Otis Blackwell, a prolific songwriter who wrote many hits for Elvis Presley, wrote this song with Jack Hammer, who at one point was a member of The Platters. Blackwell died in 2002 at age 70.
The song became Lewis' signature tune, a perfect fit for his incendiary style. "A person tells at least a little bit about himself in any song he cuts," Lewis said years later.
Like Lewis' previous hit, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," this contained a lot of sexual innuendo, which was shocking for a southern musician in 1957. Lewis grew up in a religious household and was conflicted over whether or not he should record this. He and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips argued as Phillips tried to convince him to sing it. Tape was rolling during the spat and the exchange can be heard on some Sun Records collections. "I thought it was funny because I could see both of them," recalled house drummer JM van Eaton to Uncut magazine April 2012. "Sam's as serious as he could be, and Jerry's as heated as he could be."
This song made the Top 5 of the Pop, R&B, and Country charts simultaneously with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Both hit #1 on the Country charts, and while this sold 5 million copies, which was less then its predecessor, it still charted higher.
This was released in England the same month that Lewis married 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown, who was the daughter of his cousin (and bass player) J.W. Brown. At the time, Lewis was headlining shows with Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, but when the UK press found out, public outrage forced Lewis to leave the country. Back in the States, his career faltered as radio stations refused to play his records and stores refused to sell them.
In the UK, a similarly raucous version by the female singer Georgia Gibbs was released in 1957 before Lewis' version was issued. It didn't chart, but Jerry Lee's recording became a huge hit, topping the UK chart and becoming the first Sun Records recording to score there.
One of the many rock stars this influenced was Eric Clapton, who said: "I remember the first Rock & Roll I ever saw on TV was Jerry Lee Lewis doing 'Great Balls of Fire.' That threw me - it was like seeing someone from outer space." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
In 1989, Dennis Quaid portrayed Lewis in the movie Great Balls Of Fire, which told the story of his life.
The film took a few liberties, including a scene where Lewis sets his piano on fire while performing this song - a tale often told by Lewis but never verified.
In America, the song was released on November 11, 1957, just one day before the movie Jamboree hit theaters. Lewis performed the song in the film, which gave it great exposure. Other singers appearing in the movie were Carl Perkins, Fats Domino and Frankie Avalon.
In the movie Top Gun, "Goose" (Anthony Edwards) and "Maverick" (Tom Cruise) sing this while "Goose" plays a piano that still sits at the Kansas City Barbeque Restaurant in San Diego, California where the scene was filmed.