Jerry Lee Lewis stared at the audience somewhat dazed and yelled, “Well, fuck you too!!” Then he picked up his piano bench and threw it right into the crowd. Almost earning his moniker “The Killer” with a new take on those words as the bench closely whizzed past some dude’s head on the way to the waiting arms of the crowd, Lewis immediately stormed off stage to boos and catcalls. While most of the audience seemed disgusted, I thought it was one of the greatest rock and roll moments I’d ever witnessed.
As we all mourn the passing of one of the iconic creators of Rock and Roll, I recount this most amazing tale.
It all started when a good friend of mine, CK Bower Rider (you gotta love a name like that), invited me to see Jerry Lee at a small club in New York. I had met CK years ago when she was selling satellite time for a big company and I was buying tons of it for my live radio series The Columbia Records Radio Hour. I taught her how to surf, and over the years we’d become surfing buddies and close friends. She knew I loved rock and roll and was no stranger to it herself growing up in New Orleans.
Knowing that rock stars traditionally begin their shows late, we opted for a nice dinner first at a restaurant close by, instead of eating at the club. This proved to be a mistake as even entering the club at 7:30 for the 8:00pm show the place was already packed. In fact, it was oversold. Even though we possessed 2 tickets, all of the tables were full, and there was only standing room left. And when I say standing room, I mean people standing against the walls wrapping all the way around the inside of the club! Actually, it was a dangerous fire hazard and I’ve never seen anything like it to this day.
The show started late, no surprise, and Lewis’s band took the stage to first warm up the crowd. Still no surprise. This is a common ploy used by many artists of that time period. The backup band warms up the audience creating anticipation and when the star is finally announced, he or she is met with an explosion of gleeful cheers by the pre-hyped-up crowd. Worked like a charm for James Brown, B.B. King, Elvis Presley and more.
The surprises started to come when Lewis’s band seemed to be playing longer than usual—much longer. A half hour passed and an unsettling buzz began to build in the audience when the bass player finally addressed the antsy crowd. “Don’t worry,” he said, “The Killer is in the house!” What did that mean? Were we supposed to be worried?? Was it some kind of special gift that Lewis actually showed up to the gig??!
What it did mean was, that after a half hour of waiting for the show to start and an extra half hour of backup band, Jerry Lee Lewis had just entered the building! Knowing his reputation, this did not bode well.
15 minutes of more backup band and the crowd was really starting to get angry. The bandleader could tell. He kept glancing nervously towards the wings praying that someone would give him the “OK” sign. CK asked me what was going on. I explained, “Sadly, he’s probably drunk and they’re back there trying to sober him up.”
Just as some people got up to leave the bandleader wiped the sweat off his forehead and thankfully announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the man you’ve all been waiting for! The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis!” The crowd stood and cheered. But something was off. Jerry Lee came out in somewhat of a daze. It wasn’t hard to figure out—he was still drunk.
Lewis made his way to the piano, gave half a wave to the crowd and sat down. Well, at least he was there, and many performers can do their thing quite well when a little lit. But it didn’t take long to see he was wayyyyyy past a “little.” The band started to play their first number. The group, especially the drummer, was trying to play to the rhythm that Lewis was setting. It was slower than it should be and sounded a bit wonky. Lewis looked up as if it wasn’t his fault and that somehow the world had conspired against him. He yelled loudly at his drummer, “Speed it up!” The drummer looking embarrassed for all of them was happy to do so, even if it meant that part of the audience may have thought he was to blame.
After the first song Lewis demanded a drink. Someone put a plastic cup on his piano, which I can only assume was Coke, because after he took a sip he scolded the gal who’d brought it to him. “I don’t want that. You know what I want!” All of us in the audience still had hope that we’d get to see a good Jerry Lee Lewis show. I suppose performing the first song sobered him up a bit, because the second was quite better and in-time with the band, which was now cooking as a unit.
After two songs, he looked at his watch but couldn’t read it. He asked the drummer out loud what time it was. By then it was 10pm. “Oh my!” Lewis exclaimed. He looked at the audience. “We’ve got two shows to do tonight, we’ve got to get going!” Then he launched into “Great Balls of Fire.”
Lewis had sweated out just enough alcohol in his system to be semi cognizant, but the juice left still provided him enough rocket fuel to go absolutely apeshit! Lewis grabbed the mic with one hand while he started pounding piano keys with the other.
“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!!”
The place exploded in euphoria. The band kicked in and rocked the house down. Lewis was howling like a cat. As the song got more intense, he lifted his right leg and started pounding the piano keys with his foot. Astonishingly, he was playing the right notes with the heal of his shoe! Then he got up from the piano bench, kicked it behind him and bent down driving the keys so hard I thought he was going to break the piano. The crowd was delirious. And just when we thought we’d seen it all, he turned around and starting hammering the keys with his butt, punishing the instrument like I’ve never seen in my life. The club turned into one big sweat ball with folks dancing by their tables and some on their tables! CK and I were bobbing our heads, rockin’ out like c-r-a-z-y!
I’ve searched YouTube and the closest thing I’ve found to what it was like is the first 48 seconds of this video.
The song ended with a rousing finish. The roar of the crowd so loud 500 people in the club sounded like 5,000! It was a magical shared moment—everyone knew they’d just seen the rock performance of a lifetime.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Lewis had been so out of it, that when the drummer had told him the time, he thought he’d played an entire set, so he’d called out his patented “Great Balls of Fire” thinking that was the end of the show. He got up to leave, thanking the audience. In truth, he’d only played 3 songs and that’s when the crowd got testy. There were boos, catcalls, and a few fuck you’s. To Jerry Lee’s credit, he didn’t know why he was being booed, and that’s when he threw the piano bench.
CK was beside herself. She’d spent a small fortune on the tickets and so wanted us to have a great rock and roll experience. I tried to lift her spirits telling her we’d just had that. More isn’t always better. That performance of “Great Balls of Fire,” including Lewis throwing his piano bench into the crowd is seared into my brain as one of the greatest rock moments of my life.
The whole idea of rock and roll started with the music and performance of it being out of control, causing out of control feelings within us. That fact is quite aptly stated in the recent Elvis movie when they talk about women “experiencing feelings that they weren’t supposed to be experiencing.” Let’s not forget rock and roll was first tagged with the moniker “The Devil’s music.”
And isn’t that why we love it so much. It’s all about emotion and base sensual and sexual feelings that it conjures up within us. When we rock out, we are totally free.
Many rock artists push their lifestyles to the limit as well as their music, which makes some of their performances checkered at times. But when they catch lightning in a bottle it’s hard to complain. Even though the first show crowd complained as they left that evening, I was as high as a kite grinning from ear to ear. CK and I had witnessed “The Killer,” at the top of his game. Even if it was for only one song. One song played like that, was quite enough.
© Paul Rappaport 2022