Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire

1st February 2021 · 1950s, 1958, Music

I had never thought to look up the pop chart on the day I was born. Until now. So it is with great joy that I discover the best-selling single as I was popping out in a hospital in Newtownards, County Down, was Great Balls Of Fire.

Anyway, I’m thrilled. A week earlier it would have been Harry Belafonte’s glutinous Mary’s Boy Child; if I’d been born on time, five weeks later, it would have been a song I have literally never heard of, let alone heard: The Story Of My Life by someone called Michael Holliday. Instead it was Jerry Lee Lewis.

I’ve always loved The Killer despite his many controversies: marrying his 13-year-old cousin, breaking into Elvis’s home Graceland waving a gun around (two months after accidentally shooting a bandmate), and various tax evasion convictions and bankruptcies.

I’ve seen him perform live on three occasions and they were all very different. The first time was in the early Eighties, and I think it was at the Town & Country or Music Machine.

The audience was made up almost entirely of young psychobillies and The Killer tore into the wilder and older rockabilly songs in his repertoire, including my favourite Meat Man, ignoring entirely his country music period from the late Sixties and Seventies. It was, frankly, more punk than most of the punk gigs I used to go to.

The second time was at Wembley Arena in 1985 where he topped the bill on the last night of the mainly middle-of-the-road Silk Cut Festival of Country Music and his arrival onstage was greeted by a mass exodus of coach parties eager to get home to Wigan and Halifax lest their morals be corrupted by that evil rock’n’roll music.

He made few concessions to the mostly middle-aged audience that remained, peppering a handful of familiar country tunes with out-and-out rock’n’rollers like Chantilly Lace, Lucille, Whole Lotta Shakin’ and of course this one.

At the end of the show I managed to sneak backstage and hung about for ages by the loading bay, where there was a huge black stretch limo, until he was carried – literally carried, in a fireman’s lift, like a baby – by two bodyguards to the waiting limo. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigar in the other, and he gave us a peace sign as my friend Steve England took a photo of his hero. I wish I still had the photo.

The third time was in 1995 as part of a Legends of Rock’n’Roll triple-header at Wembley again, alongside Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Or rather, very much not​ alongside them, as all three had separate hotels and contracts stipulating that they would not be in the building at the same time as either of the others.

I had the best seat in the house – Row A, centre aisle – and Jerry Lee looked a little lethargic, if not arthritic. When he hoisted a leg on to the piano keyboard for his party piece I was concerned that he might not be able to get it back down again without help. But he did.

And yet… a quarter of a century later, against all odds, he’s still going strong and still performing at the age of 85. A true survivor.