The Killer, the Preacher, and the Cowboy

J. D. Davis speak the story of three cousins indigenous Ferriday that hit the large time.

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Growing increase in Quitman, a little town in the piney woods that northeast Texas, author J. D. Davis was exposed at an early stage to the renowned trio from north Louisiana—cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and also Mickey Gilley.

Lewis and also Swaggart are double first cousins. Lewis and also Gilley are an initial cousins. Gilley and Swaggart are first cousins when removed. The guys are related through maternal and also paternal lines that Davis details in his 2012 book Unconquered: The Saga that Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley.

Lewis, well-known as “The Killer” because that his wild way with a piano, to be a substantial hit in the fifties through such absent & roll standards as “Great Balls of Fire” and also “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Gilley to be a country-music singer ideal known for opened “the world’s greatest honky-tonk” in Pasadena, Texas—the model for the dance hall in metropolitan Cowboy. And Swaggart got fame together a televangelist—and infamy because that his autumn from grace for allegedly consorting with prostitutes.

How the began: Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis in the seventies

“I’ve been gathering information since I was a kid,” Davis explains about his research on the 3 cousins. “I saw Urban Cowboy and the Jerry Lee biopic Great Balls that Fire. In 2009, i really started reading, and I went to Ferriday. That opened up my eyes. A lot has been written, however the most compelling story come me is the truth that they space cousins who prospered up really close. It is what wraps their lives together.”

As a child in the seventies, Davis first heard Lewis and also Gilley on nation radio. (Lewis’s rock career had nosedived after he married his thirteen-year-old cousin in 1957, once he to be twenty-two. Pan shunned him, radio stations to reduce him, and he struggled for years to regain his stature. At some point he turned to nation music.) Gilley released together hits as “Room complete of Roses” and also "Don"t the girls All get Prettier in ~ Closing Time.”

“Their to sing was good but it was your piano play that really drew me in,” says Davis. I remember hearing Jimmy’s music every Sunday morning. That did one hour-long show—preaching, play piano, and also singing gospel songs.”

As a teenager, Davis became a vast fan the Lewis. He estimates he has been to much more than fifty that his concerts—the very first of which was at an out music festival in Austin in the beforehand 1990s, once Davis was a college college student at the college of Texas. “I to be absolutely swollen away,” that recalls. “He was amazing. He was in his so late fifties, yet when he placed his hands on those tricks it was prefer he metamorphosed into a man two decades younger.”

Fascinated through the three males from Concordia Parish who had accomplished amazing success, after perfect a master’s degree in liberal researches at southern Methodist university in 2009, Davis chose to create a book.

Researching the Lewis, Swaggart, and Gilley families

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Born in Ferriday in 1935 and also ’36 throughout the good Depression, the cousins prospered up poor, yet each exhibited musical talent at an early age. Castle were raised in the Pentecostal church, and also each had actually close relationships through their mothers.

None that the three males maintains a home there now, yet in his research, Davis discovered plenty of loved ones in Ferriday. He speak to Gilley’s sister Edna, who died in 2012 at eighty-seven. He additionally interviewed Lewis’s sister Linda Gail and Frankie Jean. “I developed a pretty close friendship with Frankie Jean, that is a character herself,” he says. “They had actually a ton the information, not just on Jerry yet on the other two cousins.”

He spent three years on the book, functioning nights and weekends if holding down his day job and also raising three daughters. He made countless research trips to Ferriday and also traveled come Memphis; Nashville; Baton Rouge; Houston; Branson, Missouri; and Cleveland, Tennessee.

He conducted around one hundred interviews, taping most of them. “There room so many interesting people in this family,” that says. “I’ve built up hundreds of household photos.

Ferriday: A musical Haven

Davis defines Ferriday together “the perfect harmonic convergence the blues, gospel, and country. It was on the chitlin circuit. Will certainly Haynie own a society there dubbed Haynie’s large House. He was black and also grew up dirt poor, however he became successful.

“Jerry would sneak in the earlier and listen to the blues. Periodically Jimmy would certainly go, too. Haynie allowed them come come in yet told them not to let their rich uncle recognize or he’d acquire in trouble.

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“Everybody play there—eighteen-year-old B. B. King, Irma Thomas, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. The was among the couple of places in the southern where they can play and also have a ar to stay, due to the fact that Haynie own a hotel in the back. World would come indigenous Monroe, Alexandria, Shreveport. That was one of the most crucial blues joints in the South. It shed down in the Sixties.”

How they Made the Big: Conquered and also Unconquered

Lewis was the first cousin to make it big with his breakout struggle “Crazy Arms” in 1956. Meanwhile, Swaggart and also Gilley, who both obtained married as teenagers, were sweating out a living—Swaggart as a dragline swamper and also street preacher in Ferriday and Gilley as a pipe layer in Houston.

“When Jerry Lee became successful, Jimmy and also Mickey were performing grueling hand-operated labor,” states Davis. “That inspired them to find their own paths come success.” as he delved into their story, Davis to be intrigued by “Conquered and also Unconquered,” a game of derring-do the cousins played. “One of them would carry out a stunt and the others would have to do it, too, or be ‘conquered,’” states Davis. “They jumped indigenous boxcar to boxcar or enforcement death-defying feats on your bicycles. Castle were constantly looking for a new, exceptional feat that would ideal the other two.”

Meeting Mickey Gilley

It to be Gilley who told Davis about the game. The author was in the audience in Baton Rouge last may when Louisiana publicly Broadcasting honored Gilley as a Louisiana Legend. Before the event, the musician chatted around the book.

“He called me up because that a date and I called him i didn’t prefer guys,” joked Gilley, seventy-six, who calls the writer “Jim.”

“I think there’ll it is in a many interest in the book,” Gilley said. “The three of us room the key. What a situation. 3 boys—I’m the youngest and the ideal looking. All of us go in separate directions, and all of us had success. Friend think about what taken place with the 3 of us, it’s phenomenal—almost unbelievable.

“Jim pulled some points out of me that ns hadn’t thought around in years,” claimed Gilley. “I called him stories of us cultivation up, about how as children we had actually a game called ‘Conquered and Unconquered’: ‘I dare you to do that.’ we could’ve killed ourselves.”

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Gilley, who now owns a theater in Branson, to be the just cousin that cooperated with Davis ~ above the book. “Jerry Lee and also Jimmy ,” he noted. “It irritates me. Below we room in the twilight year of our life and also our careers and also we can’t leave a legacy. I’d prefer to view a film done about us before I die.”

Davis has already fielded calls. “There’s been some initial interest from the movie industry,” he says. “I think the story is destined to be a movie at part point.”

But because that now, he’s enjoying an excellent press because that a publication he really hopes will be the definitive biography of three cousins who defied the odds. “I’m a native Texan, yet I just uncover Louisiana fascinating,” that confesses.

“Their story is interesting and compelling ~ above so many levels,” the says. “The Depression era in the South, music in the twentieth century, the duality of great and evil, the conflict between music and also religion. It’s a really fascinating story top top so plenty of levels. That that person story the compelled me to compose the book.”