Goodness gracious, that piano is on fire! At least, that’s how the story goes. Bad boy rocker Jerry Lee Lewis allegedly set his piano on fire mid-song at a concert in 1958 to upset Chuck Berry. It’s one of the most enduring legends of early rock and roll. But no one is sure if it actually happened.
As the legend goes, Lewis was playing a show with Buddy Holly, Frankie Lymon, the Chantels, and Berry. The promoter and host, Alan Freed, decided Berry would close the show. Lewis felt he deserved the coveted slot so he decided to do something no one could follow.
Midway through his big hit “Great Balls of Fire” Lewis poured gas from a Coke bottle onto his piano and set it alight. The crowd went nuts. He finished the song, walked off stage to a stunned Berry, and reportedly said, “Follow that, Chuck.”
The story was warped in scope over the following years. Sometimes when people tell it, he set a piano on fire to close out nearly every show. Other times he played a flaming piano for the entire show or until it broke. But the myth has always been Lewis burned a piano at least once on stage. Even Jerry Lee Lewis’ biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” has him burning his piano that night.
But Lee has always been cagey about whether he actually did it.
J.W. Brown, who was Lewis’ early bass player, also said it didn’t happen.
“No, he ain’t never set no piano on fire,” he told GQ in 2014. “He tore a lot of them up.”
Whether this actually happened or not, it’ll go down with the great music myths like Robert Johnson’s trip to the crossroads or Keith Richard’s blood transfusion. And Lewis knows this. It’s partly why he still occasionally tells the story to reporters when asked.
“Well, that’s what people want to hear,” he told GQ.