Friday, November 3, 2006

Great Balls of Fire

On this day in 1957, the single "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis was released on the Sun Records label. A fast-paced piano boogie, it went on to become a No. 1 hit in the following year. Over time, it became the artist's definitive song.

The Sun Records label, based in Memphis, Tenn., was an asset to American music. Its roster of recording artists in the 1950s boasted of such lasting stars as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash. Staple songs such as Presley's "Mystery Train" and Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" certainly left an indelible mark on the next generation of musicians. The influence on Led Zeppelin can be heard on the songs "D'yer Mak'er" and "Rock and Roll," to name a few.

Evidence of this continues to play out today. Jimmy Page appears on a new album and single from Jerry Lee Lewis, both released last month. The single is a remake of the Led Zeppelin track "Rock and Roll" featuring Lewis on piano and lead vocals and Page on guitar.

The album also includes guest appearances from Rolling Stones members Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, plus Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson of The Band, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Kid Rock, Rod Stewart, Don Henley of the Eagles, plus Bluesmen Little Richard, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and more.

Some of the very same artists contributed to the 2001 tribute album, "Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records." A new rendition of the Sonny Burgess track "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" appears on the album, as covered by Page and Robert Plant, in their first recorded pairing since their tours of the mid 1990s.

John Paul Jones was also slated to appear on the Sun Records tribute. In May 2000, he recorded a cover of Big Walter "Shakey" Horton's song "Easy," along with two members of Elvis Presley's original band, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.

The album was released without this recording, however, which Jones said was a good track. When asked why it was not included on the final version of the album, Jones said, "Not a clue."

Since "Easy" was an instrumental, it could hardly be for its lyrical content. When "Great Balls of Fire" was released in 1957, there was suspicion that its title suggested something sexual.

Moreover, the public accused Lewis of singing immoral lyrics; sending shock waves were the words "Kiss me, baby / Feels good / Hold me, baby / I want to love you like a lover should."

"They said 'Great Balls of Fire' was pure sex," Lewis once said in an interview. "Well, it is, but it's sex in my way, and sex in my way is not dirty. It's pure. It's what I feel. Sex between a man and his wife whom God has joined together is a beautiful thing. ... Vivian Leigh said 'Great balls of fire' four or five times in 'Gone with the Wind.' I never accepted that 'Great Balls of Fire' was a vulgar record. I finally had it explained to me -- 'Kiss me baby / Feels good' -- but to me, it was still just innocent fun."

Lyrically, the song paved the way for tunes with raunchier vocals. "Whole Lotta Love" comes to mind in that category.

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