Famous Faces: Local area filled with national names

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Miss-Lou has had more than one local face with a national name — writers, news anchors, actors and musicians — but none of those eclipse the fame of Ferriday’s native sons, the unofficial trio known locally as “the cousins.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart were all Mississippi Delta born and bred, and they all ended up going in similar directions, though their end products were very different.

Lewis rose to fame early with his infusion of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and country — known as rockabilly — music.

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Swaggart went on to become a well-known evangelist and a best-selling gospel recording artist in the 1960s, and by the 1980s he was one of the most popular television preachers in broadcast.

Gilley, in turn, earned his fame later than his cousins — though he had a small hit in 1968 with the song “Now I can Live Again” — with when his 1974 single “Room Full of Roses” topped the charts.

And, years later, Gilley said he still has a hard time believing his career took the direction it did.

“I never could have dreamed that these things would happen to us back when Jerry Lee and I would hitchhike to Vidalia to go swimming,” Gilley said.

Judith Bingham, the director of the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday said the three cousins have done their fair share to put Ferriday on the map.

“There are a lot of people who come to the museum because they know Jerry Lee Lewis was raised in Ferriday,” Bingham said.

But it was the music of the Delta that may well have put the cousins on the map.

“A lot of different musicians from the Delta and New Orleans had an impact on Jerry Lee and Mickey Gilley’s music,” Bingham said. “It really made up what Jerry Lee was, from the blues to the country and the general mix of everything impacted his life, and that is why he was into rockabilly.”

And even though he was better known for tent revival meetings, Jimmy Swaggart’s dulcet tones sold hundreds of records in his day.

“I think his smooth voice, his smooth gospel tones really made him popular in gospel music,” Bingham said.

Gilley admits his rock ‘n’ roll cousin influenced some of his early work.

“I still like to play some rollicking pieces, but I overcame most of that and have some songs that don’t reflect Jerry Lee’s music,” he said.

But it was his other cousin more than one person told him to emulate.

“I went to Texas, and my mom wanted me to be more like Jimmy,” Gilley said. “I had a manager who told me, ‘We know you can rock and roll like Jerry Lee, but if you can learn how to cry like Rev. Swaggart we can really clean up.”

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland is cousin to the cousins, and — raised in his early years by his grandparents in Ferriday — he said he had no idea his older relatives would move on to superstardom.

Copeland said the three cousins would come into his grandmother’s café, and he would watch them gather around the jukebox or piano.

“As a 7 or 8-year-old youngster, I didn’t realize they were about to become superstars,” he said.

But as they got older and made their move into the world, Copeland said he listened to the radio in total amazement as he heard voices he knew singing.

Even then, though, Copeland said he didn’t realize how famous his cousins were.

“(Jerry Lee) would come back and visit his parents periodically, but we didn’t realize at that time how famous he was around the world,” Copeland said.

Both Lewis and Swaggart had their share of scandal — Lewis for acting like a rock and roll star, and Swaggart for much the same reason — but both have managed to recover their images.

Lewis still does some performing, and Swaggart has a television and radio ministry based in Baton Rouge.

“I still watch Jimmy Swaggart on television whenever I can,” Copeland said. “He is one of the greatest evangelists of our time, and you could tell at a young age he had the anointing of the Lord on him.”

All three cousins have been depicted in film, and Gilley has done his share of celluloid work — including a cameo in the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” a movie about the “countrypolitan” movement he helped launch with his music and chain of nightclubs.

These days, Gilley has a theatre in Branson, Mo., where he still performs regularly.

“I am getting to the point in my career where I am getting old,” he said. “I just take it year by year. If I have a good year this year, I will keep on going.”