FERRIDAY, La. — Over 5,000 people crowded the barricaded main street of this tiny town Saturday (Mar. 2) for the grand opening of the Delta Music Museum and the anticipated arrival of hometown heroes and cousins Jerry Lee Lewis , Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart.
Despite dark clouds, wind gusts and temperatures that plunged during the afternoon, the enthusiasm of the crowd never wavered. They had traveled from South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Washington D.C. and all corners of Louisiana to this sleepy Delta town. Once in Ferriday, they joined a long line snaking toward the museum door. Inside, they were treated to a glimpse into the history of the family of cultural trailblazers.
Nestled in the historic Ferriday post office, the new museum houses carefully archived memorabilia from the careers of all three men. A huge framed picture of Sam Phillips’ “Million Dollar Quartet” — Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins , Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley gathered around a piano at Sun Studios in Memphis -– greets visitors.
The collection continues with early photographs from the depression-era childhoods of the cousins as well as records, publicity items and other trademark offerings carefully gathered under glass.
Front and center in the main part of the museum stands a piano that Lewis, Gilley and Swaggart each played while growing up. Surrounding it are individual wall exhibits that showcase each inductee and his unique style. Among the offerings — Lewis is seen making a controversial appearance at the Apollo Theater in New York City, and on display are original Sun 45 recordings of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On.”
A Gilley stage outfit is on view beside the album jacket for Encore, which shows him astride the mechanical bull from his Pasadena, Texas, honky tonk, made famous in the movie Urban Cowboy.
Swaggart’s Bible and religious album covers are seen alongside a photo of Lewis and Gilley singing as he accompanies them on piano.
Outside, the bustle of the crowd intensified as time drew near for the local legends to appear. With vendors hawking their goods, the smell of boiled crawfish permeated the length of the street. The crowd enjoyed live music by bands from across the state on the Louisiana Music Cavalcade Stage.
An informal survey of the crowd revealed a reluctance to name favorites among the three scheduled performers. Jane Ball from Ruston, La., admitted that although she liked them all, she did have more Lewis records and had seen him more times.
Lewis did not attend the festivities, however. The Associated Press reported Sunday that he did not like the twin-engine plane sent to pick him up for the event. His wife, Kerrie Lewis, said her husband had never ridden in such a plane, the AP said.
His absence did not dampen the spirit of the crowd, who erupted into enthusiastic applause and cheers when Gilley and Swaggart took the stage. Gilley recognized friends in the audience and acknowledged them as Swaggart made ready for the ceremony. Flanked by Louisiana Secretary of State Fox McKeithen and other state dignitaries, the honorees joined hands on a pair of enormous gold shears and officially clipped the ribbon for the museum opening.
Gilley was inducted first into the museum’s hall of fame. An official called him “a great ambassador for Ferriday and the state of Louisiana.”
He offered his thanks, said “it’s great to be home” and recognized his family. Upon being made an honorary Secretary of State, Gilley introduced Swaggart. McKeithen acknowledged Swaggart’s contributions as a preacher and lighthouse for the state before bestowing on him the same accolades afforded Gilley. Pleased and honored, Swaggart said “never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be here,” and he vowed to remember the day forever. “Ferriday, Mickey and Jerry Lee are very important to me,” Swaggart said, before adding that he wanted to “give all praise and glory to Jesus Christ.”
Gilley stepped forward on Lewis’ behalf and told the crowd his cousin “really wanted to be here and he is still the greatest pianist that ever lived.” Lewis’ agent collected the award.
Ferriday native Leon “Peewee” Whitaker also was honored as an internationally known musician who in his day played alongside Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan and Lewis. His widow and son were on hand to receive his award.
A performance followed the presentations. Swaggart offered a powerful and soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” that hushed the crowd, then prompted an enthusiastic standing ovation. Gilley quipped that he didn’t know if he could follow Swaggart’s stirring performance. As he began the opening bars of “Room Full of Roses,” the crowd came to life again. He then kicked into a medley that included “I Overlooked an Orchid” and “The Window Up Above.”
“This is for all you Jerry Lee fans,” Gilley said as he ripped into a rousing rendition of “Great Balls of Fire.” With the audience on its feet, the ecstatic mood continued as Gilley dedicated the next song to “everyone that thinks they are 10 feet tall and bulletproof.” He assured them that he would have “Rev. Swaggart praying for you” as he tore into a barn-burning version of “The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” that brought the house down.
In reflecting on their respective lives and careers, the performers seemed grateful, honored and humbled by the honors bestowed upon them. Though playful and teasing with one another, each offered a heartfelt reflection as the events wound down. Gilley recalled the last time the three cousins were together in Ferriday was in 1983 at his father’s funeral. He also offered that his “greatest musical influence was Jerry Lee and Jimmy because they started playing before I did — they were listening to the black music, which got Jerry Lee to putting a beat to everything and that got him thrown out of Bible school!”
Swaggart said he was “always glad to be back home” and he “had no unpleasant memories.” He added that he was proud of Jerry Lee and Mickey and proud that they were his cousins. He added that “this great day could have only been greater if Jerry Lee could have been here.”
When asked if the day’s events dispelled the notion that one can’t go home again, Swaggart replied, “It certainly does. I don’t know if I deserve to be here, but I am very grateful. You think we can go ahead and pass the plate now?”
With a laugh, the cousins from Ferriday left the historic site that now showcases their lives and careers amid the dusty background of the Louisiana Delta.