I can’t remember who told me Jimmy Swaggart was Jerry Lee Lewis‘s cousin. Maybe it was Swaggart himself.
The legendary and infamous televangelist was always on TV during my cable-less youth. I’d have to wait for his program to end at 6 a.m. so I could watch cartoons. Baton Rouge seemed like a nice enough place to a six-year-old in rural Ontario. Anyone like me who was forced by circumstance into early morning detention with Jimmy probably recalls he was quite a musician. Easily as talented as a gospel pianist and crooner as he was an orator.
My partner is the one who actually inspired this column. She grew up with a Pentecostal mom in Northern Alberta. Swaggart albums were a big part of her childhood — though his music is nothing at all like what she normally gravitates to. As I played a few samples to her while writing this, she could sing along effortlessly. This music washes over her in waves of nostalgia and warm memories of her childhood — her mom would put Swaggart albums on and sing as she vacuumed, ironed, cleaned and cooked.
My folks loathed Swaggart, but the concert-like musical interludes on his TV show were the context in which I learned of his relation to Jerry Lee Lewis. I didn’t find out until years later that Jimmy was also a cousin to country singer-songwriter Mickey Gilley. Gilley passed in May 2022 and Jerry Lee followed five months later.
As kids, Swaggart, Lewis and Gilley played together. Legend has it Jerry Lee taught his cousins his distinctive piano style — one which remains evident on some of Swaggart’s many recordings and studio albums. They all sang gospel and boogie-woogie, but Gilley never cut a record until after Jerry Lee became famous. Jimmy, meantime, played music with his fiddle-playing Pentecostal father and sang southern gospel in a number of churches.
“Jimmy Lee” and Jerry Lee actually finally recorded an album together called The Boys from Ferriday, released last year just prior to The Killer’s death. Swaggart spoke at Lewis’s funeral, where two of the songs from the album were played. He said his cousin was very weak and hardly made it through the sessions.
It’s quite something. Hard not to like this one. Though it’s also hard not to think about the kind of man Jerry Lee was. The arrests for gun misadventures, the drunkenness, the tax issues, the seven marriages — his third to a 13-year-old cousin Myra Brown, before he was properly divorced from his second wife. Brown gave birth at 14 and divorced Lewis 13 years later, citing adultery as well as physical and mental abuse. Strangely, Lewis’ seventh wife was the ex-wife of Brown’s brother.
When he was just 17 years old, Swaggart got — and remains — married to 15-year-old Frances Anderson. The young couple were so poor they couch surfed in church basements. Seems wild, then, that Swaggart would turn down a generous offer from Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, who wanted to sign and record Jimmy as his label’s first gospel act. Phillips already had a contract with Swaggart’s now-famous cousin Jerry Lee and saw Jimmy’s talent and lineage as an easily marketable way to expand Sun’s catalog into the ever-popular gospel music realm. But Jimmy claimed he couldn’t ignore the call to preach.
He would, obviously, find his fortune this way — through tithing, appearances, performances, ownership of dozens of radio stations, a bible college and his regular weekly TV appearances. But he wasn’t shy about recording his music on his own. Swaggart made and vigorously hawked scores of albums — around 15 million copies have been sold around the world, largely by mail order. According to Discogs, he has 88 albums and 106 releases in all, including singles and EPs. They’re all on the imaginatively named Jim Records, or its subsidiary label Shiloh. His band? The Jimmy Swaggart Jesus Band. Good lord.
Jimmy’s music on the awful TV shows I was forced to endure was never to my taste. As a child, I was a Beatles, Elton John and Alice Cooper fanatic. So I decided to go looking to see if Swaggart ever did any good songs. Like, maybe back in his youth.
The short answer — No. His music is absolutely terrible. Sometimes maudlin, sometimes sappy, often annoying, but mostly it’s just mortifying. He did, however, winny a Grammy in 1980 for best gospel performance for his album Worship. I managed to find one sone which isn’t awful — the title track from 1986’s Looking For A City.
This was the year everything began to go to shit for Brother Swaggart. He launched a wildly unsuccessful campaign against Marvin Gorman. Both men were members of the Assemblies of God — a Pentecostal fellowship. Swaggart accused Gorman of having extramarital affairs, which led to him being defrocked. Gorman responded with a defamation suit and eventually received $10 million — but not until five years later. In the interim, Gorman arranged for his son Randy and his son-in-law Garland Bilbo to watch and wait for Jimmy outside the Sugar Bowl Courts motel on Highway 61 in Metairie, LA, near New Orleans — aka the Airline Highway.
I found a wonderful description of the place on a Motel Americana travelogue: “Stop for photos, but don’t plan on spending the night. Inside the lobby, you face a two-way mirror, no sign of the desk clerk — and enjoy the opportunity to buy a condom for a buck.”
This is where Gorman’s stakeout hoods managed to get photos of Jimmy with a sex worker outside Room 7 of the tiny, pink-sided, green-doored motel and gravel parking lot. They alerted Gorman, who hustled down there to confront Swaggart in person. He told Jimmy he needed to take back what he said about the affairs or he would expose him. But Swaggart did nothing. So just after Valentine’s Day 1988 Gorman reported Jimmy to the Assemblies of God, who suspended his TV show for three months. Days later, Swaggert delivered his famous “I have sinned” speech. He was suspended for two years and defrocked.
When Swaggart returned to evangelizing he did so as an independent. In the interim — that two-year period before his “triumphant return” to the pulpit — Swaggert appears to have released little new music. Two albums in 1988 and then nothing until 1990. His output in the ’80s was nothing like it was in the ’70s, anyway. During the 1980s, he averaged around three albums per year. There are 16 albums listed on Discogs from 1972 alone. Four in 1973. Eight in 1974. Five in 1975. Five in 1976. Three in 1977. Two in both ’78 and ’79 and five in 1980. Bonkers. It’s enough to put King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard or Robert Pollard to shame. ADHD much, Jim?
If you want to listen to any of his gospel schmaltz, there’s heaps of it on YouTube — and he has 53 albums and more than 23,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. That’s slightly fewer than the band Toronto and about half of what Prism still draws. Aldo Nova has 100,000 more monthly listeners than Jimmy. It’s actually pretty close to the current streaming popularity of Lighthouse.
The stuff on Spotify basically all sounds the same to me. I went on YouTube in search of the early stuff. It’s hard to find. This one’s from 1973. It’s not bad:
The 1956 album Some Golden Daybreak (catalog #JIM-101) is on YouTube, featuring the 1972 reissue cover artwork. It’s not terribly different from his later crap, but When The Joy Came To Me is good:
Incidentally, Discogs has just one copy of the first pressing of Some Golden Daybreak available for sale. It goes for $50 US plus shipping, in near-mint condition (no shit). You can get reissues for around $1. Most of Jimmy’s catalog is pretty worthless as far as the collectors/resellers market is concerned.
This may have something to with the fact that he had a second prostitution scandal six years after the first. In October ’91, Jimmy was pulled over by a cop in the Coachella Valley for driving on the wrong side of the road (presumably the moment when the joy came to him). The woman in his passenger seat identified herself as a sex worker. This time there was no tearful apology. Swaggart simply told his congregation it was none of their business and stepped aside, leaving his son Donnie in charge.
These days he continues to serve as “evangelist/founder/senior pastor” at the Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge — home of the Jimmy Swaggart Museum. Perhaps it’s a good place to pick up some Swaggart swag and wax. Not gonna lie; I believe my partner and I would thoroughly enjoy this museum, even though photos of it appear quite staid. There are no murals of the Sugar Bowl Courts motel, which has since been demolished. Google Street View shows an aging mound of dirt on the corner lot where it used to sit.
After the second scandal, Swaggart’s musical output waned a little. He put out The Healing Jesus that year, and then nothing at all until My God Is Real four years later — the longest drought of his career.
What I believe I have discovered is this: If you’re a fan of good music — as I consider myself to be — you won’t find much amongst the Bible thumpers. If you want to hear good songs that are Christian-themed but not evangelical, you’re on your own. So I made you a playlist for your road trip to Metairie, LA. Bring me back a T-shirt.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.