It had the makings of a magical Louisiana moment, a dysfunctional musical family reunion for the ages. On Saturday, March 2, to commemorate the grand opening of the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, cousins and Ferriday native sons Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley were going to share the stage in honor of their induction into the Delta Music Hall of Fame. The event would mark the first time the three relatives would be together since the funeral for Gilley's father in 1983. If the state could get Jerry Lee Lewis to return to his hometown, it would be a major coup and a promising start to its "Louisiana Music Cavalcade" series, which has different performers slated for upcoming stops in Shreveport and Eunice.
The construction of the Delta Music Museum was a long-overdue project with real potential to boost tourism in Ferriday. The legendary Lewis is an American music icon, with an international fanbase that still obsessively tracks his every move. Besides the annual influx of Lewis devotees to Ferriday, the museum's presence could open up the possibility of homecoming concerts for Lewis, much like B.B. King's annual performances in his hometown of Indianola, Miss.
However, a great idea is only that without proper execution, and on that front, the jury is still out on the Louisiana Music Cavalcade and the Delta Museum.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony and performance by Lewis, Swaggart and Gilley was scheduled for sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. that Saturday. At 1 p.m., there were crowds of people lining the steps to the museum's entrance. On the front door, there were two handwritten signs that read, "Museum closed for one hour." It didn't say what time it had closed or when it would reopen.
I tried to go in the museum again at 2 p.m. The sign was still on the door, although TV crews were inside at this point, filming Swaggart and Gilley as they toured the exhibits with their families. Around 2:30 p.m., one of the state's press agents confided to me that Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't coming. But there was going to be a private press conference with Swaggart and Gilley shortly -- inside a bank.
Swaggart received a loud round of applause when he walked in the bank to greet reporters, and talked for about 15 seconds before he slipped into pulpit-speak. Gilley arrived shortly thereafter, looking vaguely uncomfortable to be that close to his cousin -- which is probably why he talked about how he hadn't always lived the right kind of life, but the teachings he learned as a child in Ferriday would always be with him. To say it was an anticlimactic moment would be an understatement. Still, despite Jerry Lee's absence, there was the hopeful prospect of the imminent Swaggart and Gilley performance.
When they stepped onstage shortly thereafter, McKeithen and the mayor of Ferriday delivered political platitude-packed speeches, and strung along the crowd for a good 20 minutes before telling them that Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't coming, due to a "horrible, horrible foul-up at the airport." The collective disappointed sigh was palpable. Lewis' agent accepted his award, and told everyone that Jerry Lee was dressed in a suit and tie at the airport that morning, and looked really good.
Then, despite the fact that local bands had been playing all day and instruments were in place on the stage, Swaggart (who's actually a pretty good piano player) looked in the direction of the soundboard and said, "Play that track!" What followed were some of the most syrupy Muzak organ lines ever recorded, which Swaggart sang over in a karaoke performance of "Amazing Grace."
It was now after 4 p.m., and this was surely a perfect opportunity to tour the museum. I walked up and had my hand on the door, but was stopped by a museum official. "Sorry, it's closed," she said. I asked, "Is this museum going to be open at any point today?" "We're going to open it for a little while after the ceremony," she replied.
Gilley's brief set was solid -- he sat at a piano and did a rollicking version of "Great Balls of Fire" in tribute to Lewis -- but the unintentional highlight came when he addressed Swaggart and made a joking reference to his prior night's gig at the Ramada Inn, a place he said the Reverend would have appreciated.
As far as Jerry Lee not showing, the official word from Louisiana Secretary of State Fox McKeithen is that Lewis was specifically told he would have a Cessna jet for his flight from Memphis, but the pilot had put his Cessna in storage and took a different jet instead. Lewis balked when he saw he wasn't getting what he was promised.
I never got to see the museum, although I've been told it was open in the morning. If I want to make a return trip, I'm going to have to take a day off from work -- because the Delta Music Museum, built to boost tourism, isn't open on weekends.