In the mid-nineties it was easy to get an acquaintance with Little Richard. All you had to do was haunt the bar at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset where he lived and at one time or another you would find yourself talking to him over a drink…talking about how he discovered rock and roll or a new project…listening and watching a legend perform in front of you, as if you were at Carnegie Hall.
I didn't go to the Hyatt to search him out. I would go for a pre-concert drink before venturing across the street to the House of Blues. When I first saw him holding court there, my jaw dropped. There he was…all made up with his legendary pomp and flashy clothes, as if he had just come back from killing it at American Bandstand. Flamboyantly throwing his hands around with every sentence he preached, Little Richard was everything you hoped he would be. And he even remembered you after a first meeting.
When Shane MacGowan and the Popes were playing The House Of Blues, I took Shane down to the bar…to see if Little Richard was there. And when we walked in and heard his Wop-bop-a-loo-bop voice above the crowd, we went right over to where that sound was coming from, and I got to introduce the Irish songwriting legend to the inventor of rock n roll. Shane professed just how much Richard's music and flair influenced him from the beginning of his artistic journey. How he had never heard or seen anything like Richard before. Richard took it all in…the praise was what always fueled him, made him stand even taller, loom larger….made the warm room light shine off of his made-up face just a little more brilliantly.
When a drunken Irish husband of a colleague at Warner Brothers tried to bust into their conversation, ignoring Richard while aggressively trying to get Shane's attention, both musicians simultaneously told the guy to get lost: "This man has something to tell me," Richard said. Don't interrupt the good tidings.
Months later, the Blues Foundation produced an evening honoring Ruth Brown, Etta James and Koko Taylor at the House Of Blues. It was one of those events where they packed the floor with long tables crammed together, so that the back of each seat was against another at the next table. When the presentation for Brown began and the speaker started talking about the legacy of the woman who built Atlantic records, I started hearing a murmur behind me.
It started softly:
Speaker: "Ruth Brown's musical accomplishments are beyond comparison"
Person behind me: "You damn right"
Speaker: "It was Ruth Brown who brought Rhythm and Blues to a Pop audience"
Voice behind me, louder: "Keep speaking brother"
Speaker: "Ruth Brown's voice was a powerhouse, like no other"
Voice behind me, almost yelling: "Praise Jesus!"
At this point my chair was rumbling from the energy of the person sitting right behind me, from Little Richard. Without warning he jumped off his seat…practically stood on top of it….launching himself onto the stage to sermon about his good friend Ruth. About in the early days how he would sneak in to see her perform–and even got his famous LUCILLE scream from her. He waxed about their times together at the dawning of a new era, when both crossed incredible boundaries with their music. He even sang part of her famous hit, "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean."
Everything before his speech was just a warm up.
On his way back from the stage he gave me a big sweaty hello and we talked, back to back, about his love of Ruth Brown until the meal was served.
My favorite Little Richard story happened after his keynote at South By Southwest in 2004. Everyone knows that the worst part of SXSW is the walk of shame through a packed Austin airport on the Sunday morning. Hung over. Time to go home. I was boarding a plane to take me back to Los Angeles. The line to get on the plane was long and stuck. As I boarded, backpack heavy with demos and body rocked with sleeplessness, the first thing I noticed was Little Richard, sitting in first class, all dressed up but looking pensively outside his window.
The boarding line was at a standstill, waiting for someone ahead of us to get out of the aisle. So I decided to go for it: "Look over there." I shouted, impolitely pointing my finger at the legend in front of me, "It's Little Richard. It is the guy who invented Rock n Roll."
Without missing a beat, Richard transformed, jumped right up on his feet, threw a statuesque pose with his fingers piercing the air, opened wide his eyes and smile and answered, "YOU DAMN RIGHT. IT IS LITTLE RICHARD RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW." Everyone got a handshake as they walked to their seats, and their crappy Sunday morning was made magical.
There is a big, exhausting question as to who really invented rock n roll. Was it Ike Turner when he took Jimmy Liggins' "Cadillac Boogie" and reworked it as Rocket 88? Was it Carl Perkins and Blue Suede Shoes? Or was it Little Richard when he told drummer Earl Palmer to change his drum beat from shuffle to back–on the fly– in the studio when recording "Tutti Fruiti" and launching into a new groove?
None who care will ever agree on when that exact creation moment came, but one thing is for sure…without the genius and flamboyance of Little Richard, Rock n Roll would never have been infused with the showmanship, wreckless abandon and anarchistic fun that it needed to live thrive and survive.
Only Little Richard could do that…and as far as I could tell, he made it known to everyone who was lucky to meet him.