As much as Jerry Lewis’ fans love his music, that’s how much the man loved his fans, his widow Judith Lewis told a packed house at the Union Museum of History and Art in Farmerville Saturday.
Jerry Lee Lewis Remembrance Day, organized by the museum and made official with a proclamation by Farmerville Major John Crow, drew a packed house of fans who were treated to presentations by his widow, members of his family and folks who knew him when he attended Linville High School in the early 1950s. Visitors were also treated to performances of Lewis’s music by musicians who knew the legendary performer.
Lewis died Oct. 22, 2022, at the age of 81.
Born on a plantation in Calhoun, Lewis spent much of his youth in and around Ferriday, where his parents realized very early that their son had a gift for playing the piano. The family famously mortgaged their farm to purchase Lewis a piano only to lose the farm before the young man became an international superstar after appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1956.
The family’s financial struggles played a role in his moving to Linville where other Lewis family members lived. Not surprisingly, Lewis stood out immediately.
Several former Linville students recalled Lewis playing a piano in the gymnasium during lunch, which quickly drew the ire of then Principal Alton Hollis.
“It was on our lunch break when I heard the most unusual music I had ever heard,” Lewis classmate Fred Franklin said. “I eased the gym door open enough to stick my head inside. There were high school girls dancing behind the piano, and that music was so great.”
According to Franklin, Principal Hollis showed up a short time later and, after scolding Lewis’ audience and sending them back to class, he gave the young showman a severe tongue lashing complete with threats about what would happen if he kept up his brazen behavior.
What happened, of course, was three hit songs in 1957 that vaulted Lewis ahead of other stars, including Elvis Presley, in the emerging rock and roll music scene.
His rock and rock spirit was God-given, Lewis’s cousin Rev. Gerald Lewis told the museum audience, but so was his Christian faith.
“He was concerned right from the start about whether the music he loved so much was a problem, spiritually,” Gerald Lewis said. “I told him to keep his own heart pure and not to worry about what everyone else said or did.”
Lewis’ widow, Judith, told the audience that as Lewis aged, the support from his fans became very important to him.
“He believed he was so lucky to have had the chance to perform for people who loved him, and he loved them right back,” she said, tearfully. “He would have been so thankful for what the people of Union Parish have done today.”