Family, friends and fans gathered Saturday (Nov. 5) to bid farewell to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis at memorial services held in his north Louisiana home town.
Lewis, known for hits such as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” died Oct. 28 at his Mississippi home, south of Memphis, Tennessee. He was 87.
TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis’ cousin, told the more than 100 people inside Young’s Funeral Home in Ferriday, the town where Lewis was born, that when Lewis died he “lost the brother I never had.”
“We learned to play piano together,” Swaggart recalled. “I had to make myself realize that he was no longer here.”
Swaggart and Lewis released The Boys From Ferriday, a gospel album, earlier this year and Swaggart said he wasn’t sure if Lewis was going to be able to get through the recording session.
“He was very weak,” Swaggart said. “I remember saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know if he can do it or not.’ But when Jerry Lee sat at that piano, you know he was limited to what he could play because of the stroke, but when the engineer said the red light is on and when he opened his mouth, he said, ‘Jesus, hold my hand, I need thee every hour. Hear my feeble plea, oh Lord, look down on me.’”
The session resulted in the album, and two of its songs played during the service: “In the Garden” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Audience members were seen wiping tears from their eyes and singing along with Lewis as the recordings played.
“He was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived,” Swaggart said.
Lewis, who called himself “The Killer,” was the last survivor of a generation of artists that rewrote music history, a group that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Lee’s body was at the front of the funeral home’s main parlor, inside a closed, red casket with a spray of red roses on top. Several funeral wreaths, including one in the form of a musical note, dotted the walls behind and around the casket as did photos of the singer, one of which showed him in a red suit hunched over and singing into a microphone.
Donnie Swaggart recalled a meeting in Memphis between Lewis and members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a country rock band, that highlighted Lewis’ humorous side.
He said his father and Lewis were walking toward an arena’s exit as the band members were coming in. “As they neared Lewis, one asked, ‘Is that who I think it is? Is that Jerry Lee Lewis?’ As Jerry Lee passed, one of the men asked, ‘Are you Jerry Lee Lewis?’ Jerry Lee stopped and looked each of them up and down and said, ‘Boys, Killer’s my name and music’s my thing.’ And then he walked out.”
Swaggart said the guys stood there, with their jaws dropped in amazement. “What a sense of humor he had,” Swaggart said as the audience laughed.
After his personal life blew up in the late 1950s following news of his marriage to his cousin, 13-year-old — possibly even 12-year-old — Myra Gale Brown, while still married to his previous wife, the piano player and rock rebel was blacklisted from radio and his earnings dropped to virtually nothing. Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes and physical illness.
“He always had a heart for God, even at his lowest times,” Jimmy Swaggart said. “I will miss him very much but we know where he is now and thank God for that.”
Xavier Ellis, 28, a Ferriday native now teaching in Opelousas, Louisiana, said Lewis’ life is an inspiration.
“He was a poor kid from Ferriday who made it to the heights he made it to. I’m very impressed with his life story. I’m saddened by him leaving, but his legacy will live on,” Ellis said.
In the 1960s, Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer and the music industry eventually forgave him. He had a run of top 10 country hits from 1967 to 1970, including “She Still Comes Around” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).”
In 1986, along with Elvis, Berry and others, Lewis was in the inaugural class of inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and joined the Country Hall of Fame this year. His life and music was reintroduced to younger fans in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary Trouble in Mind.
A 2010 Broadway music, Million Dollar Quartet, was inspired by a recording session that featured Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Lewis won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was cited for best spoken word recording, and he received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005.
The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, whose board praised the “propulsive boogie piano that was perfectly complemented by the drive of J.M. Van Eaton’s energetic drumming. The listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time remaining seated during the performance.”
Tom Tomschin and his wife, Sandra, of Cicero, Illinois, traveled to Ferriday to give homage to Lewis for all he’s done for the music industry.
“We felt the need to pay our respect to the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll who had a major part in the creation of and shaping of the genre,” Tomschin said. “I’ve been a fan my entire life.”
Tomschin, 45, a government administrator, said “Crazy Arms” and “You Win Again” are two of his favorite songs by Lewis, who he described as one of a kind.
“He never lived a life behind a curtain,” Tomschin said of Lewis. “In his ups and downs, the good and bad, he did what he was going to do. Jerry Lee Lewis laid it all out on the table. There’s never going to be another person like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Sandra Tomschin, 44, a library director, said she grew up on Lewis’ music and it’s left an indelible print on her life.
“We love it,” she said of his music. “We’ve been to several of his concerts and even though he’s gone, he will still live on in our hearts.”