Book Talk: Great Balls of Fire!

“In a matter of moments, the pianist…a twice-married, draft-evading Bible school expellee from nowhere, became the dominating influence in the lives of thousands of impressionable youngsters. Here was a man, kids thought, who was tough enough to say what he thought, dress as he pleased and do what he wanted to do. Here was a rock ‘n’ roll hero.”

“Great Balls of Fire! The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis” by Myra Lewis with Murray Silver (1982)

Few men can be said to have truly shaped early rock & roll. We can discuss the pioneers but I refer to those players that came on the scene once the genre had been formed and who plied it with success and to the delight of teenagers everywhere. Jerry Lee Lewis is certainly one of these players and the book we’re looking at today charts his early life, his brief time in the global spotlight and his controversial marriage to this book’s co-writer.

Great Balls of Fire! – the basis for the 1989 film of the same name starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder – is as much about the Killer as it is about Myra Brown, the 13-year-old second cousin who Jerry married at the height of his career. But it does provide much detailed analysis of Jerry’s origins. Silver has unearthed info pertaining to Lewis’ folks, bootlegger Elmo who had served time and iron-fisted Mamie who doted on her fair-haired boy. Elmo got short-shrift in the Lewis household – and all of his sad life – but it was the Lewis father who mortgaged the family home to buy Jerry a piano and with his limited abilities, filled in the gaps in his boy’s natural mastery of the instrument. This family dynamic sets up for the reader the many obstacles Myra would face once she was married to Jerry.

The author reports on key players in Jerry’s young life. His cousin and “partner in crime”, Jimmy Lee Swaggart and his best friend and lifelong associate Cecil Harrelson who gave Jerry the nickname “The Killer”. Silver seems to have done his research and he is able to unravel in detail the sequences of Lewis’ haphazard marriages. Here is an element of the life of Jerry Lee Lewis that would turn many non-fans of today off but Murray Silver manages to report indifferently on Jerry’s casual and somehow innocent approach to women. Certainly careless but perhaps not as seedy as has been painted. Concerning Jerry’s lifelong struggle between service to the Lord and service to rock & roll and to himself, Silver, I think, depicts the struggle accurately painting it with all of the flawed thinking of the Killer himself.

“Rules followed Jerry; Jerry did not follow rules.”

Concerning the tone of the book you’ll have to prepare yourself for a very casual presentation. Murray Silver had been a rock promoter, journalist and photographer by the time he wrote Great Balls of Fire!, his first book. This may explain the lack of polish which I’m generally OK with. This approach usually results in some light or comedic moments and you’ll get a couple in this book. When 15-year-old Jerry takes off for a fling in New Orleans, Elmo and Mamie are worried. The NOPD calls Elmo asking him to come and get his boy. Elmo hangs up and Mamie, frightened, asks if Jerry is dead. “Not yet”, Elmo says getting in the car, fuming. Impulsive Jerry sneaks off to a neighbouring town to marry his second wife, Jane Mitcham. When the newlyweds return to the bride’s home, they shock her folks with the news. Jerry sits down at the table and asks what’s for supper. Incidentally, this helps to illustrate what I refer to as Jerry’s “casual” approach to marriage. When induction into the Army seems imminent, Jerry has Cecil fill out his registration form, telling his buddy to put down that Jerry’s been in jail “a buncha times”. Knowing that running red lights will not be enough, Cecil writes down an impressive list of offences, including murder. Jerry is thrilled – and rejected for service. Silver references Song of the South when describing contract negotiations between uncaring Jerry and wily Jud Phillips – “en Brer Phillips, he lay low.” Those who know, will know.

But Silver employs another method that may challenge readers – it started to drive me crazy – and may call his research into question. He presents much of the text in conversation form, the type of exchanges one would find in a work of fiction. He tells great swaths of his story using seemingly verbatim dialogue he has created himself, complete with the southern dialect Jerry, his family and associates would perhaps have employed. The reader may discern that in most cases neither Silver nor Myra were there for these back-and-forths and therefore it must be assumed that Silver has adopted this method as a means by which to tell the story. I can only assume that he thought the reader would feel like he was really in the offices of Sun Records, for example, hearing an exchange between Sam Phillips and his brother, Jud. This just seemed disingenuous, amateurish and even jarring sometimes.

“He was spoiled. He habitually complained, enjoyed being demanding and liked to make people jump. If he did not like the tone in which he was told to prepare for departure for an engagement, Jerry might lock himself in the bathroom and comb his hair…”

Speaking of Sam Phillips, he is depicted by Silver as a bumpkin of sorts who had no idea about the financial aspects of running a business. The author sarcastically dismisses Sam’s ability to predict trends and says that he would “sooner consult a deck of cards than chart action” in trying to decipher which way the wind blew. He describes Sam’s payment of royalties as a hit-and-miss operation that resulted in Lewis being underpaid through the first decade of his career. Those of you who are better versed than I in the career of the founder of Sun Records may recognize this as the true story regarding Sam but it seemed here to be particularly dismissive of Phillips and his business practices and music savvy. Of course Silver also reports of the times when Jerry Lee would just sign contracts without even reading them and had no conception himself about the money to be made or the servitude he was agreeing to. Jud Phillips is depicted as even feeling funny about the times when Jerry would carelessly enter into agreements without reading contracts.

Jerry and Sam Phillips in the studio.

I wondered what type of tale would be told in Great Balls of Fire! Because of Myra Lewis’ involvement, I wondered if I’d get a personal memoir instead of a charting of the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. But I will say that Silver has done a competent job of research and presents the highs and lows of Jerry’s trajectory well. Are there better books out there that do this? Undoubtedly but this book does have some merit in this area. Where it really affects the reader, though, is in relating the story of Myra Gale Brown.

“If it is possible for love at first sight to exist without the participants realizing it…that was the very case with Myra and Jerry. He became detached from his identity as her cousin…He saw an attractive girl, who she was and what she was and her tender years made no difference. Myra regarded Jerry in the same detached manner.”

She and Silver share the sad story of Myra being sexually assaulted by a neighbour when she was quite young. This understandably had a negative effect on Myra and informed her decision to marry Lewis. She considered herself damaged goods and wondered who would ever want her in this condition. Once Jerry provided her with an opportunity for a husband, a home and a family, she took it.

“(Jerry) reached the ultimate disastrous decision to marry his thirteen-year-old cousin. Myra was in the living room hammering out her homework when fantasy formed an immovable impression in Jerry’s mind that here sat the love of his life.”

Myra soon found herself in a gilded cage. Jerry was making good money but didn’t want his new bride to leave the house. And when she did she found that being married to a highly-paid rock & roller but being only thirteen and looking it caused some problems. Jerry bought her a Cadillac. So, she drove it. But she was nowhere near the legal driving age. The police who eventually stopped her needed proof she was Mrs. Killer. Out to buy appliances on credit, salespeople were slow to take her seriously until learning who she was.

Myra was riddled with guilt over Jerry’s career downturn, saying at the lowest point that she wished she could have it to do over again. She would never marry Jerry, she said; “I’ve hurt Jerry…I’ve destroyed his world, his music. Oh, I wish I was dead”. The following excerpt can best describe Myra’s situation.

“Myra was broken, yet Jerry’s upbraiding was relentless. What bordered on mind control took the charm from the girl and bleached the beauty from the woman. In time, Myra learned to greet whomever she was introduced to with her eyes at their feet, never looking up lest she be accused of luring a lover. What began as the education of a young bride disintegrated into imposition of one will over another. Myra became mentally, physically and emotionally dependant on a husband who was sometimes gone a month or more and who made life pure hell when at home.”

Many subjects I tackle here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure elicit my sympathy. I often find myself delving in to the life of a celebrity and coming out feeling a strong connection to the human element of the story. So many of those who have been victimized by fame have been women (see Carole Landis, Katherine Walsh, Edie Sedgwick). Sadly, I feel I can add the ballad of Myra Gale Williams to this list.

But I don’t think Myra – a rarity in that she is a survivor – would want my sympathy or consider herself a victim. Once upon a time, Myra thought that she would like to share her life story with the world and particularly with other women who could benefit from her tale. She hired Murray Silver who gradually twisted her own tale of survival into the life story of Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra had been taken advantage of yet again. She would eventually write the book she wanted to in 2016, calling it The Spark That Survived.

Myra today.

Sadly, Great Balls of Fire! is most often found today with a garish movie tie-in cover, making it look cheap. Does it read like a dime store bio? It does, however you do get the story you want. While there are more erudite, more recent books on Jerry Lee Lewis, this book is worth reading.


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