"I am the beautiful Little Richard," says Little Richard
as he limps to his piano, "and you can see that I am telling
you the truth" before kicking off with "Good Golly, Miss
Molly" and going into "Blueberry Hill," alternating between
his own hits and standards by Ray Charles, Hank Williams,
Bob Seger, and such lesser-knowns as fellow Specialty

Records artist Larry Williams ("Bony Moronie") and, withal,
creating "a dream" that is "a memory of the future," as Greil
Marcus says in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy
and the American Voice, quoting Steve Erickson's novel
The Sea Came In at Midnight, though Marcus suggests
replacing "a dream" with "an art." Good idea, Greil!

That's the way art works for me, or at least good art.
So what's bad art? I know, a memory of the past,
i.e, a memory and nothing more, and you've already had
plenty of those, right, reader? Little Richard only makes it
to the end of a couple of songs uninterrupted by his own
fizzy glee, biographical bits breaking through ("I was out

there when there wasn't nobody!") as well as musical
preferences ("Kanye West is so beautiful! And I like 50 Cent,
but I'd rather have a dollah!"), ads for merchandise ("I'll sign
posters after the show, but only the big ones!") and faith
testimonials ("Don't put a question mark where God
has put a period!"). Also, who else but Little Richard

can say, "I want a big fat white lady to get up on the stage
and dance" and get away with it? ''A big fat juicy white lady—
a juicy one, now! And a big fat juicy black lady, and a big fat
Mexican lady, too"? Before the show, I'd been talking
to Nancy, a registered nurse who has been to perhaps
a dozen Little Richard shows in the last couple of years

and is wearing a shiny red dress that causes her to "slither,"
she says, as, indeed, she slides out of her seat and nearly
onto the floor and gathers herself gamely and plops down
again before starting perhaps her dozenth floorward slide
of the evening, though when the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll
issues his summons for beef on the hoof, Nancy, whom

any gentleman would describe as zaftig, takes off like a shot,
and within seconds she's joined on stage by another twenty
women, most disappointingly slim, though, through
the magic of rock, somehow they all turned plump and juicy
as they bopped and shook. Speaking of magic, the group
that opens the show is called Falling Bones, a self-described

"party band" that wisely plays covers of everyone from
the day except Little Richard: Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Stones,
Johnny Cash. None of the musicians are spring chickens,
but the front man repeatedly and, after a while, convincingly
points out that the drummer has just celebrated his eighty-third
birthday, so I borrow Nancy's binoculars, and he doesn't look

a day over seventy-nine to me. The Falling Bones also say
if it hadn't been for Little Richard, there would be
no rock 'n' roll. Not true! It just wouldn't be as good.
There's always somebody before anybody: John the Baptist
before Jesus, for example, and God the Father before both
of them. I must be about my Father's beeswax, says Jesus,

and behold, "Jesus had a huge impact on Christianity,"
as the student wrote in his freshman paper. Speaking
of magic again, what is in the black bag that a band member
sets down beside Little Richard's piano stool? Nancy has
noticed it during previous shows and guesses that it might
be emergency medical supplies, which is reasonable, being

as how Little Richard has limped out on crutches, though
it turns out that the trouble is with his hip ("the pain never
leaves!"), so that, in his flowing tresses and spangled blue suit,
he looks like a sea god who has been clipped by a passing
motorboat. Nor does he lack for acolytes, not to mention
proselytes, apostles, and epigones, for even were there no star

performer, the ten-piece Little Richard band puts on a show
that would have the dead dancing, fat and juicy or not,
and its sound is big on guitars and saxes, so that it is loud
but sweet, like World War III fought with candy howitzers.
"Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and "Slidin'," "Jenny, Jenny,"
"Keep a Knockin'," "The Girl Can't Help It"—they keep

coming, the hits, so that one might say, as Diderot said
of Leibniz, who is best known for his work in philosophy
but who also contributed to the fields of chemistry,
chronometry, geology, historiography, jurisprudence,
linguistics, optics, physics, poetry, and political theory,
that "when one ... compares one's own small talents

with those of a Little Richard, one is tempted
to throw away one's books and go die peacefully in the depths
of some dark corner." And setting aside for the moment
that Diderot said this not of Little Richard at all, who,
to my knowledge, has contributed nothing to any of these
fields, but of the aforementioned Leibniz, still, it is true

that each of us owes God a death, as someone else says,
and though we may be beautiful, even "old and beautiful,"
as Little Richard describes himself when he engages yet again
with what is clearly a favorite topic, still, as great Achilles
says, "Fat sheep and oxen you can steal; cooking pots
and golden-maned horses you can buy; but once it has left

the circle of his teeth, the life of a man can be neither replaced,
nor stolen, nor bought." All of us will die, some even "fall
dead," as Little Richard says one of the sax players' mothers
did just last week: "She fell dead!" he cries. "Imagine that,
your own mama fallin' dead!" We all want to die in style,
with flowers on the bed table and a scribe to take down

our last words. But then we fall dead: we're making
a blueberry pie for the people that love us so much
and that we love so much, and they're in the other room
reading newspapers and watching the game on TV,
when, bam! There's a crash in the kitchen, and they come
running in, and there you are in a welter of pie filling

and Pyrex, your glasses knocked sixteen ways from Tuesday
and your cotton house dress over your knees. They're grabbing
their cell phones now: "It's Big Mama," they're shouting,
"she fell dead!" I figure the band members are my best shot
at solving the black bag mystery, so as I wait backstage
for Little Richard to sign my poster and they leave

the dressing room for the bus, I ask first the bass player:
"Hey, what's in the black bag?" "Oh, my!" he replies
and pats me on the shoulder. The trumpet player says,
"Hundred dollar bills—I hope!" A sax player may come
closest to the truth when he says, "Aw, that's just his
personal stuff." The security guy warns us not to take

photos or touch the entertainer, but I do want to talk to him,
at least, and I think of Jesus's words to his disciples
in Matthew 10:16, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep
in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents,
and harmless as doves," and so, to be wise yet appear
harmless, I say "Willie Ruth" over and over again to myself,

Willie Ruth Howard being Little Richard's cousin
and someone I'd interviewed earlier this year, so that when
I finally get up to the front of the line, instead of saying,
''I'm your biggest fan" or "you was out there when there
wasn't nobody!" or some similarly off-putting claptrap,
I blurt out, "Willie Ruth loves you!" And Little Richard

looks up wide-eyed and begins to speak, and this time I am
reminded not of Matthew 10:16 but of 1 Kings 19, which says,
"And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong
wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks
before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind:
and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not

in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire;
but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire
a still small voice," and it is with a still small voice that
Little Richard says, "You know Bill?" which is what
she told me he calls her, and I say, "I do know Bill, Little
Richard, and have sat with her in her apartment up in Macon,

Georgia, and even spoke with you when you called her
on the phone that day," and Little Richard's face lights up
and he says, "And you gave her some money!" and I say,
"I did give her some money, Little Richard, because you
made me," and we chat for a while, and then he signs
my poster, but before I go, he reaches out to me, and I stick out

my hand, and the security guy steps up, and Little Richard says,
"It's all right! It's okay!" and he takes my hand and pulls me
toward him, and just then I look over and see the black bag
on a table. Up close, it looks a lot more ordinary than it had
before, as though it really does contain his personal stuff.
But what would the personal stuff of Little Richard be like?

Does the black bag contain a wallet, a comb, a toothbrush?
Or amulets and charms, things you'd expect to find
in the possession of Dr. Nobilio, the Macon "town prophet"
Little Richard remembers from his youth and who terrified
his audiences with something he called the devil's child,
the dried-up body of a baby with claw feet and horns?

Son House said Robert Johnson made a deal with the Lord
of Night. Little Richard's too godly to have signed such
a compact, but how else explain songs that changed
music permanently, a singer who has gone on for more than
fifty years and seems as young as yesterday? Just before
he lets me go, probably forever, Little Richard pulls me

close, and the last thing he says to me is, "Stay close
to Jesus," and I say, "I will, Little Richard." Then afterwards,
I think, Aw, jeez! I've just promised Little Richard I'll stay
close to Jesus! I mean, anybody can say they'll stay close
to Jesus, but how many people have promised that to Little
Richard? Talk about a responsibility. Though when I tell

my son Ian, he says, "Dad, which is the greater responsibility,
to promise Little Richard that you'll stay close to Jesus
or promise Jesus that you'll stay close to Little Richard?"
and I think, having done the one, why not do the other?
Jesus, this is my promise: I will stay close to Little Richard.
Early in the morning, I will see his beauty. Late in the evening,

I will know his love. When "the time going bad now,"
in the words of Macon meistersinger Otis Redding,
when the Lord of Night holds out his claw to me,
I shall not take it, and though I see the devil's child itself,
I shall not be afraid. Should I fall dead, let big fat juicy white
ladies dance around me, and big fat black and Mexican

ladies, too. And should I die in my bed, let him take me
in his arms and let me say, as Keats said to his friend Severn,
"Severn—I mean, Little Richard—I—lift me up for I am
dying—I shall die easy—don't be frightened—thank God
it has come." In the midnight hour, I will know him.
When my life leaves the circle of my teeth, I will know.