Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On (1955)

Jerry Lee Lewis

Written by Dave Williams, (and possibly James Faye Hall)
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Whole lotta crazy killerThe nickname “Killer” couldn’t be more apt. Jerry Lee Lewis killed the songs he performed, killed his audiences, killed his pianos and led a life so wild and wide open that it makes the escapades of “on-the-road” Beats, on-the-bus Pranksters and Frank and Jesse James seem like kindergarten play.

That jungle of elementary forces came together in every respect in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1957. A session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records – the label and studio that brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison to fame – Lewis was itching to break out. (Listen to Perkins’s original version of “Matchbox” to hear Jerry Lee’s sizzling piano in another context.) “Whole Lotta Shakin'” was part of his extracurricular stage act that he barnstormed with around Tennessee.

17 million copies sold  and counting

It was released and did very well, selling around 300,000 copies. That is until Lewis appeared on The Steve Allen Show in July of 1957. The Killer set the world on fire. The dogs of war, the hounds of hell, the Rock-N-Roll pit bulls were let out of their cages that night. The song is far from the “first” Rock-N-Roll song but it is the song that unleashed the full potential of Rock and introduced the concept of the “wildman” in performance.

Jerry Lee’s pounding, stomping, dancing, his mounting of his piano, kicking piano benches and stools around, screaming, shouting, leering and (legendarily) setting his instrument on fire presages the gonzo antics of many later acts. The Who, Hendrix, Alice Cooper, and countless punkers all took their cues from Lewis.

Yet he was never far from his Country and Rockabilly roots. Up from Louisiana, Jerry Lee slopped into the pot what we would today call bawdiness but in his day was considered lewdness. The animal references are part of a disappearing old-time Country music idiom:

Whole lotta single vinylCome over baby
whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on
Yes, I said come over baby
baby you can’t go wrong
We ain’t fakin’
Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

Well I said come over baby
we got chicken in the barn-a
oooh… huh..
Come over baby
babe we got the bull by the horn-a
We ain’t fakin’
Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

The music is hip swinging as opposed to toe-tapping or knee-jiggling. His exhortation to move your hips and ass is timeless.

Well I said shake baby shake
I said shake baby shake
I said shake it baby shake it
I said shake baby shake
Come on over
Whole lot of shakin goin’ on
Ahhhhh. Let’s go !

Whole Lotta Shakin Million dollar qrtJerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis: the “Million Dollar Quartet”

But it is in his ad libbing that Lewis becomes his most enjoyably lascivious self. You can’t help but groove to his singing, half-talk-half-scat banter.

Easy Now (lowers his voice)
Shake it Ahhhh… Shake it babe
Yeah…. You can shake one time for me
Well I said come over baby
Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

Now lets get real low one time now
Shake baby shake
All you gotta do honey
is kinda stand in one spot
wiggle around just a little bit
that’s what you gotta do yeah….

Oh babe whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on
Now let go one time

Whole lotta wildmanIf it was banned by some radio stations in the late 1950s, it’s understandable. While people actually had pre-marital sex, proper people at least didn’t talk about it. And they certainly didn’t squirm, wiggle and thrust about the dance floor to such music. And he was white! Heavens.

In spite of the censorship, in short order “Whole Lotta Shakin'” sold 6 million single copies. This was in the day before Rock-N-Roll relied heavily on album releases, and obviously long before online downloads. Since its release almost six decades ago, it has sold 17 million copies in all formats.

Yet the studio version, as accomplished as it is, can’t hold a flickering matchstick to the klieg-light intensity of Jerry Lee’s live circuses. In the early days he performed – acted out is more like it – with only a guitarist, a drummer and himself. In that way, he is also the forerunner of Rock’s power trios a decade later like Cream.

The Killer was and is a man on fire. As is popular knowledge, his career was interrupted by his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, a union that lasted over a decade. And while this is not in any way advocating for adult-child relationships, it should be noted that Lewis himself had been married previously – at the age of 14. In the rural South of the time, such practices were not uncommon. Girls married very young and often died young, usually in childbirth. It will always feel odd and repulsive by contemporary standards.

Luckily, through dint of will and hard work, Jerry Lee came back in the mid-1960s and produced what many believe to be the best live Rock-N-Roll performance of all time in 1964 at The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany.

The wildman couldn’t be tamed, though. After years of trying to get on stage at The Grand Old Opry, in 1973 finally it was agreed Lewis could appear. No drinking, smoking, cussing, spitting or ball-scratching and he had to play only Country music.

He tried hard to comply with all but the last stipulation.

Whole lota grand old opry

Blowing them away at The Grand Old Opry in ’73.

After singing “Another Place, Another Time,” (a beautiful tear-jerker), the song that shoehorned him back into stardom, he entered into a propulsive, impulsive 40-minute set that started with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” and included Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues”; Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” Of course his own hits like “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” were tossed out like candy canes to kids at Christmas. The audience, once again, went up in flames. Jerry Lee blew by commercial breaks, lighting and sound check breaks. The Killer mounted the stage like King Kong mounting the Empire State Building.

He finally couldn’t keep his promise not to curse on air:

“I am a rock ’n’ rollin’, country and western, rhythm and blues singin’ bastard!”

Addendum: The third video is Big Maybelle’s version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” with different lyrics and a much raunchier delivery.

  • Although Jerry Lee’s uncle J.W. Brown plays bass guitar on the “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” studio version, Lewis’s leopard-fast paws make Brown’s playing redundant. Jerry Lee hammers out a bottom-of-the-keyboard bass line that is unrivaled and remains a benchmark for the ages. Playing that demonically may likely never come again.
  • Jerry Lee Lewis was 22 when he cut “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”