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Brenda Lee on Little Richard’s Last-Ever Public Appearance

“I think we were seeing the winding down of his life,” says Lee, who received an award in Nashville with her rock & roll contemporary in October

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Little Richard’s music has been a part of Brenda Lee’s life for more than 60 years. When Lee arrived with the first wave of rock & roll as a child star in the mid-Fifties, Richard had just begun recording his revolutionary singles with Specialty Records. ”For a lot of us rural Southerners, like Little Richard and me, we somehow knew, even at our age, that this was our way out,” Lee told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I didn’t think of it that way until I got old enough to look back and see how hard we had it.”

This past October, Lee sat next to Little Richard at Tennessee governor Bill Lee’s Nashville residence, where the two received the Distinguished Artist award at the 2019 Governor’s Arts Awards. Richard arrived in a wheelchair, dressed in a sharp suit and sunglasses. According to a local Tennessee blog, the presentation of his award was moved to the beginning of the evening, and after using “his acceptance speech to preach about and thank God,” he was wheeled away. 

It would be the last time Little Richard ever appeared in public. Here, Brenda Lee shares her memory from that final meeting and remembers one of her closest rock & roll contemporaries.

When I first started out, I used to do a lot of Little Richard songs in my show: “Tutti Frutti” and stuff like that. All of us did. I met him for the first time in the mid-Sixties, maybe early Seventies, when he was performing in Las Vegas, and I was too.

But I had been dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops forever. He had that magical ability with his music to get you off your duff and on the dance floor. How to summarize magic? I remember listening to those songs, and all I remember is the beat, the drive, the excitement. The sound. His presentation. I didn’t understand the words, or what they meant, I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel. I had no clue that he was talking about what he was talking about!

When I found that Governor Bill Lee would be honoring Richard and I with the Artist award, I was so glad, because I had not seen Richard in a long time. I got my picture taken with him and talked to him at the award ceremony at the governor’s mansion here in Nashville. 

He seemed frail, but he had his faculties of mind. We talked about when I first met him when we were both young. We talked about the days of rock & roll, and how everything had changed. It was a nice conversation. I’m sure he’s in heaven, he was such a man of God. We talked about that. 

He didn’t talk about [his health], but you can sense these things about people, and I think he knew the end was near. I knew that he was sick. I was surprised that he was there to receive the accolade. I didn’t think that he would be able to show up, but he did. 

By the time I saw him last October, we all knew it was just a matter of time. He was very quiet and calm. I hugged his neck, and I said, “I’m so glad to see you.” And he said, “I’m so glad to see you, too.” I think we were seeing, without knowing it, the winding down of his life.