THE ''GREAT BALLS OF FIRE'' THEORY - Let's now turn to the next major landmark, ''Great Galls Of Fire''. The related development work has been one
of the more sensitive subjects to deal with, not least because it involves disputing a series of dates that have hitherto been regarded by many as reputable entries in the often far from dependable recording diary. It seems, however, that this is a case where
Sam Phillips did deliberately draw a veil over proceedings when he reported studio activity to the musicians' union, while others involved in the recording of Jerry Lee's second million-seller have contributed to the confusion by claiming that the finished
product was arrived at in a single take. This fancy was perpetuated by Jerry Lee's bass player, cousin and sometime father-in-law Jay W. Brown as recently as in 2010, but it's a weak proposition in the face of so many indications to the contrary. One might
speculate that such a declaration was originally part and parcel of Sam's efforts to outwit the union; looked at in that light, abiding loyalty to such a deception would be laudable!
it's clear that such stories about only ''one take'' being required to arrive at an impeccable cut, be it of ''Great Balls Of Fire'' itself or others of Jerry Lee's hits, haven't always been inspired by any intention to mislead. Rather, they may be down to
a basic misunderstanding between the musicians involved and some of those who have delved into these events in much later years. It's only fair to say that the likes of Jay W. Brown, Jimmy M. Van Eaton and Jerry Lee himself wouldn't necessarily have regarded
as ''takes'' any performances which were, in effect, only ''rehearsals'', while their own perceptions of the process may have failed to acknowledge the fact that quite so many run-throughs were being captured on tape, far less being kept for posterity. How
valid this argument is in respect of the work undertaken on ''Great Balls Of Fire'' remains open to question, though it's easier to sustain in respect of ''Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On''; as we have seen, the master of the latter was, as both Jerry Lee Lewis
and Jack Clement were always keen to emphasise, nailed in ''one take''. What is undeniable is that those who contributed to the making of this history would never have imagined that their work in the Sun studio, however formal or otherwise, would decades later
be the subject of such intense interest and analysis.
Leaving the ''single-take'' fable aside, the accepted wisdom is that each and every cut of ''Great Balls Of Fire''
dated from a three day span, Sunday 6 to Tuesday 8, October 1957. There is, however, no firm testimony in support of this suggestion, which was published in the 1983 LP set and has been repeated unchallenged in most subsequent accounts. And while the discography
in the 1989 bear Family set ''Classic'' did at least cast doubt on the belief that all fifteen takes originated in October, and pointed to a less intensive schedule, it fell short of providing any detail.
The premise that everything was recorded over the course of three days in October fails to pay regard to Sam Phillips' own declaration in later years that, having been pressed by Warner Brothers to supply a tape of ''Great Balls
Of Fire'' for use in the film ''Jamboree'', he had submitted to the producers the best of what he already had to hand, while remaining determined to achieve still better results for the eventually single release. The idea that Sam would have sent to Warner
Brothers an inferior cut for want of a day or two in early October doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. And the fact that the film was premiered on November 12, while not making an October date for the recording of the audio of Jerry Lee Lewis' contribution
impossible, adds weight to the argument against the traditional explanation.
Contemporaneous published accounts also discredit the notion of an all-embracing October
session and signify a different chain of events; these sources indicate that the recording of the so-called ''movie cut'' and its numerous sound-alike takes predated that of the finished master, as heard on Sun 281, not by just one or two days but quite possibly
by an interval of at least two months. In all likelihood, the version heard on the soundtrack was actually taped before Jerry Lee's first live television appearance on ''The Steve Allen Show'', broadcast from New York City on Sunday July 28, 1957. This deduction
is supported by a report in Billboard magazine of August 5, 1957 signposting that the lip-synched contribution to ''Jamboree'' was filmed during the same excursion to the north-east, which in turn points to the ''movie-take'' having been recorded before Jerry
Lee Lewis left Memphis on July 25, 1957.
What seems most likely is that Jud Phillips, Sam's brother, having been made responsible for promoting Jerry Lee nationally and
securing the TV dates, made his way to the New York office of music publishers Hill & Range well in advance of the July 28, commitment. Jud's assertion that he introduced the staff writers to ''Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On'' and invited them to devise
a potential follow up is entirely persuasive. In response, a demo and/or the score for ''Great Balls Of Fire'' would have been dispatched to Memphis in time to allow tentative recordings to be made in advance of Jerry Lee's visit to New York both for the TV
debut at the end of the month and, during the same venture, to film the movie cameo.
Let's also consider the aural evidence. The fifteen takes of ''Great Balls Of Fire''
readily fall into one or other of two detached groups; those which exhibit a relatively laboured guitar and bass rhythm, as heard in the frenetic ''movie'' take, and those that evince a more accomplished pattern, revealing enhanced tape echo, with the piano
and the drums supposedly combining to form a wall of sound in the absence, according to some, of other instrumentation. Might this sea-change have been accomplished overnight? While it can't be ruled out absolutely, it is considered highly implausible; as
a result, these recordings have now been split into the two groups and placed apart. The first session, at which the musicians were required to learn the song from scratch, culminated in the taping of the movie version. It's remembered by Jimmy Van Eaton as
a chaotic exercise with a studio full of people, though clearly not everyone was impressed when it came to the dominant characters exchanging views on the subject of divine retribution.
On the second date, Jerry Lee Lewis is in an entirely secular frame of mind; exegesis has given way to excess. But, in his singing and playing, we can witness the steady progression from a relatively carefree, illdisciplined couple of run-throughs
to the climactic ''master''; the sublime single release. At each stage a refinement of one sort or another is embodied, whether a change in emphasis or tone in part of the lyric, the stretching of a particular word or the intro-mission of an uncommon exclamation,
or a new twist to the piano solo. Close analysis of this group also indicates that a bass guitarist is present throughout the session, up to and including the final take. This becomes readily identifiable during the second phase of the instrumental break,
in which Jerry Lee's left hand drives the rhythm at eight to the bar and in so doing diverges from the walking bass line.
And there is even more substance to the issued
master itself than has been generally acknowledge in the past. In combinning this song and Jerry Lee's talent, Sam Phillips knew that he was dealing with something extraordinary and he was painstaking in his search for the perfect rendition of ''Great Balls
Of Fire''. This was to be Sun Records' magnum opus, its greatest hit to-date; the sound had to be both innovative and flawless. Jerry Lee had already had upwards of a dozen cracks at it but still something was missing, an extra component to complete the masterwork.
Here's what appears to have happened next, based on the composition of separate tapes found in outtake boxes.
Having secured the sixth take at this second session, yet
still unsatisfied, Sam decided to experiment and asked a percussionist to add a metronomic ''rim-shot'', hitting the edge of the snare drum, to accentuate the beat. Listen to the most conspicuous discrepancy between the master and all the preceding takes from
this session; on the master alone one can hear a sharp, consistent strike on the edge of the drum. It might, of course, be thought that this was accomplished in real time, but a recent discovery in the Sun archives renders this proposition highly questionable;
the reality seems to be that it wasn't recorded concurrently.
What we can now listen to, on a previously unreleased tape here presented on BCD 17254-18-1, is the cut
that forms the basis of the ''master'' take lacking this ''rim-shot'' sound. This tape does, however, also feature an enhanced drum pattern compared to earlier takes, involving a supplementary layer of conventional ''skin shots'' on the snare drum. But the
pronounced metronomic beat that helps define ''Great Balls Of Fire'', as known to the world, is absent. The distinction may appear subtle, but it is contended that this amounts to proof that the recording originally issued in November 1957 embodies an overdub
of the defining ''rim-shot'' sound.
There is little reason to doubt that these less emphatic ''skin shots'' heard on this alternate are dubbed, rather then being representative
of what was taped live and subsequently masked, either by the ''rim shot'' and/or other mastering techniques applied when the engineer prepared the track for release in 1957. Hence it is believed that what we have are two different overdubs adding extra percussion
to the real time performance, one of which, featuring the ''rim shot'', was selected for release as Sun 281. It can be argued that the alternate presented on BCD 17254-18-1 sustains a closer relationship with the other recordings of the song, whereas the more
obviously augmented ''rim shot'' version stands apart. Moreover, given the order in which the tapes were found in the outtake boxes, the balance of probability is weighted in favour of the rejected ''skin shot'' experiment being the first of two distinct overdubs,
both having been made the fulfill Sam's ambition of lending additional muscle to the record. But being unable to present an underlying, undubbed, tape we have opted to include the master originally released on Sun 281 as part of the main sequence, rather than
consign it to the collection of overdubs on BCD 17254-18-1.
Debates about the origin and the precise composition of this recording may well persist for as long as people
continue to listen to popular music. One conclusion is undeniable. Promethean it assuredly is, yet evidently there were several pairs of hands at work in the genesis of the master take of ''Great Balls Of Fire'', the supposition that it represents nothing
more than the inspired efforts of Jerry Lee Lewis and a drummer, supplemented by ''slapback echo'', is the myth.
by Andrew McRae, October 2015