Great Balls of Fire! Take a tour of Jerry Lee Lewis’s unique family home
Published 2:25 pm Friday, October 28, 2022
This story is reprinted from the January/February 2010 edition of Natchez the Magazine. Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell, Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister died in 2016.
Story by Julie Cooper
Using her own math, Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell has given 39,312 tours of her family home in Ferriday, and it is likely no two tours were ever quite the same.
The Longwood, Dunleith and Lewis house tour package isn’t marketed by anyone, but that doesn’t stop music lovers from finding their way to the, well, interesting exterior of the Louisiana Avenue home of Jerry Lee Lewis and family.
Grave markers — one with a poem about life written by Frankie Jean herself and one reportedly of a World War I veteran — fill one side of the lawn. An oversized dinner bell hangs over your head. Knick-knacks decorate any spare space. And a spray-painted door complete with nailed-on wooden cross offers the only sign that visitors are welcome — “Tour hours 1 to 6” it says.
But even when you come at the right time you’d better be a heavy-handed knocker or not afraid to ring the giant dinner bell a few times if you hope to go inside.
Still, it may be necessary for a nice neighbor to lead you to the backyard between the house and the closed-down Lewis Drive-Thru before this wild tour begins.
Inside, guests meet some members of the Lewis clan; lately that’s either Frankie Jean herself or her son Boyce Wayne Terrell.
Both are happy to lead you through the maze of Lewis paraphernalia, for a price of course.
The tour price — $10 recently — is the only money Frankie Jean receives to keep the house open and operating, she said.
“This house is a living museum,” Frankie Jean quickly says. “It cannot be kept alive with just myself. I operate on nickels and dimes, but there is no greater pleasure than to talk about my family.”
That family is where the fun, and the trouble, begins.
“They always say you’ll curse the day you were born a Lewis,” Frankie Jean said.
Frankie Jean, the third of four Lewis children, is between the family’s stars Jerry Lee and Linda Gail in birth order. Older brother Elmo Jr. was reportedly killed by a drunk driver years ago.
The children’s father, Elmo Lewis was convicted for making moonshine. Mother Mamie Lewis cared for the family and the house until her death in 1971. The last piece of shortbread she ever made sits, shellacked, in the skillet on the stove today.
A young Jerry Lee practiced the piano from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day at the house, Frankie Jean said.
After playing local clubs and causing stirs in Louisiana, Jerry Lee started hitting the big time in the mid 1950s in his early 20s.
It wasn’t long before “The Killer” was a superstar with sold out shows. His career derailed slightly when reports that he had married his 13-year-old first cousin surfaced.
In the early 1960s, baby sister Linda Gail began a music career of her own, recording, most famously, with Van Morrison and her brother.
In the meantime, Frankie Jean was giving tours back home.
“I’ve been giving tours since I was 5 years old,” Frankie Jean said several times as she led the way through the ornamented house.
Those who have taken the tour will know it’s easiest just not to question why someone would want to tour the Lewis home when Jerry Lee was only 12 and not yet famous.
“I’m dedicated to family, to the preservation of history from moonshine to mayhem,” Frankie Jean said.
Mayhem — and loose screws — are the theme of Frankie Jean’s tour, she’ll proudly tell you herself.
“Anyone who could sit and play the piano as long as (Jerry) did has got to have a loose screw,” Frankie Jean said.
“And anyone who can do tours every day since they were 5 and not get a dime for it has got to have two loose screws.”
One might add, after a tour, that anyone brave enough to tour the Lewis house has got to have several loose screws of their own.
Yet tour they do. The guestbook at the door verifies Frankie Jean’s report that she gives approximately 12 tours a week, often to tourists from Europe.
Recent visitors included those from Norway, Sweden, France and England.
Typically four large bus tours come each year, Frankie Jean said.
What do they come to see?
Well, there’s Jerry Lee’s baby potty, the bedroom in which he was reportedly born and raised, a corner where cousin Jimmy Swaggart was born, Elvis Presley’s medicine bottles, Dolly Parton’s dress, Hitler’s cufflinks and of course the artwork of Frankie Jean and Wayne Terrell.
The walls and most other flat surfaces are covered with family photos, there’s a closet full of VHS tapes of Jerry Lee playing, note cards taped to nearly every surface give tidbits of family history and old suitcases in the dining room sit full of cassette tapes from the singers.
“I listen to Linda and Jerry constantly,” Frankie Jean said.
Though Frankie Jean has surrounded herself with mementos of her siblings, the family isn’t exactly close.
“I didn’t talk to Jerry for 20 years,” she said. “Now I call every day and leave a message. On July 22 Jerry was in town, but he didn’t tell me he was coming, so I stayed in my room. I didn’t see him.”
Jerry Lee’s signature on the refrigerator, dated July 22, confirms Frankie Jean’s story.
Neither successful Lewis sends any money back home, Frankie Jean said, but Linda Gail’s agent does check on the Ferriday house, sending needed items.
But Frankie Jean doesn’t want for much, she said, and is happy to just have her life.
She’s lived in the family home her entire life except for a short stint in a rental house across the street, which burned sending her back to the Lewis house.
Her second husband now lives in the Lewis house with her.
She doesn’t have a car and rarely leaves the house. She has her own worship services inside the house, and says she loves the atmosphere of the home.
Tourists, whether from Scandinavia or Natchez, quickly realize the Lewis museum isn’t about Jerry Lee and Linda Gail; it’s about the sibling everyone forgot.
“I don’t expect anyone to come to my funeral,” Frankie Jean said. “They’ll have to hire mourners. But I don’t want people crying, God isn’t finished with me. I don’t think he has even started.
“But I know one thing, I’m going to miss me when I’m gone.”