Behind the History and Meaning of the Classic Jerry Lee Lewis Hit, “Great Balls of Fire”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!

Such is the climatic refrain from the classic hit 1957 track, “Great Balls of Fire,” performed by the one and only rock and roll legend, Jerry Lee Lewis. Sadly, Lewis passed away on Friday (October 28), but like all giants, his legacy lives on.

Here, we will dive into the history and meaning of his biggest single, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles charts when it was unleashed into the world.

Meaning and Origins

Released 65 years ago in 1957, the popular recording from Lewis and Sun Records was featured in the film, Jamboree, that same year. While Lewis made it a hit on the piano with his rockabilly voice and earth-rattling talent, the track was written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer.

[RELATED: Rock and Roll, Rockabilly Pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis Dies at 87]

Amazingly, the song sold more than one million copies in its first 10 days upon its release in the United States, making it one of the best-selling songs of its generation.

In terms of its meaning, the song is all about the earthquake that love (and lust) presents a person. Bones shake, souls howl, and the world becomes new and destroyed all at once. This is the energy poured into “Great Balls of Fire,” and Lewis captures it as no one else could.

He sings in the opening stanza:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will
But what a thrill
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!

Then, Lewis follows that up with another teeth-shaking verse:

I laughed at love ‘coz I thought it was funny
You came along and you moved me, honey
I’ve changed my mind
This love is fine
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!

The History of “Great Balls of Fire”

The song was recorded in Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on October 8, 1957. Lewis was on piano and vocals, Sidney Stokes was on bass, and session drummer Larry Linn was on the kit. The combination proved fruitful, if not a bit mysterious to Lewis, himself.

“I knew Sidney Stokes but I didn’t know him that well either, and I don’t know what happened to them people,” said Lewis in the book JLL: His Own Story by Rick Bragg. “That’s the last time I ever seen ’em. That’s strange isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, the track has since taken on a life of its own. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was lightning in a bottle. The combination proved to work for the writers and for Lewis, though in later listenings, knowing the history of his personal relationships, which includes marrying a 13-year-old cousin, the song can take on several meanings, from the sordid to the romantic.

In Popular Culture

The 1989 Lewis biopic was named after the song. Great Balls of Fire! depicted Lewis’ life with actor Dennis Quaid portraying Lewis. It showed the ups and downs of the artist’s career and personal life, from his creative success to his odd and questionable romances.

[RELATED: Jerry Lee Lewis Leads Collection of Remembrances for Cousin Mickey Gilley]

Since its release, the track has been noted and used in other films and bits of pop culture, including WWE events. Iconic wrestler Ric Flair even started his catchphrase “Wooo!” in 1974 after he heard Lewis sing the refrain from the song. “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, woo!”

But most famously, the song was used prominently in the 1986 movie Top Gun. In the action thriller, the character Goose (Anthony Edwards) plays the song with his family and Maverick (Tom Cruise). Later, the song appears in the Top Gun sequel, performed by Rooster (Miles Teller), who is Goose’s son, in an authentic live performance.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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