Did Jerry Lee Lewis Really Set His Pianos on Fire Onstage?

Lewis Himself Tells Contradictory Tales

Rock 'n' roll is filled with mysteries, myths, and rumors. One of the bigger questions of the last few decades is whether or not Jerry Lee Lewis actually set his pianos on fire while onstage. Pianos? No, there has only been one reported incident, but even that may not be entirely true.

The Piano Burning Story

Jerry Lee Lewis had a bad boy image in rock 'n' roll and was known to get pretty rowdy on and off stage.

It's what led to his appeal by millions of adoring fans in the 1950s and 60s. The piano fire debate comes from one incident at a concert in 1958, the same year of Lewis' self-titled debut album.

The setting was the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, New York. Alan Freed had set up a traveling show with some of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll at the time. That night's show included Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, the Chantels, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.

Freed decided that Chuck Berry would close the night's show, a decision that Lewis was not fond of. Reportedly, Lewis got on stage, sang a few songs, including "A Whole Lotta Shakin'," then things got a little wild. 

The story, according to the authorized biography, "Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story," is that the crowd was so excited that the police had to stop them from jumping on stage. At that point, Lewis kicked the piano stool back, "sprinkled" some gas out of a Coke bottle onto the piano, lit it on fire, and continued playing "Great Balls of Fire."

After the incident, as Lewis walked backstage, he reportedly said one of two things. According to the biography, Lewis said, "I want to see you follow that, Chuck." Other accounts have Lewis telling Berry, "Follow that, n***er," in order to intimidate him.

Did It Really Happen?

Here's the thing with the truth, it's going to vary depending on who you're talking to.

Weirder still in this instance is that Lewis himself has both denied and detailed the story many times over the years.

In a 2014 article for GQ, Chris Heath tried to get to the bottom of the story. This was just as Lewis' biography was being released and Heath was curious about the piano story in particular, but found that it wasn't so easy. As he puts it, "Jerry Lee Lewis just might be immune to definitive accounts—and he seems to prefer it that way."

In one interview with Lewis, who was in his 70s at the time, the singer told Heath that he did indeed burn the piano. He also said that he often denied it over the years because it's "what people want to hear."

Trying to get to the truth, Heath asked Lewis' daughter, Phoebe, to call her grandfather. J.W. Brown was Lewis' bass player in those early days and also the father of Lewis' then 13-year-old bride, Myra. When the reporter asked Brown about the piano incident, he responded, "No, he ain’t never set no piano on fire. He tore a lot of them up."

That personal account from someone who was actually onstage does not help matters whatsoever. What is for sure is that the rumor that Jerry Lee Lewis set a piano on fire is a great story—true or not—and it probably helped fuel his popularity over the decades.

After all, it is the most memorable scene of the 1989 biopic "Great Balls of Fire!"

Source:

Bragg, Rick. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. Harper Collins, 2015.

Heath, Chris. “The New Jerry Lee Lewis Biography is Definitively Undefinitive.” GQ, 27 Oct. 2014.

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Fontenot, Robert. "Did Jerry Lee Lewis Really Set His Pianos on Fire Onstage?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/jerry-lee-lewis-setting-his-pianos-on-fire-on-stage-2523388. Fontenot, Robert. (2017, October 18). Did Jerry Lee Lewis Really Set His Pianos on Fire Onstage? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jerry-lee-lewis-setting-his-pianos-on-fire-on-stage-2523388 Fontenot, Robert. "Did Jerry Lee Lewis Really Set His Pianos on Fire Onstage?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jerry-lee-lewis-setting-his-pianos-on-fire-on-stage-2523388 (accessed November 25, 2017).