The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 15, Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire

The 1957 rock’n’roll hit is still one of the most lascivious songs ever recorded

The revolutionary force of rock’n’roll’s first wave echoed down the years because it broke racial taboos, mixing black and white music, black and white youth and black and white America. But its most explosive individual moments often emerged from a different kind of tension: that between sin and piety, between God and the devil.

It was a real conflict, as the tapes rolling in Sun Studios on 8 October 1957 proved. Jerry Lee Lewis was up in the city from Ferriday, Louisiana, to record the follow-up to Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, the remarkable single that managed to make having chicken in the barn (“Whose barn? What barn? My barn!”) sound like something unspeakably filthy. He’d turned up at Sun to find Sam Phillips had a song for him from Otis Blackwell, who had written for Elvis, and whose Fever was a searingly sexual song without ever being explicit. Blackwell was, if you like, the king of being sexually implicit.

Lewis knew what Great Balls of Fire was really about, and he wasn’t happy. It was the devil’s music, and Lewis feared God. As the tapes rolled and the unholy spirits flowed, he explained to Phillips and the handful of others in the studio: “Brother, I mean you got to be so pure. No sin shall enter there. No sin. ’Cause it says no sin. It don’t say, ‘Just a little bit’. It says ‘No sin shall enter there.’ Brother, not one little bit. You got to walk and talk with God to go to heaven. You got to be so good.”

Finally, around midnight, Lewis was persuaded to take his place at the piano, where two session men – drummer Larry Linn and bassist Sidney Stokes – did their best to keep up. By dawn, as Nick Tosches wrote in his sublime Lewis biography Hellfire: “Sam Phillips knew he had a hit, a record of unrelenting rhythm and mindless venereal splendour.”

In less than two minutes, Lewis is swaggering, ecstatic, vulnerable, orgasmic, postcoital. “Kiss me baby! Mmmmmmmm! Feels GOOD!” Lewis doesn’t sing so much as plead and then exclaim, sliding into his falsetto as if being touched for just a second too long in a place that’s just a little too sensitive. Blackwell didn’t need to write an explicit lyric: between his words and Lewis’s delivery, no one listening had much doubt that the good lord would not have been smiling.

Sixty-three years later, despite pop lyrics having run through wildly more detailed expositions of the sexual act, Jerry Lee still sounds more lascivious than almost anyone since. He doesn’t sound like a lover – he has no interest in how his partner feels, and he’s certainly not going to hang around afterwards (by then, his shame will be too great; he’ll have gone to church to atone) – but like someone who cannot believe such earthly pleasure is possible. The sensations simply spill out of him – not only his voice but also his piano playing, too, his right hand sliding down the keys in exhalations of delight. It was the devil’s music, but Great Balls of Fire still sounds like an act of God.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 14, Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
Written when Bush was 18 years old, this eerie gothic tale of lost love and longing cemented her individuality from the very beginning

Rebecca Nicholson

19, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 9, Abba – Dancing Queen
This glittering, many-layered pop track, laced with nostalgia and yearning harmonies, has inspired many imitators – and some covers during lockdown

Jude Rogers

26, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1 singles: what did we miss?
Now our Top 100 countdown is complete, we want to know what you think the unforgivable exclusions were

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 1, Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls
Thirty-six years on, their debut single still pulses with beguiling ambiguity – a heady rush of lust, naivety, disco and opaque references to Lenin

Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 6, Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
Despite the allegations against him, certain of his songs have been deemed too good to lose, and Billie Jean tops the list

Dorian Lynskey

29, May, 2020 @7:21 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 11, The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
It captured the mumbled inarticulacy and heightened feelings of love, but also the sound of a culture changing

Laura Barton

22, May, 2020 @7:58 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 12, Sinéad O'Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
Seismic and ethereal, O’Connor’s cover of an obscure Prince track remains a haunting, heartbreaking evocation of lost love

Rachel Aroesti

21, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘Without Great Balls of Fire, rock’n’roll would be boring’
Jerry Lee Lewis on how John Lennon embarrassed him by kissing his feet, how a handgun habit felt normal, and flipping his Rolls Royce

Paul Lester

09, Jul, 2015 @1:23 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s, No 5: Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
Led with peacock glamour and untamed sexuality from Pete Burns, the Stock Aitken Waterman production is synth-pop at its very finest

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

01, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM