By GERALD HERBERT and CHEVEL JOHNSON, Associated Press
FERRIDAY, La. (AP) — Family, friends and fans gathered Saturday to bid farewell to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis at memorial services held in his northern Louisiana hometown.
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 years old.
Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis’s cousin, told more than 100 people inside the Young 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 the piano together,” recalls Swaggart. “I had to make it clear to myself that he was no longer there.”
Swaggart and Lewis released “The Boys From Ferriday,” a gospel album, earlier this year and Swaggart said he wasn’t sure Lewis could make it through the recording session.
“He was very weak,” Swaggart said. “I remember saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know whether he can do it or not.’ But when Jerry Lee sat down at that piano you know he was limited in what he could play because of the blow but when the engineer said the red light was on and when he opened the mouth, he said, ‘Jesus, hold my hand, I need you every hour. Hear my feeble plea, O Lord, look down upon me.'”
The session resulted in the album and two of his 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 tapes played.
“He was one of the greatest artists that ever lived,” Swaggart said.
Lewis, who called himself “The Killer”, was the last survivor of a generation of artists who rewrote music history, a group that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Lewis’ body was in the front of the funeral home’s main parlour, inside a closed red casket with a wreath of red roses on top. Several funeral wreaths, including one shaped like a musical note, dotted the walls behind and around the coffin along with photos of the singer, one of which showed him in a red suit bent over and singing into a microphone.
Swaggart’s son, Donnie Swaggart, recalled an encounter in Memphis between Lewis and members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a country rock band, which brought Lewis’ humorous side to the fore.
He said his father and Lewis headed out of an arena as the band members entered. 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 is my name and music is my thing.’ And then he came out.”
Donnie Swaggart said the guys stood there, gaping in amazement. “What a sense of humor he had,” he said as the audience laughed.
After her personal life exploded in the late 1950s following the announcement of her marriage to her cousin, 13-year-old – possibly even 12-year-old Myra Gale Brown, while still married to her previous wife, the pianist and rock rebel was blacklisted from the radio and his income dropped to virtually nothing. Over the next few decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, legal disputes, and physical illness.
“He always had a heart for God, even in his lowest moments,” Jimmy Swaggart said. “I will miss him very much, but we know where he is now and we thank God for that.”
Xavier Ellis, 28, a native of Ferriday who now teaches in Opelousas, Louisiana, said Lewis’s life was inspirational.
“He was a poor boy from Ferriday who reached the heights he reached. I am very impressed with his life story. I am saddened by his passing but his legacy will live on,” Ellis said.
In the 1960s Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer and the music industry finally forgave him. He had a string 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 among the first class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and joined the Country Hall of Fame that year. His life and music were reintroduced to young fans in the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid, and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary “Trouble in Mind.”
A 2010 Broadway musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” was inspired by a recording session featuring Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Lewis won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was nominated for Best Spoken Word Recording, and he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2005.
The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, whose board praised the “propelling boogie piano perfectly complemented by the dynamism of JM Van Eaton’s energetic drums. Listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, found it difficult to remain seated during the performance.
Tom Tomschin and his wife, Sandra, of Cicero, Illinois, traveled to Ferriday to pay tribute to Lewis for all he has done for the music industry.
“We felt the need to pay homage to the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll who played a major role in the creation and formation of the genre,” Tomschin said. “I’ve been a fan all my life.”
Tomschin, 45, a government administrator, said “Crazy Arms” and “You Win Again” are two of his favorite Lewis songs, which he described as one of a kind.
“He never lived behind a curtain,” Tomschin said of Lewis. “In his ups and downs, the good and the bad, he did what he was going to do. Jerry Lee Lewis put it all on the table. There will never be another person like Jerry Lee Lewis.
Sandra Tomschin, 44, a library manager, said she grew up with Lewis’s music and it left an indelible mark on her life.
“We love it,” she said of her music. “We have attended many of his concerts and even though he is gone, he will always live on in our hearts.”
Associated Press writer Chevel Johnson contributed to this report from New Orleans; Associated Press writer Hillel Italy contributed from New York.
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