Little Richard nearly died on Route 66

Little Richard this week started a promising series, “Tales from Historic Route 66,” about the Mother Road through West Hollywood, California.

The first entry was about rock legend Little Richard, who nearly died in a West Hollywood car crash in 1985.

Little Richard lived in Room 319 in the Continental Hyatt Hotel — now the Andaz — in the 1980s and ’90s.

He was working on a biography and appeared in the movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” He scored a hit single, “Great Gosh a Mighty,” and finished a well-received album.

He’d just finished playing the part of a preacher in the television drama “Miami Vice” when the near-tragedy occurred on Route 66:

After filming concluded near midnight at a Hollywood studio, he was driving home on Santa Monica Boulevard when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel of his Nissan 300ZX. Witnesses claimed the car was traveling at least 60 miles per hour when it slammed into a telephone pole at Curson Avenue, nearly killing him. Firefighters needed a full hour to cut him from the wreckage while he was pinned between the steering wheel and front seat.

Penniman, 52 years old at the time, was so seriously injured he believed he should have died given the severity of the wreck. His right leg had to be reconstructed – it was fractured in more than eight places, doctors said, requiring 35 pins. The singer also suffered a punctured bladder and broken ribs along with head and facial injuries.

“I was supposed to be dead. Six feet under,” he said in numerous media interviews afterwards. “Everyone who saw the (smashed up) car or pictures of it on television wonders how I could still be alive.” Lying in bed in a private room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he observed, “It tells me that God worked a miracle.”

His recovery prevented him from attending the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an inductee.

Even if he’d died, Little Richard’s place as an influence in the development of rock ‘n’ roll remained assured. Former Beatle and Route 66 traveler Paul McCartney would attest.

It wasn’t the first time Little Richard claimed divine intervention. In the late 1950s, he abandoned music for Bible college after catching a glimpse of the Russian satellite Sputnik. Little Richard lived as a barely closeted gay man who never seemed to reconcile his religion with his innate homosexuality. (Too bad a fellow such as Matthew Vines wasn’t around at the time.)

He returned to music during the 1960s, but something always seemed to hold him back. One music expert I befriended online years ago said he saw Little Richard during one of those comeback tours. Every time he and the audience began cooking with those songs, he’d dial it back and kill the momentum.

Little Richard lived in seclusion in a Hilton hotel in Nashville. He remains confined to wheelchair since what he called a botched hip surgery in 2009. He said he’s wracked with pain. He’s still devout and still proud of his role in rock.

At least two other celebrities saw their lives change after accidents on Route 66.

Les Paul suffered severe injuries in a car crash near Davenport, Oklahoma, in 1948. Paul then began a long career in developing music-recording innovations during his convalescence. Sammy Davis Jr. nearly died in a crash in 1954 in San Bernardino, California, lost one of his eyes, and converted to Judaism.

(Image of Little Richard by Bradford Timeline via Flickr)


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