across Billboard’s charts: #1 on the country charts, #2 on the pop charts, and #3 on the R&B charts. And, Rolling Stone listed “Great Balls of Fire” as Number 96 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Here is Otis Blackwell’s original “Great Balls of Fire:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qayf7Jwu1ho&feature=youtu.be
And here’s a relatively tame Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Great Balls of Fire” in 1958: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lidFipyLG8k
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Friday 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!