The note on the door of Frankie Jean Terrell's house on Louisiana Avenue read, "Gone to Alexandria for the day . . . Frankie Jean."
The house is just a block from the old Assembly of God Church on Texas Avenue, where Terrell sang as a child with her older brother Jerry Lee Lewis and their cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart.
Her note was intended to ward off fans who come from as far as Australia--often on a side trip from Elvis' Graceland in Memphis--to see the old home of Lewis, the Wildman of Rock.
It's only about 280 miles from Memphis to Ferriday, a worn 'n' ragged town of 4,472 just west of the Mississippi River. Frankie Jean used to invite some of the fans in--but got tired of missing ashtrays, silverware and other items around the house.
She also has become leery of the reporters who have knocked on her door recently to ask about fire 'n' brimstone evangelist Swaggart. She thought they twisted her words to embarrass him.
But she had agreed--reluctantly--to talk to a reporter, after he promised in an advance phone call to show her clippings of the many interviews he has done with her brother.
"Welcome," she said, opening the door to the white, single-story frame house. She led the reporter on a tour. "It's so dusty in here," she said apologetically. "But Jerry wants me to keep it just the way it was when Mama died. He won't let me vacuum the carpet in her old bedroom because it's got her heel prints in it.
"Jerry wants to turn the house into a museum, but you never know with him. He hates the idea of people coming in here because the house is so personal to him. I ask him, 'Jerry, how can this ever be a museum if you don't let anyone in?' "
The living room was dominated by the TV set on a living room table--not the set itself, but the image on its screen: Jimmy Lee Swaggart, giving one of the deeply imploring performances that has made him the most charismatic of America's superstar telepreachers.
"I must have 300 of his tapes," confided Terrell, settling in the dining room area. "The tapes run here constantly. They're a comfort. Jimmy's a sweet man . . . and he's very concerned about Jerry (and his notorious ways). It's very frustrating to him that he can't bring Jerry over to the gospel. But Jerry can easily frustrate anyone."
Later in the day, another Ferriday resident also wondered about the town's cousins in sin 'n' salvation. He loves Lewis' records, but shakes his head over the rocker's outlandish image. The man also watches Swaggart's crusades on TV, but wonders why Swaggart needs to live in a million-dollar house in nearby Baton Rouge.
He said, "You know, it really is something to think that this little old town . . . Ferriday could give the world two people that have done as much as Jimmy and Jerry. . . . It makes you wonder if this town was blessed or if it was cursed."
Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis aren't the only names on the signs that greet motorists at both of the U.S. 84 entrances to town. Also listed: country singer Mickey Gilley, who is a cousin of Lewis and Swaggart's, TV newsman Howard K. Smith, whose family moved away when he was 3, and Mrs. U. B. Evans, a horticulturist.
Yet people who stop to take photos are mainly concerned with Lewis and Swaggart, says Anthony McCraney, 68, whose Exxon station is next to the sign on the eastern edge of town.
Lewis and Swaggart (and Gilley) were born within months of each other 51 years ago--and grew up in each other's houses. They attended the same church, walked to school together and even played the same piano. And, at some point, they each began making plans on how to escape the dead-ends of a small town. "We wanted to be any place but Ferriday," Swaggart once wrote.
Visitors often ask how two men with such vastly different public images be cut from the same cloth, but watching Swaggart and Lewis on stage, it's easy to picture either of them being just as big a star if they changed places. Their messages may be 180 degrees apart, but they deliver them with the same kind of fiery, ultra-emotional intensity that would have made Elmer Gantry proud. Circling the stage at one of his crusades, Swaggart sweats, cajoles, cries--and sometimes heads over to the piano and sings the praises of the Lord with all the feeling and phrasing of the most roots-conscious rocker. At the piano in a honky-tonk, Lewis can tell stories with soul-lifting Judgment Day fury.
Once visitors to Ferriday get through asking McCraney questions about the town's two most infamous sons, there's not much else to talk about.
This once-thriving farming and sawmill community now seems in desperate need of a life-support system. There's considerable charm and history a dozen miles away in Natchez, Miss., from the antebellum homes to the cobblestoned streets. But Ferriday is like a pair of discarded overalls. When the mayor drives a visitor around town, he spends much of his time pointing to vacant lots and telling you what used to be there.
There were more vacated stores than people in the tiny, two-block area that comprises downtown Ferriday on a recent, weekday afternoon. Pasternack's big hardware store was out of business. The Arcade movie theater is ancient history by now. Peggy's clothing store is long gone. A sign in what was once a shoe store reads, "Thank you for your patronage all the years. See us (at our new location) in Natchez." A Colonel Sanders is out on the highway, but you have to go 10 miles to Vidalia to get a Big Mac.
The few adults downtown this day were 40 or older--people who apparently never had the inclination, perhaps never the opportunity, to move. They sit in the Pass Time Lounge or in one of the many convenience stores and talk about the weather, the virtues of small-town life and, when asked, Lewis and Swaggart.
"I kinda feel like (the people in) Jimmy Carter's home town must have felt when people wanted to know all about Jimmy and his brother . . . Billy," said a long-time Ferriday resident, who was passing the day watching the traffic along the highway.
"Hell, the truth is, Jimmy Swaggart is probably more famous than Jimmy Carter now, and Jerry Lee Lewis . . . he's always been famous. He was famous around here before he ever had a record."
The Lewis, Swaggart and Gilley clans have a history that would have enlivened "Tobacco Road." In "Hellfire," his biography of Lewis, Nick Tosches tells of the ancestors who lived in the '20s over on Snake Ridge. The place isn't on a map, merely a now-forgotten settlement of poor farmers.
The migration to Ferriday was apparently prompted because a relative, Lee Calhoun, lived here. A big landowner, Calhoun was one of the wealthiest men in the county. The kinfolk--and almost everyone in Snake Ridge was related in some convoluted way--saw Calhoun as a way of getting a foot up during hard economic times. The migration included Lewis' parents, Elmo and Mamie. (Both Lewis and Swaggart were named after Uncle Lee.)
Wrote Tosches: "Lee Calhoun, who was already beginning to lose track of all the in-laws who had come to dwell on his dirt, had to back off and think a while about this latest (marriage). . . . Willie Harry Swaggart had married Elmo's sister. Now Willie Harry's son, Willie Leon, had married the sister of Elmo's wife, who was Willie Harry's sister-in-law and Willie Leon's aunt.
"Hellfire, Lee Calhoun thought, if this didn't make Elmo's nephew and brother-in-law one in the same. Then Lee Calhoun got to thinking that . . . if Willie Leon and Minnie Bell had a child, Minnie Bell might somehow wind up as the child's aunt as well as its mother, and its grandfather Willie Harry would likely pan out to be its cousin, and in the end that poor child would be lucky if it escaped without being rendered its own uncle."
But almost any of the Swaggart/Lewis/Gilley kin can outline alliances just as hilarious. Between customers, Hyram Copeland, an appliance salesman at the Sears store in Natchez, tried to piece together some of the family connections.
Copeland, a cordial, educated man in his late '40s who is a cousin to all three men, began, "My grandmother was Mickey's mother's sister and Jerry Lee's daddy's sister. My grandfather, who was a Gilley, was Mickey's daddy's brother. Jimmy Lee Swaggart's mother--uh, grandmother--was my mother's, I mean Mickey's mother's sister and she was Jerry's daddy's sister. . . .
The reporter was trying to take all this down by longhand and finally gave up. Copeland sympathized, "It is confusing, isn't it?"
Lewis terrorized Ferriday as a teen-age cut-up, scandalized it as a rock pioneer whose sexy records ("Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire") and uninhibited image made parents feel that maybe this Elvis kid wasn't so bad after all.
Those early hits were among the most influential ever in rock, earning Lewis a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his career was nearly destroyed in 1958 when the English press learned that the 22-year-old rocker married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown.
British promoters canceled his shows and American radio stations quit playing his records. It didn't make help matters that Lewis had already been married twice before--and divorced only once.
The "Ferriday Fireball," as Lewis has been called, has remained surrounded by controversy--and tragedy. One of his sons drowned in a swimming pool, a second died in a jeep accident. Lewis' fifth wife, Shawn, died of a drug overdose in 1983 under suspicious circumstances. "20/20" and Rolling Stone magazine both raised questions about Lewis' possible implication in the death.
But down here, Lewis is regarded with deep affection.
Ironically, the community seems more divided about Swaggart, who was a quiet boy who studied his Bible and never got into trouble.
These folks weren't concerned about Swaggart's description of much of rock 'n' roll as "pornographic," or his suggestion that the extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II might have been the result of their failure to believe in Christ, or his frequent criticisms of Catholicism.
Even some of the people who get up at 6 every morning to watch his TV program here, however, wonder if the five-acre estate and $30 million school-ministry-TV complex is the best way to serve the Lord.
But most people don't want to be quoted when it comes to expressing reservations about Swaggart. The merchants, especially, don't want to alienate any of their customers.
"Certain groups really love him, others just think he is a big TV reacher with a whole lot of money," said insurance man Melton Martin, 47, himself careful not to take sides.
One man in Ferriday who is not afraid to be quoted about Swaggart--or anything else--is the mayor.
Sammy Davis Jr., the town's first black mayor, entered the City Hall conference room holding a Thompson submachine gun. He put the weapon on the table and watched as his visitors stirred uneasily.
"The city bought some of these years ago to keep the blacks in this town in their place," he said, savoring the irony of the situation. "I guess they never realized that a black man might be mayor one day and be the one to determine what's done with them."
Davis, 55, likes to bring out the prop because it reminds him of how far he--and other blacks--have come in this town. During the height of the school segregation conflict in the '60s, Davis was fired from his position of school principal because he defended 21 black teachers who had also been relieved of duties. Davis eventually took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won his job back.
Things were so tense in the late '60s and early '70s that Davis helped form a group called Deacons for Defense. Its members patrolled black neighborhoods at night to guard against Klan attacks.
"There's still hatred here, but you work to change people," said Davis, who has a masters' in education. "We try to show (the whites) that we are going to do things straight across the board . . . fairly. That's something that wasn't seen when I was coming up."
But the guns aren't the only reminders of what Davis describes as the "racist" days in Ferriday. He also points to the "Welcome to Ferriday" signs--the ones that tell you this is the home of Lewis and the rest.
"I resented those signs the day they went up (in the late '70s) because they said that these (whites) were the only famous people that came from Ferriday," Davis said, determinedly. "If the city (instead of a private group) had put up the sign, I would have taken it down by now. Nothing against the people who are on the sign, but there are also other people (blacks) who have contributed to this town. I think we'll eventually put up our own city sign."
Davis is a friendly, beefy man in his mid-50s who has retired from the school system. His "business" is raising Rottweiler dogs, but his passion is the town--and his position as mayor. He is at City Hall from early morning to past midnight some days.
He said he never thought of leaving Ferriday, even during the height of the racial tension in the late '60s and early '70s, because "this is my home" . . . pure and simple.
"This is a Tombstone kind of place . . . a rowdy town . . . and Jerry Lee fit right in," Davis said, smiling affectionately.
"All the crazy tales you've heard about him are true. . . ," he continued. "He was a wild rebel. Sometimes I think Jerry wakes up each morning in a different world."
Lewis, Davis said, lived as a teen-ager on Mississippi Avenue, which was the borderline between the blacks and the whites, and he used to hang out at Haney's Big House, the black honky-tonk downtown.
Bobby Blue Bland, B. B. King and Big Joe Turner were among the acts that played Haney's, and Lewis would sneak in--the only white in the place--and always be asking if he could get up and play a number.
About young Swaggart, Davis recalled, "Jimmy was the other end of the spectrum . . . very laid back, very religious. He wasn't really one of the gang, but no one put him down. People respected his right to be the way he wanted."
However, Davis acknowledged some people today in Ferriday question Swaggart's motivation.
"I think Jimmy has isolated himself from people. (He) lives in a big house in Baton Rogue and raises millions of dollars for people overseas, but what's he done to help the poor people here?' Why couldn't he open a Bible bookstore or something here, to give local people a chance to work?
"Maybe Mickey Gilley could open a country music record store, too. The city has given a lot of recognition to these guys and it's time for them to give a little back to the city. We're aren't asking for handouts, but they could make some improvements here."
The black teen-agers sitting on some boxes outside one of the many convenience stores on the main highway knew about Swaggart--their mothers watch him on TV, they said--but they couldn't name any record by Lewis. "We listen to Prince and New Edition," one of the boys said. "Jerry Lee Lewis was years ago. . . ."
At a gas station down the road, three white teen-agers leaned against a car listening to the new single by the rock group Boston. They, too, knew about Swaggart--"I think he probably does a lot of good, but why does he keep attacking rock 'n' roll?"--yet also had trouble naming a record by Lewis. Finally, one of the boys said, "Didn't he do 'That'll Be the Day'?"
Thirty years ago, before even "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going on," everyone in Ferriday knew of Lewis.
Richard White, 53, operates a gas station and he often begins his day by having coffee with friends at Borcado's Restaurant across the street from Ferriday High.
"There wasn't a weekend that went by where that there wasn't some kind of major disaster with Jerry," White said, smiling. "I remember one night at the skating rink in Natchez. Jerry got into it with his big mouth and the next thing we know half the Natchez High School football team is heading our way. I think that night was the first time I heard anyone refer to Jerry as the Killer (his long-standing nickname).
"These guys are coming at us and I heard Jerry say something about his two buddies having knives and guns. So, Jerry looks at me and Cecil Harrelson and says, 'Don't use the gun on them,' and Cecil says back, 'OK, Killer, we'll leave them alone.'
"Now, there's someone you should talk to . . . Cecil. He was the toughest kid in town. He even made Jerry seem tame."
"Well, Richard had it pretty straight about what happened at the skating rink, but it's not where Jerry Lee got the name 'Killer,' " Cecil Harrelson said, sitting at a wooden table in a back room at his house near Columbia, about an hour's drive from Ferriday.
"That happened when Jerry and I were kids. I used to work at Duke's department store and I was waiting on this colored woman. I happened to look out the window and I saw Jerry pass by, and I shouted, 'Hey, Killer,' just the way someone might shout, 'Hey, Sonny' or 'Hey, Buddy.' I don't know why I said Killer, but this colored lady about freaked out. She jumped up and down, thinking a real killer was on the loose.
"I told Jerry about it and we both started calling each other the name. Later, it got to be an easy way to talk to people when you didn't remember their name. Jerry's like me; I can't remember a name and you meet millions of people in show business. So, we just called everyone 'Killer.' "
Harrelson was Lewis' best buddy. He worked with Lewis through much of the '60s and early '70s, a sort of do-it-all road manager, pal and adviser. He also married Lewis' youngest sister, Linda Gail, twice. He also divorced her twice--the last time being about 14 years ago. He now lives off a remote country road--an area that seemed even more isolated on this dark, moonless night.
Harrelson, a solidly built man with arm muscles as hard as a hammer, was reluctant at first to talk about those days. "I don't like to be in the limelight," he said on the phone. Once Harrelson started talking, however, he seemed to relish reliving the old days in his mind: tales of racing through town so fast that Lewis closed his eyes or jumped in the back seat to better protect himself in case of a crash.
The irony is that four years ago, while driving down a country road near his house, Harrelson swerved off the road to avoid hitting a deer. The accident left him nearly crippled.
"My legs are so still so sore you can't hardly touch them," he said. "Some days I can't even walk. The legs won't carry me. . . . I never have minded getting old. I just hate having to be old and crippled."
There has been lots of publicity in recent years about Swaggart reaching out to Lewis--to get Lewis to forsake his flamboyant life style and accept Jesus Christ. But Harrelson tells of the times that Lewis helped his cousin.
Harrelson mentions the time Swaggart asked for Lewis' help in making a gospel record.
"We ran into Jimmy Lee in Muncie, Ind., or some other small town and Jimmy said, 'Jerry, I'd like to cut some records that I could sell to church groups,' and Jerry invited him to come to Memphis and he paid for the recording session. In fact, Linda Gail sang on some of the songs.
"Jimmy Lee went out and sold the records at the churches, and we did the same thing a couple more times. Each time, Jerry would pay for the sessions and Jerry's musicians worked for nothing. The third time, the musicians said, 'Ceece, we'd like to get paid this time.'
"I jumped as high as I could jump. I said, 'You guys are going to charge that preacher to cut a dadgum session . . . a preacher.'
"And they said, 'But Cecil, he drove up in a brand new Lincoln and none of us have new Lincolns. . . . and I said, 'Boys, you've got a point there.' "
Most people questioned around town said they haven't seen Swaggart in Ferriday in years (actually he was here a couple of years ago to preach at the funeral for Gilley's father). But many of them watch him every weekday morning at 6 on TV.
The program on a recent morning was a round-table on issues facing the ministry. Instead of the passion and fury of Swaggart's Sunday sermons, he appeared more thoughtful, subdued. The topic: restoration of the fallen pastor.
Some of the people interviewed in Ferriday that day wondered if Swaggart isn't already in need of restoration.
Said one resident, "I think that (getting power crazy) just goes with the territory. I don't agree with much of what I hear about him. I don't even think his daddy approves of him anymore."
The motto on the sign outside of Swaggart's Furniture on U.S. 84, just a couple of blocks from Frankie Jean Terrell's house, is "Why Pay More." Inside, the store is crammed, warehouse-like, with rows of sofas and tables.
W. L. Swaggart--known around town as "Son"--is a tall, thin man in his 70s who was a lawman before he became a minister and, later, opened the store. People around town seem confused about him. Some think he has made a lot of money and wonder why he lives frugally in a house trailer across the street from Terrell's house. Others think the store--and several other businesses--around town are owned by his son Jimmy Lee.
"Son" all but took a full step back when a reporter identified himself.
Before any question was asked, he said politely, but firmly, that he doesn't talk to reporters. He didn't like the way he was quoted in a couple stories. He said goodby and moved away.
An employee, Doris Poole, did, however, respond to the suggestion of a riff between the Swaggarts.
"How could anyone say a thing like that? He's so proud of Jimmy Lee. He's one of his biggest contributors. We are all proud of Jimmy Lee. We're also proud of Jerry Lee and Mickey. They were all good kids," she said. "I grew up with them, went to school with them."
Stiff initially, she began to reminisce. Like others, she seemed to enjoy talking about the early days when the kids all lived here.
She remembers Swaggart as a quiet child, with little of the charisma or flair that he exhibits today.
"The change in him has to be due to God," she said. "He was quiet, very reserved. Jimmy Lee will tell you himself, before God delivered him, he had a temper and everything."
Invariably, the talk drifted around to the controversy . . . the big house in Baton Rouge.
"Let me tell you something that most people don't know about Jimmy Lee. He could be a multimillionaire in his own right with his records. He takes nothing from the sale of those records. Everything he gets goes back into the ministry."
Terrell was considering the question about how two people who once stood side by side in church could end up so different.
"I've often thought about that, but I don't know how it happened," she said. "Jimmy's mother and father were strongly religious, devout Christians. My mother was a Christian, but she and Daddy wanted Jerry to go into a music career and whatever Mama and Daddy wanted, they got. I suppose they didn't think he would wind up (with such a controversial life style).
"But you know we all pray for Jerry. Jimmy does and I call the '700 Club's' prayer line . . . Pat Robertson's '700 Club' prayer line."
"Let me tell you something . . . Jerry has seven more payments to make to the government (on back taxes). When that's paid, I feel like he'll go with Jimmy. He used to preach you know . . . when he was 16, 17, 18. I still have some of his sermons. He was a wonderful preacher."
Meanwhile, Terrell tries to maintain the old family house the way Lewis wants it. As she walks the guest to the door, she stops by an organ that Lewis used to play. She sees a fingerprint on the shiny wood and wipes it off.
"Jerry would hate to think someone had touched it," she said. "He even hates the fact that I bought a microwave for the kitchen."
It was late in the day and Sheriff Hubert Lee McGlothlin was alone in his office in nearby Vidalia. McGlothlin, 46, was mayor of Ferriday before Davis and he still lives there--right across the street from the old Assembly of God Church. If you get the feeling that hundreds of people attended that little white frame church in the '50s, it may help to know the congregation only numbered about 65 most Sundays.
McGlothlin was surprised when Davis' resentment of the Ferriday signs was mentioned.
"I don't think we've done enough to honor these men," he said. "The city of Ferriday should have a museum for them. I tried to do it when I was mayor, but people over there just don't have the motivation. I don't know if it was jealousy or what.
"Cities have soybean festivals and peach festivals, but we're talking about people here--people who made something of themselves. That's what this country is all about. Besides, tourists would come here from all around the world and Ferriday could use that money. The town hasn't got much going for it any more . . . farming, oil . . . everything is bad. Sometimes it seems like the only thing left are memories."