Flawed and human, Lewis impacted American pop culture

Published 2:00 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2022

By Sid Salter

When I learned that Jerry Lee Lewis, the volatile rock-and-roll legend who lived most of his life in Nesbit, Mississippi, had died at the age of 87 last week, I opened YouTube and searched for The Killer’s 1977 rendition of an old Sonny Throckmorton song I know by heart called “Middle Age Crazy” about a man foolishly trying to hold on to his youth.

The song was a hit my senior year of high school. In those days, I was a part-time disc jockey at WHOC-AM in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The melancholy, lushly produced “Nashville Sound” ballad was popular with older listeners.

At the time Mercury’s Country Memories album was released in September of 1977, Lewis was just 42 years old. But after decades of booze, pills and life on the road, Lewis had already endured multiple hospitalizations for bleeding ulcers and other health issues. “Middle Age Crazy” became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Lewis, who between 1952 and his death last week fathered six children with seven wives.

Born into poverty in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, in the middle of the Great Depression, Lewis was raised in the conservative Assemblies of God church, the largest U.S. denomination of the Pentecostal church. His parents sacrificed to buy Lewis a piano – recognizing his preternatural talents. As a boy, Lewis shared a love of music and talent on the piano with his double first cousin Jimmy Swaggart – also born in Ferriday in 1935.

Swaggart’s mother and Lewis’s mother were sisters. They shared another first cousin with musical talent, country music icon Mickey Gilley. Gilley was born in Natchez in 1936.

Ferriday is five miles across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi. The town has more than the Lewis-Swaggart-Gilley family trio as points of notoriety. A particularly heinous civil rights murder – in which Black shopkeeper Frank Morris died as the result of an apparent nighttime arson fire in his shop in 1964 – is the basis of gifted Mississippi novelist Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning trilogy that encompasses the Morris murder and ensuing coverup 

The trio was born within 12 months of each other into impoverished homes. All three were high school dropouts.

Lewis and Swaggart were both raised in religious homes and steered toward religious music, but they also shared more than a passing interest in hearing the rhythm and blues played at another Ferriday landmark, Haney’s Big House nightclub. 

A well-known whistlestop on the famous “Chitlin’ Circuit – a collection of Black-owned jukes, clubs and performance venues that were safe for African American musicians after World War II – Haney’s Big House was part of the education and training of both Lewis and Swaggart.

The cousins stood on the sidewalk outside Haney’s to hear the sounds of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Fats Domino and Little Milton – and Lewis said they would leave the juke and “head home to see if we could recreate that music on the piano.”

Despite his humble beginnings, Lewis went on to be named to the Rock-and-Roll, Rockabilly, Country Music, and Memphis Music Halls of Fame. He won four Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award. 

A popular movie was made about his life, and he is regarded as one of the most influential pianists of the last century to go along with a dozen gold records. Perhaps the greatest tribute to The Killer was that nobody ever wanted to follow him onstage. His career was torpedoed for a time by his marriage to 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown in 1958.

Swaggart built a televangelism empire that made him one of the best-known ministers in the world. He was a Grammy-nominated gospel singer and pianist. But that empire crashed around him in 1988 when he became ensnared in two distinct sex scandals. Incredibly, his ministry survived and he continues to preach and sing as part of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries on a television streaming network at the age of 87.

Gilley had moderate success as a country singer and established Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas, the inspiration for the 1980 film Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. A Gilley rendition of the standard “Stand By Me” was on the soundtrack and Gilley’s career skyrocketed. Despite a string of hits by the singer, Gilley’s closed in 1989. He died in Branson, Missouri in May of this year at age 86.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com