The Lewis family has opened a museum in their Ferriday home. Within it live the stories and spirits that forged rock’s Killer.
He’s back in the news. Rock & roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis — currently residing in Ireland for tax reasons — received a round of boos last month from an Italian audience after he kicked a photographer.
In Ferriday, Louisiana, Frankie Gean Terrell hears the report and sighs.
“He’s really a very kind person,” she says.
Then she reminds herself: the brother she calls “Darlin'” once tried to kill her. The family was living in Angola, where their father was working a construction job. Frankie Gean climbed into a baby carriage and asked Jerry Lee to push her. He did — down a ravine. Then he shouted, “We won’t ever see you again,” and walked away.
Yes, she explains, the photographer in Italy must have made her brother upset.
“Still,” she scolds, as if Darlin’ could hear her now, “you just don’t kick people.”
It’s morning in the Jerry Lee Lewis museum in Ferriday, Louisiana. One tour is scheduled this afternoon — a couple and their daughter, from Germany. Frankie Gean is also supervising the work at the family-owned drive-through convenience store and daiquiri shop next door, and two of her daughters are busy packing for an Aerosmith concert in Biloxi.
Frankie Gean raised her family in this house, and lives here now with her husband, Marion Terrell, and their youngest daughter, Melinda. According to Frankie Gean, the house was moved to this site by her Uncle Lee. Calhoun in 1929, and it served for years as the meeting home for the Lewis clan. Jerry Lee eventually bought the house for his mother, and when she died he sold it to Frankie Gean for a dollar.
Most of the clan, including first cousins Jerry Lee, evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and country singer Mickey Gilley, have moved on from this small central Louisiana town in search of bigger audiences and congregations. But when Frankie Gean Terrell is away from the home — even as far as the store — she gets nervous.
The museum is dedicated to the family’s famous son, but it’s really a monument to the dark-haired woman who is affectionately called “Killer-ette” by her children. It’s Frankie Gean — Jerry Lee’s younger sister by nine years — who is custodian of her remarkable family’s home and history. When Jerry Lee would, scribble a sermon on a piece of paper and drop it on the floor, Frankie Gean would follow behind and scoop it up. Today she stores these tattered documents in a bank vault.
“I’ve been planning a museum here all my life,” she says. “Mother and Daddy always talked about people coming to look at Jerry’s things someday.”
It is the best unpublicized attraction in Louisiana. This week about eight fans made their way here. Most come from England and Northern Europe. American visitors are rare.
Plans for the museum include a souvenir shop, a double-tiered tour- featuring home movies, and brochures printed in several languages. A telephone machine will play tapes donated by Jerry Lee and Jimmy Lee. But the museum’s only current advertisement is a wooden sign, and it hangs in the garage. A volunteer ‘at the local chamber of commerce stares blankly when asked for directions. A phone call to the mayor’s office receives a similar response, although it is offered that Jerry Lee’s sister lives in Ferriday, and that “she’s a real nice lady.”
So far, the faithful who find Ferriday are those who come as if on a pilgrimage. Many spoon dirt from the front yard into plastic bags. Often they take off their shirts to reveal Jerry Lee Lewis tattoos; a man named Jay Halsey of London has 25 of these. Two other men have announced plans to leave their wives and children to come here to work as butlers.
“Why do they worship that yellow-headed idiot so?” asks Frankie Gean. “I have often wondered about that. And I said that to Mother one time and she hit me so hard that I didn’t ever ask that question again.”
Portraits of the Killer look down on Frankie Gean as she drinks coffee at her kitchen table. Two of her daughters, Mamie and Marian, are packing for their trip to Biloxi.
“We’re a hell-raising family, you know,” admits 24-year-old Mamie, who like her sisters has Uncle Jerry’s thick blonde hair. “I’m not going to sit here and play the innocent role. Everybody here can raise some hell.”
“If you studied any of the great composers-when they partied they got very excited,” says Frankie Gean.
Wayne Terrell, Frankie Gean’s only son, walks in the front door and joins the debate. Wayne is 32 and bears a striking resemblance to Jimmy Lee Swaggart,who is Frankie Gean’s “double first cousin,” and who was born here in the living room.
Recently Wayne has been leading most of the tours here. He’s a good storyteller with an endless stock of memories: when he was 14 he went to work for Uncle Jerry as a roadie. His job description was to pack the electric piano, “among other things.”
He recalls one day when a man knocked on the door of Jerry Lee’s Memphis home, announcing that he was regional director of the Internal Revenue Service. Wayne gathered his uncle’s rings and hid them in his underwear. After the IRS finished seizing the Killer’s worldly goods, Jerry Lee would dig up a stash of cash and, says Wayne, “off to Furniture World we would go!”
Wayne looks around at his family, laughing. “This happened twice when I was there.”
“It’s happened twelve times,” adds Frankie. “I’ve kept up with it.”
“We’re just a fun-loving bunch,” decides Mamie.
But, continues Wayne, who clearly takes after his mother in his interest in family folklore, the Lewises “come from a long line of wild people.”
The family ran a successful moonshining still for years. “They’d make Mama sit down behind the bushes on a long road,” recounts Wayne. “And if anybody would come down that road she was told to shoot them.”
“That’s the honest-to-God truth,” says Frankie Gean, turning to her daughter. “Well Mamie, I guess you grew up in quite a different little household. Quick, Mamie, tell Michael what you think of you upbringing. Be honest.”
“I’m strong from it.”
“And where do you get your strength from?”
“Thank you,” says Frankie Gean, satisfied.
“Living with Jerry Lee Lewis was extremely colorful,” recalls Frankie Gean, “and there wasn’t a day of boredom.”
From the start her big brother was made to feel special, she says. He would wake up and take breakfast at the Starck upright piano — the one his parents mortgaged their house and belongings to buy. There he sat, and there he’d amalgamate gospel, boogie-woogie, country-western and the blues into the still unnamed form of rock & roll. He’d play this non-stop until late at night.
“And he would play, play and play,” she says, “until I thought I would go insane.”
Then their mother would go to his side and lift his arm. “She’d say, ‘Elmo come look! Frankie come look!’ And we’d all gather around and she’d say, ‘Look at the hairs!’ And she’d say, ‘Jerry, every hair on your arm is perfect.’ And he would go, ‘It certainly is.’”
When Linda Gail, their youngest sister, took up the piano, she also earned such praise. “I asked, ‘Why won’t Linda help me wash dishes?’” remembers Frankie Gean. “‘Please make her help me.’ And Mother would say, ‘These hands can’t touch dishwater, Frankie. These hands play the piano.’”
When Frankie announced that she didn’t care for the piano, her family took her to the nearby church and prayed over her. And she heard about Linda’s perfect hands once too often, she took her sister’s palm and slammed it into the heater. Back to church.
She still bears the scar,” says Frankie Gean. “I felt so bad about that. Don’t look at me strange — the perfect hand and the perfect hair will finally push you to things.”
The two oldest children were much too similar to ever get along, says Frankie Gean. Once Jerry Lee brought home an injured grasshopper, and decided to nurse it back to health. He placed a white cloth on the floor, and set the little bug’s broken leg with a matchstick. “When I saw that,” remembers his sister, “I said, ‘Jerry, here’s your grasshopper,’ and I just made a greasy spot out of it. That’s awful. No wonder he tried to kill me…
“Oh, we fought. At the dinner table on holidays we always had a fork fight. He would say mean things, and I have such a temper. I’d take a fork and try to kill him — actually tried to stab him. Daddy and Mother would always block.
“And then I got a gun after him. One time. He hit at me, and I took the gun and shot right above his head and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ It’s so embarrassing, I never told anybody that. But he never hit at me again. For weeks he’d say, ‘Were you really going to kill me?’ And I’d say, ‘Of course not. I bluffed you.’
“And he never ate at the table, not ‘No Greater Than I Am’ — not Jerry Lee. He called us peasants…
“All the kin people would be out in the fields working. Mother would be pulling the sack, putting the cotton in it, Daddy would be right behind her, and I would be helping with Linda. He had a car, and he’d ride up — I have witnesses — he would ride up and down the gravel road along the river, and he would scream, ‘Work you peasants, work! For I don’t have to work! For I’m wearing the white shirt! I am the GREAT I AM!”
“The Great I Am!” Frankie Gean shakes her head, trying to clear the air of the blasphemy. “Oh Michael, how can I love him so?”
Mamie Terrell looks up from her suitcase. “They’re just alike,” she offers.
“The same,” nods Wayne.
“You’re just not as crazy as he is,” amends Mamie.
“Thank you. Thank you,” replies her mother, adding thoughtfully: “But I might have been…”
One day Marion Terrell, Frankie Gean’s husband, burst through the front door and screamed, “Curse the day you were ever born a Lewis!” He had just learned that he was being held responsible for some of Jerry Lee’s considerable debts. Frankie Gean remembers how she received the curse, and that she fell back into her chair, devastated.
Today is a calmer day, and Marion enters the house quietly. He is a curly-haired man with a self-possessed air of intelligence, and — like he does today — he has often pondered the family into which he married. “Throughout history, all of your great men, your brilliant men–”
“They were mean, weren’t they?” asks Frankie.
“They’re a breed of their own. They’re just like taking a Shar Pei and comparing him to a Scottie.”
“Who makes them like that? Their mothers?”
“No, it’s all in the genetic make-up–it’s in the DNA.”
“It wasn’t Mother’s fault, was it?”
“No, that’s years of breeding, Frankie. Every so often it comes to the surface. ”
“I guess so. Why am I so rebellious, though?”
“You’re no different than Jerry. He never gave one damn.”
“That’s the way I am. Born that way, and I shall die that way. I could lay down out there in that street and people wouldn’t accept me.”
“Well, let me ask you something. If you had been accepted, what would you have been?
“I haven’t thought about that.”
“You’d have been an ordinary person.”
“Well, thank God I wasn’t accepted. Thank you. It makes me feel wonderful. I guess the punishment has paid off — of being a Lewis.”
Working for Uncle Jerry was a “rock & roll party.”
There was the time, remembers Wayne Terrell, when the tour plane was stopped by the DEA. “\ said, ‘OK everybody, take all the drugs and put it in one jacket and we’ll say some idiot left it on the plane.’ It worked, he recalls. “They never did thank me for that.”
Wayne turns over other boyhood memories in his mind: “We demolished the house, we wrecked beautiful cars, rolled Rolls Royces, sank ski boats out in the lake with guns… I mean, for a 15-year-old, it was just great.”
His time at Jerry Lee’s side, says Wayne, should qualify him to work in any emergency room: “I took my uncle to the Doctors’ Hospital on Getwell Road in Memphis,” he remembers. “He had passed out and was turning different colors, so I put him over my shoulder and took him in.”
But while the Killer was in the hospital, Wayne and his family learned of plans to commit him to an asylum. Wayne headed back down Getwell with a crowbar. “I broke him out of a window… I went in, pulled a catheter out of his private pans and things out of his nose. He fell out in the bushes and started fighting with the bushes.
“Then I put him in the Rolls Royce and he drove a hundred and thirty miles an hour all the way home, driving with his hospital gown on. You could see his whole butt.
“I’ll never forget — I was laughing, and he turned around and said, ‘You better shut up, boy.’ And I stopped laughing.”
It was during a tour date in Sydney, Australia that Wayne had a chance to save his uncle’s life. “He was taking Placidyls — the same thing that killed Mama Casso And he was eating Chicken Cordon Bleu, and he passed out with the chicken in his throat.”
Wayne was two floors above Jerry Lee when he heard what was happening. He jumped onto the fire escape and ran to his uncle’s side. When he reached the gasping body, he recalls, “I stuck my finger in his throat and dug and dug and dug. I took both of my knees and I fell on his chest, and I broke one of his ribs and cracked another — chicken and blood from my finger shot on my face.”
Wayne holds out his hand and displays a small white spot. “I have a scar on my finger from his teeth. I should have gotten a medal for saving him. But the producers were just mad because they had to shut the show off.”
“But Uncle Jerry thanked you, didn’t he?” reminds Frankie Gean.
“He sure did,” says Wayne.
His teen-aged years have been a hard act to follow, admits Wayne. He currently works in the family store in Ferriday, and contends that his notorious name has kept him from getting a job elsewhere in town. He also works at developing his anistic talent. There’s never been a famous artist from the family, he says. He’ll be the first.
Texas Avenue runs alongside Louisiana Avenue, and it’s the location of another popular destination for Jerry Lee Lewis fans in Ferriday. The family’s Assembly of God Church — originally financed by Uncle Lee — is located here, within sight of the Jerry Lee Lewis museum.
Both Frankie Gean and Jerry Lee sang for services in this white, woodframe building. Jerry Lee’s performances always earned the most applause, but when his younger sister sang, the church received the greater blessing. When she opened her mouth, she remembers, the spirit of God would rain down. There were prophecies and healings then, and people spoke in tongues.
“Jerry Lee always resented that,” says Frankie Gean.
One night at a revival a preacher was casting a demon out of a person’s body. “If anybody feels a tightness in their throat,” he announced, “the demon has entered you.”
Frankie Gean felt the tightness. She refused to eat for weeks, and eventually she passed out. Not until hospital x-rays showed no demon did she consent to put food between her lips.
There is a longstanding Lewis tradition for glimpsing visions of hell. As family legend has it, when Grandfather Lewis was on his deathbed, the old man screamed that he was seeing demons and was damned for eternity.
According to Wayne — and corroborated by biographers of Jerry Lee Lewis — the Killer lives in fear of meeting his grandfather’s fate.
“He really feels like he’s going to die and go to hell if he’s not careful,” says Wayne. “And I think that’s the reason his life has been spared so many times — because of his beliefs and his sincerity.”
Meanwhile, Frankie Gean has a reoccurring dream about Jimmy Lee Swaggart, whom she used to wonder if she loved more than her brother.
“He and I are always in this dream together. I know it sounds crazy — since I was very young I’ve had this dream, that no one makes it to heaven but us two. Now I know this sounds like a slam on Frances (Swaggart’s wife), but I’m sorry. It’s my dream. We go up to this beautiful place, and we get there by struggling and working all of our lives. And we’re so happy.”
The Germans are here.
The couple and their daughter have already seen Graceland, and then they drove south to Mississippi to Elvis’ boyhood home. Now they walk carefully around the Ferriday museum, where they study every picture, the gold records, Mamie Lewis’ old cook book, Jerry Lee and Myra’s embossed wedding matches, and the collection of Jerry Lee’s engraved guns that now belongs to the family.
“This is better, than Graceland,” says the man, speaking in halting English. “Graceland was too plastic.”
On the wall is an original poster from Jerry Lee Lewis Day, held in Ferriday in 1958, one year after what the family calls “The Year of the Record” -when “Great Balls of Fire” was released.
Today in Ferriday, however, it is difficult to find any evidence of Jerry Lee. A sign on the main road had his picture on it, but that’s been painted over.
By the end of the year the Chamber of Commerce plans to open “The Ferriday Museum,” which will include exhibits on Lewis, Swaggart and Gilley, as well as other famous Ferriday natives, including journalist Howard K. Smith.
The museum committee plans to notify Terrell, says chairwoman Amanda Taylor, adding that they are still in the beginning stages of development.
Frankie Gean isn’t satisfied. “For years nobody has recognized Jerry Lee here, and I’m taking the bull by the horns. When Jerry Lee saw that they painted over the sign, he was mad. He said that he wasn’t coming back.”
The Jerry Lee Lewis museum (It also may be called “Home of Jerry Lee Lewis and Family”) doesn’t yet have a fixed admission. Hours of operation (2-5 on weekdays, 12-5 on weekends) are approximate. The recorded announcement (at 318n57-4422) isn’t operating yet.
One of the biggest challenges for the museum is to obtain the original upright Starck piano. Frankie Gean has filed an injunction to retrieve the piano from the IRS.
On their way out of the museum, the German man turns to Frankie Gean. “I like Jerry Lee Lewis best,” he tells her. “I also like Elvis — but don’t tell Jerry Lee that.”
Frankie Gean gives him her word.
Mamie Terrell is trying to leave for Biloxi, but her mother stops her with one last question.
“You haven’t said what you wanted to say. I can see it in your eyes — you’re holding back.”
“I got to go, Mama.”
“Have you enjoyed living in this house?”
Frankie Gean is pleased by her daughter’s candor. “And why? There’s too much Lewis hell here?”
“There’s not enough me.”
Frankie Gean’s passion for preservation sometimes tests her family’s ability to reside in a museum. The kitchen table, for example, is the metal hospital table onto which Frankie Gean and Linda Gail were delivered. One day Marion could take it no more, and he sawed off the leather straps. Leather straps, he said, have no place in the kitchen.
Memories, however, assume many forms in the Jerry Lee Lewis museum. “When I go to sleep at night, I think about all the things that happened here, over and over,” says Frankie Gean. “I can see Daddy spanking Jerry. I can see Mother trying to hold on to Linda.”
And she hears music.
There are six graves underneath the Jerry Lee Lewis museum. They were there when Uncle Lee moved the house here, and every few years they sink into the swampy earth, until someone has to crawl under the house to fill them in.
Perhaps. says Frankie Gean, this is why so many things have gone wrong for her household.
The family has always noticed unusual occurrences in the house: voices, music, the smell of whiskey.
Melinda Terrell is Frankie Gean’s youngest daughter, and the last one living at home. She has grown accustomed to seeing ghosts, but she can’t forget the night she heard her older sister Marian screaming. She ran to her bedroom to see her trying to get up, and she saw a force greater than hell pushing her back down.
Marian won’t sleep in the house anymore, says Frankie Gean.
A Catholic priest once attempted an exorcism here. Then he told the family they should leave. “He said, ‘This house has possessed you. Your (deceased) mother tells me that she wants you to get out of here.'”
An expert on the supernatural arrived from Pennsylvania, but said that the house was too evil to write about. “I was kind of insulted about that,” says Frankie Gean.
When Melinda was around eight, a woman from Las Vegas who heard about the family came to live in the house. One Sunday morning she was in the living room, watching Jimmy Lee Swaggart on television. It was a wonderful sermon. recalls Frankie Gean. The woman got up and walked past Melinda, took off her clothes and killed herself with a gun.
“That was the ugliest Sunday morning,” says Frankie Gean.
“The worst,” says Melinda.
There are other weird things here, adds the teenager. Like that big white body that’s been traversing the hallway since she was a child.
And sometimes a woman comes over to Frankie Gean and sits beside her. When Frankie Gean turns to her, she vanishes.
When asked where the spirits come from,
Frankie Gean looks around at her house and museum, at the pictures, at the furniture, at everything left just as it’s always been, and will be as long as she is alive.
“They come from people lingering,” she says.
There are innumerable and conflicting stories about Jerry Lee Lewis and his Ferriday family. The Killer’s career has been dogged with controversy ever since he married his cousin. Myra, and it continues to this day.
“We’re all persecuted: says Wayne Terrell. “People turn around and they say ‘Oh Jerry Lee!’ ‘Oh, his nephew!’ They have referred to me as a gun runner, a dope dealer, a hit man, a homosexual. Anything you can come up with, I’ve had the title.”
It will surprise some visitors to the Jerry Lee Lewis museum when their tour guide brings up subjects that other families might keep in the closet. Frankie Gean was, however, raised in the religious tradition of giving testimony.
“If you don’t exalt yourself and if you tell the truth,” she says confidently, “it turns out wonderful.”
“You tell the truth and there’s a certain mysticism behind it,” agrees Wayne. “And all of a sudden it just takes off like a bird…”
This family doesn’t truck with the “tooky-wooky” books and movies and television shows that movies and television shows that “candy-coat” the Lewis life. The truth is in the nitty-gritty, says Frankie Gean.
The crazed, honest truth.
Around her, the collected artifacts of an extraordinary clan might seem quiet. The red bricks of the house appear silent concerning any raging spirits outside. underneath or within.
But last December when Jerry Lee Lewis returned home. he walked around the house and touched each dish, table and photograph, until his eyes brimmed with tears and he left within the half-hour.
“One time he came in and said, ‘Where’s Mama?’And he looked at me and said, ‘Why did I say that. Frankie? I’m not crazy….if you could have seen his face.”
And every time she talks about moving, says Frankie Gean, “I wake up in the night and I can’t breathe: Her husband has to take her to the hospital, where they give her a shot of whatever they give her.
“This house is more than sticks and a few bricks: she explains. “It’s a living thing to us. I’m not insane — I haven’t gone into the woodwork, and this is not a Bette Davis movie. But this home here has a special comfort about it. It also has a lot of hell in it.”
And the house, she says,like the music it has known and born, will make a believer out of you.