Oct 8, 1957: Jerry Lee Lewis Cuts ‘Great Balls of Fire’

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jerry_lee_lewis-great_balls_of_fire_sIt was the biggest hit of his career for the piano pounding singer from Ferriday, LA. Jerry Lee Lewis had already been passed on by such influential radio shows as The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN and The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, LA as well as Nashville record labels when he showed up at Sun Studio in Memphis in November 1956 to audition for the Sun Records label that had launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Proprietor Sam Phillips was away in Florida, but engineer Jack Clement recorded Lewis performing the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms” and his own song “End of the Road.” They were released as his first single on Sun but failed to chart. His next release in April ’57, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” reached #3 on the pop chart and hit #1 on the R&B and country charts.

“Great Balls of Fire” – co-written by Otis Blackwell, who had penned the previous year’s #1 hit for Elvis Presley, “Don’t Be Cruel” – was issued on November 11, and sold a million copies within 10 days, making it the quickest selling single ever. It eventually racked up sales of more the five million 45s, becoming one of the best selling singles of all time in the U.S. and worldwide.

Despite being banned by some radio stations as either sexually suggestive or blasphemous – the title was an old Southern expression of surprise that referred to the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the disciples of Jesus – or both, the single reached #2 on the pop chart and was #1 on the country, R&B and U.K. singles chart. Lewis also performed it in the film Jamboree, which hit theaters soon after the song was released, and also featured Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and Buddy Knox.

“Great Balls of Fire” is a rock ‘n’ roll classic and remains a high point in shows by Lewis, who at the age of 82 still performs.

Related: Which other early rockers are still with us?

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