Jerry Lee Lewis was not the only early rock-and-roller from a strict Christian background who struggled to reconcile his religious beliefs with the moral implications of the music he created. He may have been the only one to have one of his religious crises caught on tape, however—in between takes on one of his legendary hit songs. It was on October 8, 1957, that bible-school dropout Jerry Lee Lewis laid down the definitive version of “Great Balls Of Fire,” amidst a losing battle with his conscience and with the legendary Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records.
Jerry Lee Lewis had first made his way to Sun Records in September 1956, hoping to catch his big break in the same Memphis recording studio where Elvis had caught his. The result of Lewis’ first session, in November 1956, was the minor hit “Crazy Arms,” but six months later, he and Phillips struck gold with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” a million-selling smash. Lewis’s signature piano-pounding style and electric stage presence made him an instantaneous star, but stardom didn’t quiet the doubts that his upbringing in the Assemblies of God church had given him about rock and roll. Those doubts would be on open display when he went back to the studio on this day in 1957.
It was hours into the “Great Balls Of Fire” session when Jerry Lee began arguing with Sam Phillips that the song was too sinful for him to record. As the two talked loudly over each other, Phillips pleaded with Lewis to believe that his music could actually be a force for moral good.
Phillips: “You can save souls!”
Lewis: “No, no, no, no!”
Lewis: “How can the devil save souls?…I got the devil in me!
Jerry Lee somehow made peace with the conflict over the course of the next hour, becoming comfortable enough to begin making various unprintable statements on his way to saying with enthusiasm, “You ready to cut it? You ready to go?” just before launching into the take that would soon become his second smash-hit single.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ moral struggles would continue throughout a storied career that would never quite recover from the 1958 disclosure of his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin. At the peak of his powers following “Great Balls Of Fire,” however, he was a figure as magnetic as any in rock-and-roll history. As the producer Don Dixon would later say in an NPR interview, “Little Richard was fun, Elvis was cool, but Jerry Lee Lewis was frightening.”
Lewis died in 2022, at age 87.