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.
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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.
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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."