Little Richard, New Orleans & Me
In our younger and more vulnerable years, Little Richard and I were both dishwashers. I worked in the back of the house at a Turkish restaurant called Husnu’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1980s. He worked at the diner in the Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia, in the early 1950s.
Another trait we had in common was that we both sang while we worked. For me, it was a way to relieve the tedium and beat the endless steam and heat of the line. For him, it was a route to stardom, international sensation, riches, fame, legend and a member of the introductory class of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records, heard him singing “Tutti Frutti” one day, hired him on the spot and brought him to New Orleans to make a record. They tracked at a tiny studio on Rampart Street in the French Quarter, owned and operated by a failed Tulane chemistry major named Cosimo Matassa.
It’s where Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, Smiley Lewis, Dr. John and a legion of other musical legends cut their first records, made lightning in a bottle, created the musical genre that would change the world – the way we talk, the way we walk, the way we dress, the way we cut our hair, the way we don’t cut our hair, the way we dance, the way we vote. The way we live and think.
Rock and Roll.
I was stuck behind those sinks at Husnu’s for three years, imagining myself a rock star. Little Richard walked out of that Greyhound bus station and became one. One of the Great Ones. A pioneer.
He was the son of a church-going bootlegger and grew up to be a perplexing, truly electrifying combination of Gospel and Androgyny. A Southern vex. A black man with a white man’s pompadour, decked out in pearls and pancake make-up, bell bottom blues and ruffles and lace – the existential incubator from which Liberace, James Brown, Elvis, David Bowie, Prince and Elton John would be born. At a concert in Hamburg, Germany, in 1964, his opening act was an English band that called themselves The Beatles.
Me, I went on the play The Doctor in a locally produced version of The Who’s rock opera, “Tommy,” at the Mermaid Lounge in 1997. That’s about as far as I got.
Little Richard stormed the world, the decades, the road, the charts. He traveled so much that he never really had a permanent home until the 1980s when – slowing down his tour schedule – he moved into Room 319 in the Continental Hyatt House hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, California, where he would remain for most of the rest of his life.
The Hyatt House was the infamous rock ‘n’ roll hotel immortalized in the movie “Almost Famous,” the hotel where John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, rode his motorcycle up and down the hallways. Where Keith Richards once threw a TV out of a window onto the street below just to see what would happen.
Where Jim Morrison’s Doors entourage was evicted after he was caught by security guards hanging by his fingertips from a balcony over Sunset Strip. Where many a small hotel room fire and many more large drug-fueled gatherings occurred during rock’s ascending era.
Yeah, that place. They called it the Riot House. And it’s where I met him. The legend. In an elevator. Little Richard.
A little background: Back before Katrina, I used to cover the Oscars for The Times-Picayune newspaper. Hoping to find a Ground Zero of the Hollywood celebrity scene, I booked a room every year at the Riot House.
I once met Mike Tyson in the lobby. Justin Timberlake flirted with my now ex-wife. I had a drink with Paris Hilton. It’s where I met random rockers and rappers who would later become superstars. Sugar Ray, anyone?
Anyway, I was aware that Little Richard lived at the Riot House. It was a well-known secret. He was known by staff and housekeeping to be elusive, pretty much of a phantom, a specter, invisible, unapproachable, a ghost in the halls.
Nobody ever saw him. Except, every night at 6:30 p.m., a long black limo would pull up in front of the lobby and a trussed, beautiful, shiny black man with a white man’s pompadour and cuffed sleeves would emerge from the back seat with a brown paper bag containing Styrofoam boxes and plastic containers.
Dinner. Little Richard’s dinner.
So, it was around 6:30 one night that I stepped into the elevator at the hotel and, right behind me, followed…him. He didn’t seem to notice me – I suppose this was an everyday thing for him – and he reached out and pressed the button for floor number three.
My first impression: He had the most beautiful skin I have ever seen in my life – on any man, any woman, any mammal, amphibian or reptile. Translucent. His fingers were as long and as smooth as mahogany chop sticks. His fingernails, long slices of incandescent mother of pearl.
Goddamn, he was a beautiful man. Radiant. A specter. And those teeth, that smile. That pencil thin mustache. That hair. Little Fucking Richard. In the flesh. ON MY ELEVATOR.
After seven years of roaming the halls, bars and lobbies of the Riot House myself, I had finally come face-to-face with its most famous, elusive, mysterious, discreet resident.
What would you do?
I could have done better.
I knew he lived on the third floor – everyone knew that – although nobody ever saw him there. Or anywhere. Although presumably he paid his rent on time.
I knew I didn’t have much time. And not being particularly graced with social skills, I knew I had to say something or nothing, and something was the route I took.
I blurted: “Mr. Richard (which was his first name, not his last; dope) I’m from New Orleans!”
It seems this was the moment he first noticed that there was actually someone else in the elevator with him. He was alone, traveled with no entourage.
He turned to regard me for the first time. Gave me a long, slow, up-and-down regard. Then he said in the softest voice I ever heard – not the raging piano king of legend and lore, not the screaming “Good Golly Miss Molly” – but the cotton soft sotto voce of an aging rock legend: “I love New Orleans.”
It was nearly a whisper. “I made my favorite records in New Orleans,” he said.
And that was about it. We got to the third floor. I was on the 10th floor, going up! The elevator door opened and turned and said to me: “It was good to meet you.” And then he was gone. The phantom of the Riot House.
It was good to meet me. Said Little Fucking Richard. To me! The sun rose, the skies opened, the seas parted, a choir of angels sang and Jesus wept.
IT WAS GOOD TO MEET ME!
Hell, we never even really met. I never even got to introduce myself, shake his and say: You are… Little Richard, right?
But I met him, sort of. I saw him. We spoke. I witnessed the beauty of his skin, his voice, his aura, his legend. Little Fucking Richard.
Spoke to me.
He died this weekend at the age of 87. A good run, by any means, to be sure. He changed the world with his music, his songs, his words, his antics, his glory and his beauty. And during a three-story elevator ride in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood a long, long time ago, he touched me.
Not literally, though. Even long before anti-social distancing, I would have loved to have reached out and shook his hand, felt those soft, strong, supple, gentle, wild, epic, life-altering piano banging hands of his.
That dude was the kind of cool they don’t make any more. Because, who the hell gets to change these days?