This was Jerry Lee Lewis's second single, following up his cover of the Ray Price Country song "Crazy Arms," which went nowhere. Lewis was signed to the famous Sun Records, who also had Elvis Presley. This song was the first of Lewis' four Top 40 hits, which all occurred in a period of about a year and a half. In 1958, his hits dried up when word of his marriage to 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown got out. Despite just the four hits and an unsavory reputation, Lewis was so revered as a rock pioneer that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first class.
Radio stations found all kinds of reasons not to play this song: It was too suggestive, he cursed on it, ("We-e-ll-a" sounded like "We-hella"), he sounded black (most stations didn't play songs by black artists). Still, the song sold well in the southern United States, but it wasn't until Lewis' TV debut on The Steve Allen Show
on July 28, 1957 that it became a national hit and sold over 6 million copies. The song also generated a lot of controversy, as the lyrics were rather lascivious and quite shocking coming from a singer from the Bible Belt.
This appeared in the Top 5 of the Pop, Country, and R&B charts simultaneously with Lewis' other big hit, "Great Balls of Fire." Both songs hit #1 on the Country charts.
This song was written by Roy Hall (using the pseudonym Sunny David) and Dave "Curly" Williams. Hall was a songwriter/piano player who ran a music venue in Nashville and played in Webb Pierce's band. Hall and Williams (a black musician) wrote this song in 1954 while fishing on Lake Okeechobee in Florida. They were drunk when they heard a bell clanging on an island in the middle of the lake. After Hall blurted out, "What's going on?" he heard someone say "We got 21 drums, we got an ol' bass horn and they're even keepin' time on a ding-dong" - which became the original first line of the song.
Webb Pierce helped Hall get a record deal with Decca, and in 1955 Hall recorded this song for the label. Back in 1954, Hall hired Jerry Lee Lewis to play some gigs at his club, and when it came time for Lewis to record his second single, he pulled out Hall's song and turned it into a rock classic. Hall said that he had to sign over the royalties from the song to his ex-wife, and he spent his remaining years playing around Nashville. He died in 1984 at age 61.
After Roy Hall recorded this song and before Lewis did it, wersions were recorded by Big Maybelle, The Commodores (no relation to the '70s Motown group), and Delores Frederick. All four were done in completely different styles. Jerry Lee Lewis made it a lascivious rocker - his take was wildly divergent from the original.
This was a popular live song for Lewis' band, The Jerry Lee Lewis Trio, before Lewis recorded the song. Lewis told the story (and he told lots of stories) that they first played the song in a club in Osceola, Arkansas behind a screen to avoid flying bottles and other projectiles commonly served by the rough crowd. When they ran out of material, Lewis suggested they do "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." They played it, sort of - he couldn't remember all the words and ad-libbed whenever he forgot them. The tough audience asked the Trio to repeat it... 23 times!
There is no bass on this song - not a problem for Lewis, who could get a lot of low end out of his piano.
This song was recorded in mono with one microphone at Sun Records. In 1963, Jerry signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, and re-recorded the song in stereo with a backing chorus. In 1964, the stereo album The Greatest Live Show On Earth
featured an extended live version.
In a 2006 Rolling Stone magazine article, Lewis claimed he never received royalties from this or any of his other work at Sun Records. Lewis recounted that Sun owner Sam Phillips estimated that he owed him about $8 million, but Lewis never bothered to sue because money was not that important to him and he didn't want the hassle.
This was the first song played on the national edition of American Bandstand. The only performers who did not lip-synch during the show's 37-year run were BB King and The Killer himself.