Week in Rock History: Jerry Lee Lewis Records 'Great Balls of Fire'

Plus: Janis Joplin dies and Sinéad O'Connor enrages 'SNL' watchers

October 3, 2011 4:55 PM ET
circa 1957 jerry lee lewis los angeles
Jerry Lee Lewis performs in Los Angeles.
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

This week in rock history, Jerry Lee Lewis laid down "Great Balls of Fire," Janis Joplin passed away, Aerosmith bailed their stoner fans out of jail, Sinéad O’Connor enraged American TV watchers and Oasis released (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

October 8th, 1957: Jerry Lee Lewis records "Great Balls of Fire"
Jerry Lee Lewis – "The Killer" of rock & roll – almost passed on recording his career-defining single because he found it blasphemous. Many in his church would come to agree with him.

One fall afternoon, Lewis took to a piano at the legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and pounded out "Great Balls of Fire" in just a handful of takes. However, this took some coercion from Sun owner Sam Phillips; Lewis, a devout Christian and bible-school dropout, worried that the song’s title was too sinful. In fact, the track, written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, took its name from a common Southern expression that was considered improper by many Christians – the same prim audience that would come to decry Lewis and rock music after the song’s release, calling both the work of the devil.

Lewis’s swaggering vocals and electrifying piano theatrics carried "Great Balls of Fire" to the top of the Billboard charts and to the forefront of the 1950s American rock & roll renaissance. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential songs in rock history, and is Number 96 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

October 4th, 1970: Janis Joplin dies
Less than three weeks after the untimely passing of Jimi Hendrix, the rock world was struck with another profound blow: the accidental death of tortured, viscerally talented Janis Joplin. 

The vulnerable blues singer rose from modest origins in Texas (where she worked temporarily as a computer programmer) to become the psychedelic goddess of Big Brother and the Holding Company and other soulful outfits. On the night of her death, she went drinking in Los Angeles with her Full Tilt Boogie bandmate Ken Pearson before returning to the Landmark Motor Hotel, where she was found dead the next morning by her road manager, John Cooke. The cause was determined as an accidental heroin overdose, likely combined with more alcohol. She was 27.

Joplin’s success in the male-dominated world of rock & roll paved the way for countless other female artists to follow. She ranks Number 28 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

October 3rd, 1978 – Aerosmith bails fans out of jail after they're arrested for smoking pot at their concert
Aerosmith’s 1978 North American tour, held in conjunction with their Live! Bootleg concert album, was fraught with problems – not least that several of their fans got arrested at their gigs.

While Steven Tyler and company were performing in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the show was disrupted by a police raid; officers arrested scores of audience members for smoking marijuana. (Due to conflicting eyewitness accounts, the number of arrests is generally estimated between 30 and 50.) The irate band bailed their fans out of prison after their set before they left town for their next gig in Cincinnati, Ohio, which went more smoothly. However, one month later, pandemonium ensued yet again: during the band’s Philadelphia stop, Tyler was hit by a glass bottle, forcing the band to cancel the show.

The Live! Bootleg album is notable for including one of Aerosmith’s first concert takes on the Beatles’ "Come Together," which they would come to revisit often onstage and perform in the legendarily misguided 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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