Did Jerry Lee Lewis Really Set a Piano on Fire?
When you begin researching Jerry Lee Lewis, you learn that the truth is a bit of a rascal. The Country Music Hall of Fame artist understood this, and even understood his role in amplifying exaggerations, fibs or straight-up nonsense. For example, an oft-told story goes that Lewis once set a piano on fire and continued to play it.
Did it really happen?
There are variations of the story that disagree on details like the location of the alleged piano fire (Brooklyn, N.Y., or Ohio), but most go something like this: In 1958 — at the height of his young career — Lewis was playing a show with Buddy Holly, the Chantels and Chuck Berry, and he was upset that Berry was the headliner. So, either as a way of proving he was the best entertainer on the bill, or as a way of destroying a necessary piece of equipment that Berry needed after him, he lit it on fire.
"Yeah, that piano burned like a house on fire. The fire department was there with them as and them rubber suits on, and boy, they got on my case" ~ Jerry Lee Lewis, to GQ
"I was supposed to be the star of the show," he told Rolling Stone 20 years later. "Took a Coke bottle full of (gasoline) onstage with me."
Both of those quotes sync with a 1989 movie titled Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid. The scene in question is very entertaining.
That feature in Rolling Stone is particularly informative, because it finds Lewis admitting he often goes along with a myth if it suits him. Immediately after telling the journalist about the fire, he recounts how he once pushed a piano into the ocean.
Much later the rock icon backtracks. "If I did, I swear I don’t remember it. A lot of times people make up things, and I just go along with ’em."
In the case of the ocean piano, there was a cooperating witness in Conway Twitty who tells a story very familiar to the one Lewis first told. It's really hard to find someone who can vouch for the fire story.
Part of the reason is that it was 65 years ago, and everyone involved with the show is dead (Holly would die the next year). So, no modern journalist ever pressed for the truth, and that's not a knock on scribes of the '70s. When you read the Rolling Stone feature, it's clear the job was much different back then.
In 2014, GQ did the heavy lifting. A new authorized biography told a version of the piano fire story, but the magazine reporter starts to poke around, eventually finding Lewis' daughter Phoebe who — at that time — had heard her dad say he did and didn't burn it down. Together they find someone who would know: J.K. Brown, who was Lewis' early bass player and is also grandfather to Phoebe. They call him.
"No. He ain't never set no piano on fire. He tore a lot of them up," Brown tells GQ. He goes on to say that he suspects the legend grew from a crude pyrotechnic that flashed as Lewis closed "Great Balls of Fire," his early hit. That moment can be found in the above video.