Written by Jon McKinnie – 2013
At one time, great balls of fire passed over Linville. No, I’m not talking about the meteor, which recently streaked through the Russian sky, exploding and injuring 1,000 people. I’m talking about Jerry Lee Lewis exploding upon the scene at Linville School. Yes, that Jerry Lee Lewis.
The rumors are true…Jerry Lee Lewis did attend Linville School in 1952 at the age of 17, while in the eight grade. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September 29, 1935 at Turtle Lake on the Calhoun Plantation, the second son of Elmo and Mary Ethel (Mamie) Lewis. He grew up on his parent’s farm in Ferriday. At an early age, his parents realized that Jerry Lee was really good on a piano, so they mortgaged their farm (and lost it) to buy Jerry Lee his first piano, a Stark upright. Jerry Lee played by ear, and only had a couple of lessons. Soon Jerry Lee discovered a new type of music along with his soon to be well-known cousins, Jimmy Lee Swaggart (Baton Rouge evangelist) and Mickey Gilley (Gilley’s Bar in Houston, made famous in Urban Cowboy). Jerry Lee started frequenting Haney’s Big House with Jimmy Swaggart, hiding behind the bar and watching the plantation workers moving to the blues.
While still young, Jerry Lee’s erratic behavior worried his mother. She finally decided to send him to the Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas. He was almost immediately expelled for playing a rock boogie version of “My God Is Real” on piano.
Around this same time, the Lewis family packed up and moved to Sterlington.
Gloria Dawn Love: “Jerry Lee was in the eighth grade when he came to Linville. Bobby Joe Garland claimed to have hauled Jerry Lee and his family’s possessions from Ferriday when they moved to Sterlington. Bobby Joe moved them in the back of an old borrowed pick-up truck, including Jerry Lee’s old battered piano. His family went to the same church that the Garlands attended, and the Lewis family lived close to them at Sterlington. That is how he met Dorothy Barton.”
Faye Franklin: “I remember riding the school bus to Linville with Jerry Lee and Dorothy.”
Jerry Lee brought a sound and worldly presence that had never been heard or seen at Linville or anywhere else. Linville experienced the beginning stages of Jerry Lee Lewis’ open rebelliousness, his raw sexuality and unrepentant arrogance, which would galvanize his image in the public’s perception, typifying the very change that American society itself was undergoing in the 1950’s. More so than James Dean, or even Elvis himself, Jerry Lee Lewis was seen by the elder generations as a dangerously delinquent influence on the minds and psyches of innocent American youth.
Fred Franklin: “When I was in the first grade, I saw Jerry Lee playing the piano, which had been brought out on the gym floor (I assume it was up close to the bleachers for some sort of a program that afternoon). Anyway, it was on our lunch break when I heard the most unusual music I had ever heard, so 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.”
But Mr. Alton Hollis, the principal, collared me and scolded me. ‘Boy, what are you doing in here? You get back out on that playground where you belong!’ He just about scared me to death, and before I had taken three steps, he commenced to come down on Jerry Lee severely, ‘If I ever see this again, I am going to…’ I don’t remember the rest, but I will never forget that scene.”
Sue Phillips: “Jerry Lee was older than I, but I don’t know how much. Two or three years?
Every day at lunch period, all of us girls ate fast so we could climb up on the stage in the gym behind that heavy velveteen curtain and watch him bang on the piano and sing. By the time he left Linville, the ivory on the piano keys was gone!”
Gloria Dawn Love: “Jerry Lee was always playing the piano in the gym and in the old music room with a few of us dancing. I remember Gracie Reppond and I were part of that group. We called it dancing. I’m sure I did not know much about dancing, but we had lots of fun.”
Presley Parks: “Man, we wanted to break his fingers, ’cause all the girls were crazy about that joker.”
Jon McKinnie: “Jerry Lee and I teamed up to win the school’s talent contest that year. He was older than me, but he still took time to advise a kid. We practiced on the stage in the gymnasium. He could make that old piano walk across the stage. Obviously his musical skills overcame my lack of vocal talent. Wonder whatever happened to his career?”
Richard Lowery: “The teachers eventually locked the gymnasium to keep Jerry Lee from destroying the old upright piano in there. After lunch periods, one could hear strains of “The Double Eagle,” as Jerry Lee pounded it out on the piano.”
Mary R. Smith: “Jerry Lee was in the 8th grade with Fred and me. I remember Jerry lee and Fred in the Home Economics room together cooking, though I can’t remember what they cooked. All I remember is that he stayed in the gym playing the piano.”
While at Linville, all the girls swooned over Jerry Lee, especially Dorothy Barton.
Gloria Dawn Love: “Also I remember I was sitting in the old ninth grade classroom the day he and Dorothy left school to get married.”
Their marriage was short-lived, divorcing within a year. Jerry Lee was on a marital roller-coaster ride resulting in six marriages, including his second cousin (third wife).
Jon McKinnie: “I reconnected with Dorothy in the mid-60s. She had divorced Jerry Lee not long after they were married, before he made much money — Bad timing on her part.”
Gene Barron: “Jerry started out locally playing with a guy named Al Jordan. Al was great on the fiddle. They called themselves “Al and Jerry,” playing around Monroe on the Ouachita Valley Jamboree for many months.”
“That’s All Right, Mama!” … When Jerry Lee heard Elvis Presley on the radio, he realized he should take a shot at this. Elvis was also a southern boy who had grown up with similar musical influences. A small company in Memphis, called Sun Records, had signed Elvis to a recording contract. Jerry Lee and his father financed a trip to Memphis with money they earned by selling 33 dozens of eggs at Nelson’s Supermarket in Ferriday.
Gene Barron: “With Elvis hitting it big, Jerry told Al Jordan that they needed to go to Memphis and see if they could get recorded. Al had a family and couldn’t afford to go. So Jerry went alone, and the rest is history.”
Much later, when Jerry Lee held a show in Monroe, he was about to play the fiddle when he saw Al in the audience. He announced, “Here I am, going to play the fiddle and I see in the audience one of the greatest fiddlers ever. Come up here Al and help me.” They played a tune together. “I’ve played with Al on many occasions, and he can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, playing back-up on sad songs.”
The afternoon of Tuesday, December 4, 1956 remains the most famous date in the history of Rock and Roll. That was the day “The Million Dollar Quartet” jammed in Sun Studio! Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash sang, played and had a good time together. Luckily, Sam Phillips let the tape machine run…which “The Quartet” didn’t know about.
Now it was time to let Jerry Lee show his skills to rock and roll. With his cousin J. W. Brown on bass, Jimmy Van Eaton on drums, and Roland Janes on guitar, Jerry Lee cut a rock version of the song “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On” on a single take, they recorded one of the most legendary rock and roll songs ever! Jerry Lee claims that they didn’t even know the tape machine was running. And as they say, “The rest is history.”
So Linville School’s brief exposure to Jerry Lee Lewis in 1952 was only a preview on the man-child who turned the musical world on its ear. Probably what was a brief moment in time for him brings a smile and happy feet to all of the Linville students who experienced his music.
Originally from Union Parish and a resident of Farmerville, Jon R. McKinnie enjoys writing and spending time with his wife, Phyllis Richardson Hall, two children and four grandchildren.