Family, friends and fans gathered Saturday to say goodbye to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis at memorial services in his north Louisiana hometown.
Known for hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Lewis died Oct. 28 at his home in Mississippi, south of Memphis, Tennessee. He was 87.
TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis’ cousin, told more than 100 people at Young’s Funeral Home in Ferriday, the town where Lewis was born, that Lewis “lost the brother I never had” in his death. “We learned to play the piano together,” recalls Swaggart. “I had to realize that he wasn’t there anymore.” Swaggart and Lewis released The Boys From Ferriday, a gospel album, earlier this year, and Swaggart said he wasn’t sure Lewis would make it through the recording session .
“He was very weak,” Swaggart said. “I remember saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know if he can or not.’ But when Jerry Lee sat at that piano he was limited to what he could play because of the stroke but when the engineer said the red light was on and when he opened his mouth he said jesus hold mine Hand, I need you every hour. Hear my feeble plea, O Lord, look down on me.” The session resulted in the album and two of its songs being played during the service: “In the Garden” and “The Old Rugged Cross”. Viewers were seen wiping tears from their eyes and singing along with Lewis as the footage played.
“He was one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived,” Swaggart said.
Lewis, who dubbed 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. Lee’s body was outside the funeral home’s main parlor in a closed red coffin with a bouquet of red roses on it. Several funeral wreaths, including one in the shape of a musical note, were strewn on the walls behind and around the coffin, as were photos of the singer, one of which showed him in a red suit, bending 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, which highlighted Lewis’s humorous side. He said his father and Lewis were walking towards the exit of an arena when the band members entered. “As they approached Lewis, one asked, ‘Is that who I think? Is that Jerry Lee Lewis?’ As Jerry Lee walked by, one of the men asked, “Are you Jerry Lee Lewis?” Jerry Lee stopped and looked each of them up and down and said, “Guys, killer is my name and music is my thing.” And then he went out.” Swaggart said the boys stood there, jaws dropped in astonishment. “What a sense of humor he had,” Swaggart said as the audience laughed.
After his personal life blew up in the late 1950s after news of his marriage to his cousin, 13-year-old – possibly even 12-year-old – Myra Gale Brown, she was still with his former wife, the pianist and rocker , married rebel was blacklisted by the radio and his earnings went down to practically zero. In the decades that followed, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, lawsuits, and physical illness. “He always had a heart for God, even in his darkest days,” said Jimmy Swaggart. “I will miss him dearly but we know where he is now and thank God for that.” Xavier Ellis, 28, a Ferriday native who now teaches in Opelousas, Louisiana, said Lewis’ life has been an inspiration.
“He was a poor kid from Ferriday who made it to the heights he made it to. I am very impressed by his life story. I am sad that he is leaving but his legacy will live on,” Ellis said. In the 1960s, Lewis reinvented himself as a country artist and the music industry eventually forgave him. From 1967 to 1970 he had a string of top 10 country hits 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 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and inducted into the Country Hall of Fame that year. His life and music were reintroduced to younger fans in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire with Dennis Quaid and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary Trouble in Mind. A 2010 Broadway score, Million Dollar Quartet, was inspired by a recording session with Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Lewis won a Grammy in 1987 for being part of an interview album nominated for Best Spoken Word Recording, and in 2005 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” was selected for the National Library of Congress Recording Registry, whose board praised the “driving boogie piano” that was “perfectly complemented by the drive of JM Van Eaton’s energetic drumming.” Listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time staying seated during the performance.” Tom Tomschin and his wife, Sandra, of Cicero, Illinois, traveled to Ferriday to honor Lewis for all he has done for the music industry . “We felt the need to pay our respects to the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, who played a huge role in the creation and shaping of the genre,” Tomschin said. “I’ve been a fan my whole life.” Tomschin, 45, a government official, said “Crazy Arms” and “You Win Again” are two of his favorite Lewis songs, which he called unique. “He never lived a life behind a curtain,” Tomshin said of Lewis. “In his ups and downs, the good and the bad, he did what he wanted to do. Jerry Lee Lewis put everything on the table. There will never be a person like Jerry Lee Lewis again.” Sandra Tomschin, 44, a library director, said she grew up listening to Lewis’ music and it left an indelible mark on her life.
“We love it,” she said of his music. “We have been to several of his concerts and even though he is no longer there, he will live on in our hearts.”
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)