Inside Lewis Ranch
Exploring the Nesbit, Mississippi, Home with a ‘Killer’ View
Story by Robert Lee Long | Photos by Casey Hilder
Driving through the black, wrought-iron front gates of the Southern Colonial brick ranch-style abode of singer Jerry Lee Lewis, one feels more like a celebrity than a tourist.
Envision a black stretch limousine with the likes of Kris Kristofferson or Johnny Cash stepping out in black, pointy cowboy boots and ambling up the brick walk to the front door of the rambling mansion “the Killer” called home.
There were many visitors throughout the 44 years that Lewis lived inside these walls and to 30 year-old Lee Lewis, each one was special. It’s the house on Malone Road with the “killer view.” The fans are returning to the singer’s home after a hiatus of several years, and filing once more through the ranch’s gates, famously emblazoned with a silhouetted Baby Grand piano.
The Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch on Malone Road has once again become a popular tourist destination. Lewis lives just down the road with his seventh wife Judith. At age 81, Lewis still plays several concert dates a year.
His son Lee Lewis, who grew up in the house, is the ranch’s caretaker. He lives just two minutes around the corner on Pleasant Hill Road. “I was born in Memphis but I spent the first 18 years of my life right here,” says the 30-year-old Lee Lewis, officially Jerry Lee Lewis, III, born in 1987.
Sporting a yellow, fuzzy, jazz-style goatee, the affable, good-natured Lewis is more than just a friendly tour guide. He was a witness to musical history. He recalls late-night parties with a virtual “Who’s Who” of the music world before he, as a curious youngster, was ushered off to bed. “Kris Kristofferson has been out here — Kenny Rogers has been out there — Johnny Cash was out here a long time ago,” says Lee Lewis. “There are really too many to list. The thing about those guys is they connect on such a musical genius level. Dad tells a story that one time he was at Graceland and he was playing the piano there. Elvis wanted him to play ‘Come What May’ over and over and over.”
The younger Lewis was also able to give insight into a man known for his raucous, rowdy, larger-than-life personality. “The Killer is a persona,” says Lee Lewis. “Granted, he is a Rock N’ Roller if there ever was one. At home, he is humble.”
Lee Lewis paints his father as a private, introspective man, who, once off tour, would amble into the kitchen in his bathrobe for coffee and take his breakfast to his room. The 30 acres that comprise the Lewis Ranch afforded one of Rock N’ Roll’s most famous originators the privacy he desired.
“It gave him stretching room,” says Lee Lewis, adding that Lewis fell in love with the rolling hills and tree-shaded property when he first set eyes on the ranch, way back in 1973. “From what he told me, he was driving around down here one day and noticed this place was for sale and he says ‘this is where I want to be.’ At the end of the day, this was always home,” says Lee Lewis. “I mean, he’s been married several times and moved around several times, but he’s always come back here,” the younger Lewis added. The home held a “soft opening” for tours in April and tours are slated during the week, upon request, now at $30 per person. Walking through the home is almost like taking a trip inside a time capsule — with blue shag carpet that is.
“We have his Million-Dollar Quartet Gold record and his other gold records, his awards, his show clothes from the 50s and 60s,” Lewis says. “The fact he hung on to all these things is a testament to him.” “His troubles with the IRS are well documented,” Lewis says. “I was here when they came in and tagged everything.”
Yet, Jerry Lee Lewis was able to hang on to some of the most intimate and personal memorabilia. His got his old, upright piano back from the IRS and it never stays out of his sight. The singer has possession of it in his new home. Yet, the spirit of the Killer has never left.
“Everything in the kitchen is original — except for the bar top and the sink,” Lee Lewis says of the intimate, almost tiny kitchen, just off the garage. “I was about five when they put the wallpaper in,” says Lee Lewis.
In Jerry Lee Lewis’ own handwriting is a small chalkboard on the kitchen wall, scrawled in Lewis’ neat cursive. He has left a note saying he misses his “big dogs” and urges visitors in the house to “pray.” He signs off his note with the word “peace,” and underneath it, a hand-drawn peace sign from the 60s. “Daddy is religious,” Lee Lewis says, rather matter-of-factly. “He did go to Bible College down in Waxahatchie, he says that he didn’t get expelled but he got thrown out for playing ‘My God Is Real’ boogie-woogie style. It was all that left-hand work on a piano that got him thrown out.” Fans of Lewis, whose hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shaking Going On,” skyrocketed up the music charts in the late 1950s, have never forgotten the rockabilly singer from Ferriday, La. Parked high on a bluff overlooking the man-made lake that Lewis frequented on his jet ski, his cream yellow 1990 Cornish Rolls Royce gleams in the early morning sunlight.
There are other relics nearby. A vintage 1960s Coca-Cola machine dispenses Lewis’ favorite beverage. A walk inside the “Killer’s” kitchen, reveals Coca-Cola themed wallpaper. Kitchen appliances also date from the 60s. In the den just off the patio and a few steps from the famous piano-shaped swimming pool where the legendary singer entertained friends and family, a pinball machine stands against a wall. “Dude, from the time I could play a pinball machine, I was playing it on this one right here,” says Lee Lewis, with a wide grin. Inside the home is a collection of the singer’s snazzy, sporty shirts, suits, boots and shoes, which includes a gold pair. “Dad has always had style,” Lee Lewis says, as he holds up a silk shirt from his father’s colorful and eclectic wardrobe.
His saddle, a framed fringe-jacket — the one worn in a duet with Dottie West — are on display, along with several pianos. “Aunt Linda and dad played 'You Are My Sunshine’ for the Last Man Standing CD in 2012 on this one,” says Lee Lewis.
In the front parlor, near an ornate white upholstered French-style couch with gold-gilt legs that graced an album cover, is a 1970 Wurlitzer electric piano — the very first electric piano that Jerry Lee Lewis ever owned. Even unplugged, the piano still emits an eerie, almost otherworldly tone.
The ghost of a younger Jerry Lee Lewis still haunts the imagination of legions of fans who tour the house and grounds. One imagines the long-maned singer with his curly, blond ringlets pounding the ivories and kicking over a piano stool on the silent, dark 60s model black-and-white Silvertone cabinet-style television set, positioned underneath a window. The curtains are drawn, casting the room in a pall of mid-morning twilight. The curtains, it seems, are more than just sheer, musty fabric. They hang suspended above the old television like a veil separating this world from a long ago one that exists only in memory.
In fact, the entire home is like stepping back through a time machine. Lewis bought the home in 1973 and the home still reflects that era, with its blue crush shag carpet, glittering chandelier and famed photographs lining the hallways. “The blue carpet is definitely original,” says Lee Lewis. “It’s like stepping on a cloud. Dad says he bought the chandelier in ‘75. This chair was reupholstered within the last 15 years,” Lewis says, pointing to a favorite arm chair enjoyed by his father in the front parlor. It was starting to show a little age.”
Lewis himself shows no signs of slowing down.“He’s 81 now — he turns 82 this year — and he just played the Stagecoach Music Festival to about 100,000 people in ninety-degree weather,” Lee Lewis says with an incredulous stare. “Willie Nelson actually has a song written about him that he outpaces the normal man.”
Lee Lewis suddenly switches the conversation from his father’s music concert tours to the tours he now conducts at the Lewis Ranch. There are personal touches throughout the house. Inside the front entrance, Lewis’ collection of meerschaum pipes sit on a gold leaf, lacquered hotel room desk from the old Peabody Sheraton Hotel in the 1980s.
The hotel was being renovated at the time and it’s thought to be a gift from the hotel management, finding its way to 1595 Malone Road. “They thought Daddy would like to have it,” Lee Lewis says. Lewis’ gold records from the Sun Recording Studio days and autographed photos, including a personal note from Kristofferson, greet visitors in the entrance foyer.
A framed photo of Lewis’ beloved pet chihuahuas, Topaz and Diamond, smile back at fans. A flag presented to Lewis from NASA hangs proudly on the wall. The flag flew on the moon. Lewis holds the distinction of having his music blared back to earth from the moon, one of the only musicians accorded that honor. Apparently, the manager of Lewis’ old rival and friend Johnny Cash leaked word that Cash’s music might be going to the moon. NASA didn’t like the leak and Jerry Lee Lewis’ music was destined for interstellar flight.
Aside from extraterrestrial relics, there is memorabilia from Lewis’ younger days. The Victrola that once belonged to the singer’s parents from Ferriday, La. is included on the tour along with family photographs of “Papaw” Lewis, the singer’s grandfather and other family portraits.
Outside a sliding glass door, Lee Lewis gestures towards the pool, which is in need of repair, and the lake where Jerry Lee Lewis famously broke his leg while jet skiing. “The lake is amazing,” says Lee Lewis. “He had it stocked right after he moved in here, with catfish, bream and crappie. He had a strict throwback policy, so I can tell you the fish are getting pretty big these days.” As the tour winds to a close, Lewis scratches his goatee, and remembers yet another story. It’s as if the walking tour of the house still elicitsmemories and stories from the younger Lewis. “That’s for another day,” Lee Lewis says with a broad smile.