When I met Little Richard in the mid-nineties, he was huge. Not tall, although he seemed much heftier than his official 5´10˝, 160 pounds. Not flamboyant, either. His trademark pompadour was cropped to a tight Afro and his makeup was subtle. And certainly not entertaining. No, wearing a stylish white suit, minus the glitters, he sat quietly with a few associates in the hushed lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in downtown New Orleans.
What made Little Richard huge was the knock-your-socks-off gusto with which he welcomed my colleague.
Brenda and I had arrived to tour the hotel’s facilities for a conference. Spotting him across the expansive lobby, she traded her unflappable businesswoman demeanor and for that of an enamored fan. “That’s Little Richard,” she gushed, looking at me with her eyes agog. “Come on!” Before I could respond, she made herself as tall as her five-foot frame would allow and marched right up to him. As soon as she introduced herself as Reginald Ball’s daughter, his brand of grandeur was unleashed.
“Brenda, Brenda, Brenda!” He jumped up and his eyes widened with memories of a venue that had been significant in his rise to fame. Her father had owned Ball’s Auditorium, a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The strong arms she attributed to years of lifting platters of fried chicken at the family business went limp as Little Richard wrapped his presence around her. They talked warmly about her family for several minutes. Everything about him spewed gratitude for the role her father had played in his career.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Lake Charles was a crossroads—literally and figuratively—for Little Richard and others who were paving the way for black entertainers revolutionizing the music scene. They passed through the small city in southwest Louisiana from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis—all points east and north—on their way to and from Texas. It was a crossroads of musical styles, too, for everything from blues and country, to swing and zydeco, and of course, rock ’n’ roll. Ball’s Auditorium hosted a slew of entertainers, and Brenda knew many of them—James Brown, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Etta James, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, and the Temptations.
When I met Little Richard, however, he had traded the Chitlin’ Circuit for Jesus. He was in New Orleans to promote Finding Peace Within, A Book for People in Need, which comes with a print of Little Richard inscribed with, “God loves and cares for you. Please don’t forget that.” I won’t. Nor will I forget that the big Little Richard signed copies of the book for Brenda and me. As you can see, Ron was quite impressed with the signed copy.
Then Little Richard hugged me. That’s when he became huge.