Complements of the Concordia Sentinel.
Ferriday’s Famous Five' includes three piano players and two network journalists
There are many well known people in the world today who came from Ferriday, but the following five made it to the "big time," best described as becoming at least nationally well-known for some particular talent. In other words, when people in big cities and little towns, like ours, know your name, then you've hit the big time.
Three are cousins who sing and play the piano for their living, while one of them also preaches. The other two on Ferriday's famous five list made it big in national television news.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Make no mistake about it, Jerry Lee Lewis more than anyone else put our town of Ferriday, Louisiana, on the map.
"The Killer" drew international fame in the 1950s and continues to be known worldwide though he rarely performs these days. He has become much more private, and did not attend his induction into the Delta Museum Hall of Fame last year.
The Killer was born Sept. 29, 1935, and was the first of his cousins -- country singer Mickey Gilley and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart -- to hit it big. As a boy, Lewis said he slipped into Haney's Big House, the famous Ferriday nightclub, and learned a lot about boogie-woogie and blues.
Lewis' interest in the piano began by the time he was five and he performed all over this area as a young man. Most who watched him knew there was something different about this hyper entertainer.
The famous producer Sam Phillips of Memphis first met Lewis in 1956 and at the age of 21, songwriter-producer Jack Clement made a demo recording “The Killer”.
Phillips immediately recognized his talent and his style and in 1957, Lewis released, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. It spend 23 weeks on the country charges going to No. 1 and topped out at No. 3 on the pop charts.
His follow up release, Great Balls of Fire, also went No. 1.
Lewis' career suffered a nose-dived when in Great Britain in 1958 it was discovered that his new wife was his 13 year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. His record sales dropped out and he returned to the U.S.
But Jerry Lee has never been a quitter. He regained a loyal following and was back on top in the mid-1960s. Other musicians and entertainers worshiped the Killer. He was an idol of the Beatles. His piano-style is often imitated.
In 1989, actor Randy Quaid portrayed Lewis in the motion picture, "Great Balls of Fire," which once again gave Ferriday attention as a few writers descended on the town. Lewis was included in a charter group of musicians inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 1993 Jerry Lee wrote and published his autobiography, "Killer," with author Charles White.
Lewis owns a ranch in Nesbit, Miss., and owns a piano shaped like a swimming pool.
Jimmy Lee Swaggart
Some say that of the famous cousins, Jimmy Lee Swaggart is by far the most talented. Those who heard him sing during the 2003 Delta Music Festival’s just might agree.
His voice has a rich, soulful sound, which seems to continue to improve with age and his fingers make beautiful sounds come from the piano. Swaggart is a charismatic person and although he has endured scandals and has been the target of some major hate campaigns; he has never stopped, as he would say, "serving the Lord."
Born in Ferriday on March 15, 1935, Swaggart was gracious and accommodating at last year's music festival. But he is most at home either behind the pulpit or behind the piano. He preaches an old-time religion and his sermons are Holy Ghost-filled. While his sermons can be spellbinding, when he's ministering behind the piano there is often not a dry eye in the house.
His first formal practice of religion began in the Assembly of God Church in Ferriday and from there he went on to preaching from the street, in tents, and in country churches. Eventually, he would fill major auditoriums and civic arenas.
In time he built the 7,200-seat Family Worship Center on the 270-acre site of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries in Baton Rouge. While scandals lost him followers, he has slowly rebuilt the church and now is on the radio nationally and back on television on a few stations on Sunday morning. His son, Donnie, often preaches nowadays and Swaggart's congregation is made up of all races.
His gospel albums continue to move people spiritually. It's estimated that he has sold more than 13 million albums worldwide. He's recorded 50 albums.
Mickey Gilley continues to entertain in Branson, MO, and other locales and seems to thoroughly enjoy his visits home to Ferriday when time allows.
Born March 9, 1936, the 67-year-old entertainer left town at 17, worked bars in Houston and recorded Tell Me Why in 1953. He eventually found regional and then national success in Houston.
In 1971, he opened Gilley's nightclub there, and continued to record. He hit it big in 1974 with the recording, Room Full of Roses which zoomed to the top of the country charts. Other big songs for Gilley included, I Overlooked An Orchid, Don't The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time, and Stand By Me, which he sang in Urban Cowboy, an enormously successful movie starring John Travolta and a mechanical bull. The movie was set in Gilley's.
Gilley's club was so successful that it was extended to hold 3,500 customers, the population of Ferriday. His partner in the club owned the patent for the famous mechanical bull and made a fortune by selling them to other clubs.
Gilley himself remains a fun-loving, gregarious individual. He thoroughly enjoys entertaining and it's obvious he enjoys being around people.
Howard Kingsbury Smith
The late Howard Kingsbury Smith, a major news force for CBS and ABC News for years, was born in Ferriday May 12, 1914, just over a decade after the town was founded by the railroad. His father was a railroad man.
The family left Ferriday when Smith was a child, settling in New Orleans. There, Smith first entered journalism as a newspaper reporter for the New Orleans Item. He earned a scholarship to Tulane University and moved to Europe for a post-graduate stint at Heidelberg University in Germany.
The Cable News Network outlined Smith's reporting career as follows:
For 40 years, Smith was one of the major names in broadcast news. He began as a CBS radio correspondent from Berlin, Germany, and later moved to other outposts in Europe.
Eventually, he turned to television, first as a European correspondent, later as a commentator and documentary narrator. In 1960, he moderated the first debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The debate, one of the most widely viewed television programs of its time, is believed to have contributed to Kennedy's election later that year.
In 1940, he joined the United Press news agency, reporting from Copenhagen, Denmark, before transferring to Berlin, Germany.
In 1941, Smith was hired by CBS as a Berlin correspondent and became part of the group of wartime correspondents -- others included Eric Sevareid, Daniel Schorr and William L. Shirer -- gathered by Edward R. Murrow. With his reports under heavy scrutiny by the Nazis, he decided to leave Berlin for Switzerland. He arrived on December 7, 1941, just as Japan was attacking Pearl Harbor, halfway across the world.
He wrote about his experiences in a 1942 bestseller, Last Train from Berlin: An Eyewitness Account of Germany at War.
In 1946 Smith succeeded Murrow as CBS's London correspondent. He covered Europe and the Middle East for CBS until 1957, when he came to Washington as a correspondent and commentator on the network's nightly TV newscast.
In 1961, Murrow asked Smith to go to Birmingham, Alabama, to finish a documentary on the racial unrest rocking the region at the time. He arrived as the Freedom Riders were approaching town.
"The head of the (local) KKK phoned me while I was having lunch in a hotel," Smith told the Naples (Florida) Daily News in 2001. "He said, 'You want action, we've got action.' "
Not long after, Smith watched as local ruffians beat the Freedom Riders in the Birmingham bus station. For the commentary at the end of the report, Smith quoted philosopher Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
The quote was cut from the program because Smith's bosses regarded it as editorializing. CBS Chairman William S. Paley backed the executives over Smith, who resigned.
"They said it was against the rules to take sides on a controversial issue," Smith said in the 2001 interview. "I said, 'I wish you had told me that during World War II, when I took sides against Hitler.' "
Smith joined ABC News soon after as a correspondent and occasional anchor. Smith generated criticism at ABC for a report in 1962 about Richard Nixon, in which an interview was featured with Alger Hiss, a possible spy whose conviction for perjury helped launch Nixon's national career.
In 1969 he became co-anchor with Frank Reynolds of "The ABC Evening News," then two years later was joined at the ABC anchor desk by his former CBS colleague Harry Reasoner.
Smith backed the Vietnam War and supported Vice President Spiro Agnew's shots at the news media. He was in President Nixon's good graces for these stances, but called for Nixon's resignation as evidence pointed to the president's involvement in the Watergate scandal.
In 1975, Smith relinquished his co-anchor role and remained as a commentator. He resigned in 1979 from ABC after denouncing a newscast format featuring four anchors --Peter Jennings, Max Robinson, Frank Reynolds and Barbara Walters.
Smith appeared in several movies, including "The Candidate" (1972), "Nashville" (1975), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982).
He published his memoir, Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter, in 1996.
In his storied career, Smith won several awards, including a Peabody and an Emmy.
There's another famous Ferridian to add to the list of local folks who have made it in the big time.
Campbell Brown, weekend co-anchor for NBC's Today Show, grew up on Lake Concordia and attended school in Natchez. She's the daughter of Jim Brown and Dale Campbell Fairbanks.
She was formerly the NBC News White House correspondent and has done reports for NBC News broadcasts, including the “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” “Today Show,” "Meet the Press," and MSNBC. She has also guest hosted the Today Show on NBC.
Prior to being named White House correspondent, Brown had been part of the NBC News team covering the presidential campaign of Republican candidate George W. Bush. Prior to covering the Bush campaign, Brown had been a Washington, D.C., based NBC News correspondent.
Joining the network in 1998, Brown was first assigned to cover President Clinton’s impeachment trial. After that, she was assigned to the Pentagon, reporting on the war in Kosovo. From 1996-1998 she was a correspondent for the NBC News Channel. During that time, she was also a substitute anchor for the network’s then overnight newscast “NBC Nightside.”
Brown started her career in local news as the political reporter covering Kansas politics for KSNT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Topeka, KS.