Originally created 01/17/97

Ramblin' Rhodes - Little Richard gets big award



One funny moment of the 1995 Country Music Association awards show came when country-folkie Mary Chapin Carpenter was singing her rousing Grammy hit, Shut Up and Kiss Me.

There was a knock on a door behind her. She stopped the song, went over and opened it.

There, to the delight of the howling Nashville audience, stood Little Richard, known for saying to people, "Oh, shut up!"

"She said, `A man like you deserves a kiss,"' Little Richard later recalled in a conversation in September at the gala opening of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon. "She said, `You know I've been wanting to kiss you all my life anyway.' I said, `Shut up, Mary!' I screamed like a white lady when she said that!"

Little Richard may do some more screaming at the 1997 American Music Awards show (airing at 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, on WJBF-TV, Channel 6) when he becomes the 24th recipient of the special Award of Merit. Tammy Wynette received the tribute last year.

Few male entertainers have been able to pull off Little Richard's special brand of flamboyance without alienating conservative fans.

And few could get away with singing I Feel Pretty as Little Richard did last year for The Songs of West Side Story all-star album benefiting arts education.

There is something so happy and contagious about Little Richard's outrageous personality that makes him liked by even burly, country rednecks.

And what that something seems to be is that the 61-year-old entertainer is basically a good ol' boy at heart. He's a superstar who seems to stay down to earth rather than playing the "I'm-a-star" role.

At the grand opening of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame building, all the other stars arrived in the heavy rain and dashed from their limos to an awning leading into the building.

Except for some quick waves and smiles, they basically ignored the hundreds of fans, huddled under umbrellas, who waited hours behind waist-high metal rails for the stars to arrive.

Not Little Richard. The Macon native wasn't about to disappoint his hometown crowd.

He didn't care about getting his expensive, glittery red and black outfit wet if he could make some fans happy. He went to the rails and worked the crowd, shaking hands and exchanging greetings as if he were a presidential candidate.

Minutes after his arrival, the 1984 Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee told me: "Having this building in Macon means everything to me. I never thought it would be in Macon. I thought it would be in Atlanta. You know, everything that happens big in Georgia, you think is going to be in Atlanta."

It was in Macon that teen-ager Richard Penniman washed dishes at the bus station and set up pins in the bowling alley next to Macon's City Auditorium.

And it was in Macon that he started stirring up audiences at the Young Men's Club on Cotton Avenue and Ann Howard's Tick Tock Club on Broadway with his outlandish performing antics, wild piano playing and falsetto singing.

So it is especially gratifying to Little Richard that he is honored prominently in the new tourist attraction in his own hometown.

"I'm grateful to the Lord that I'm alive to see it," he told me. "That's what I'm grateful for. Most people don't even get to smell the roses in their lifetime. I've been able to smell the flowers and plant them, too!

"Listen," he said turning serious for a moment, "if I had to chose my life over to be born, I'd still want to be born in Macon. There is no place like Macon. When you tour the world like I do, you appreciate a place like Macon."

He also appreciates his good health, his entourage of family and friends and his deep faith in Jesus Christ.

"I reckon some of my looks is the Indian coming out of me," he said. "My mother was real thin and fair-skinned with long, black pretty hair. My mother could have passed for anything she wanted to. If she wanted to have been white, she could have been white. That's the way my mother looked."

Little Richard then reached back to one of his assistants and handed me a thin paperback book of religious philosophies, Finding Peace Within.

"I still believe in the Lord," he added. "You know, most everybody from the South believes in God. It's the Bible Belt. I believe in God. Here's a book for you. It's for free. And here's one of my pictures you can have for free. This book is not a book about racism or nothing like that. It's a book about God and love."

Sitting beside Little Richard that evening in the new Georgia Music Hall of Fame building as he was surrounded by close friends and admirers, I truly felt he had found both.