Two Atlanta performers remember their days with Little Richard

Little Richard brings in 2003 at Underground Atlanta’s 17th annual Peach Drop on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002. The Macon native and music icon died Saturday, May 9. (BARRY WILLIAMS/AJC FILE PHOTO)

Little Richard taught Marietta musician James “Big Jaye” Nelson many lessons during 16 years of touring.

“James, you must perform: from the outhouse to the White House,” the quasar of rock ’n’ roll was fond of saying.

Nelson took the instruction to heart. From 1990 onward, Nelson and his colleague Shawn “Swift Andre” Johnson danced and sang as part of Little Richard’s stage show, “from President Clinton’s inauguration to New Year’s Eve at the Monte Carlo sports club with Prince Albert, to Super Bowl parties with Bill Gates, to countless world tours. We played all over the world, from Brazil to the South of France to Madison Square Garden and the Forum in L.A.”

Nelson said he never saw Richard Penniman looking anything but sharp. “You must perform” meant you must look good and you must be ready, no matter where you are.

Since the death of Little Richard last week at age 87, Nelson and Johnson have been reflecting on those years, and those lessons learned. “I’ve never seen him not ready,” said Nelson, 51. “He wasn’t like some blue jeans and tennis shoes guy. He woke up and went to bed looking like Little Richard.”

James "Big Jaye" Nelson performs onstage with Little Richard. CONTRIBUTED: JAMES NELSON

Back in 1990, Nelson and Johnson were two teenagers “from the ghetto” in Knoxville, Tennessee, partners in a dancing and singing act called Dynasty that borrowed heavily from New Edition.

They won talent shows and singing contests, and even appeared on a television talent search program. They decided they needed to go to Hollywood to seek their fortune and bought bus tickets to the West Coast.

Walking down Sunset Boulevard past the Hyatt hotel, they heard a familiar voice and looked up to see Little Richard waving from his hotel room. “Little Richard literally said ‘hello’ off his balcony,” said Johnson.

Shawn "Swift Andre" Johnson, a one-time dancer with Little Richard's stage show, performs today with the Christian rock band Hope's Anchor. CONTRIBUTED: SHAWN JOHNSON

They shouted up to him that they wanted an autograph, and Johnson explained, somewhat inelegantly, “My grandmother listened to your music her whole life.”

The moment the star opened his hotel room door, the two launched into one of their dance routines. Richard was charmed.

Sometime later he invited them to dance at his homecoming show in Macon, and they performed on stage with him. After that they had steady work.


» RELATED: Macon native, music icon Little Richard dies at 87


Nelson said there were 27 people in the Little Richard entourage, including bassist Charles Glenn, Guy Higginbotham on saxophone, guitarist and bandleader Travis Wammack and his son Travis Jr. on drums.

Richard’s delight was to gather his troupe after the show and regale them with stories. “He’d make us laugh for two hours,” said Johnson.


» PHOTOS: Little Richard through the years


Though they were playing songs from the 1950s that had peaked a half-century earlier — “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Rip It Up,” “Tutti Frutti” — every member of the group was thrilled to be on the Little Richard rocket ship.

“You come off stage soaking wet,” said Johnson, “and we would all say in sync, ‘I can’t believe we’re on tour with Little Richard!’”


» RELATED: World reacts to death of Macon native Little Richard


Both dancers were frequently impressed by the celebrities waiting to meet Richard after shows: Gene Simmons of Kiss at the Greek Theatre; Joe Perry of Aerosmith at South by Southwest; Bob Dylan at a show in Finland.

Today, Johnson is a volunteer worship leader at Revolution Church in Canton and also leads a Christian rock band, Hope's Anchor.

Nelson writes songs and performs with his band Poetry Thieves.

James "Big Jaye" Nelson, performs today with his band Poetry Thieves. CONTRIBUTED: JAMES NELSON

Both said the influence of Little Richard will stay with them permanently.

"An interviewer once asked me what it was like to play with Little Richard, and I pointed at myself,"
 said Nelson. "They looked and saw these shiny Christian Louboutin shoes. I said, 'I've been trying to shake the glitter off for 10 years.' It becomes part of your life. If you're in the sun, you're going to get a suntan."

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