RIP Lee Angel 1940-2022
Farewell to the Original Girl Can't Help It
Lee Angel, the legendary burlesque dancer and rock & roll’s penultimate coconspirator, caught the Glory Train home on April 3, 2022. Her life was one of tumult and exalt, played out against the lurid backdrop of mid-20th century American pop culture with a wild cast of characters headlined by Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jackie Wilson—instantaneously initiating close alliances and ongoing rivalries that were lifelong for all.
Born Audrey Sherborne on January 12, 1940, in Savannah, Georgia, she truly was the original Girl Can’t Help It, and when a restless Little Richard happened to glance out his hotel room window and caught sight of the teenager’s spectacular physique—a 50 inch bust and 20 inch waist—both their lives changed.
“It was 1956, and all the kids were excited about the big dance that night with Little Richard, but they said, 'We know you won't be there'—because I hated Richard's music,” Angel told me in 2018. “I was done with high school for the day and out doing an errand for my stepmom. . . Someone came up to me on the street and said, 'Excuse me, Little Richard wants to meet you,' I said, 'Does he know I'm a girl?' Curiosity kicked in, as usual, and I walked in that room, took one look at Richard, and we're still close 68 years later.”
The ka-pow was as unlikely as it was undeniable and she happily left Savannah to travel with him. Ironically, Angel was a deep jazz fan, and she counted bebop giants Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie as personal mentors; Rollins urged her to ditch her Savannah drawl for the dulcet, measured speech of a high-born lady—Angel’s signature style (one which Tina Turner, not so successfully, copped from Angel). As for Diz, Angel said, “He was the one who really gave me the clue to start dancing. I was in Nashville and went to hear him play. 'Night in Tunisia' started the whole thing—I was dancing with someone and all of a sudden I was floating in air. Dizzy brought me up onstage, said, 'You're a dancer, now become a musician' — he wanted me to be like a saxophone, another instrument in the band.”
Richard’s career was at screaming frenzy pitch and, with Angel, his infamously skewed accro-sexuality manifested itself in bizarre tease and denial rituals: he’d mount extravagant orgies which she had to attend but was forbidden to participate in. As Dewey Terry, who frequently toured with Richard, said “Richard just wanted her to watch, and he made sure that's all she did.”
The practice naturally exacerbated both intense frustration and roiling lust. After Richard ditched secular big beat for the strictly spiritual in late 1957, Angel made dance her profession and prodigiously worked the national burley-que circuit, with Hawkins (between Alan Freed show coffin emergences) in hot and eager pursuit while his more urbane competitor Wilson would routinely dispatch bodyguards to ‘kidnap’ her.
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Angel became a fabled muse and unsurpassed object of desire among show business’ top ranking habitués. Accordingly, she cultivated a hard-to-get Hellcat persona, and her encounters with high-profile suitors uniformly ended with her wardrobe in tatters, arriving back at her hotel the next morning, as she frequently recalled, clad in Sammy Davis Jr.’s pajamas or one of Frank Sinatra’s dress shirts. Her notoriety as supercharged inamorata led executives at Apple Records to fly her to London and offer a considerable sum if she would deign to break up John and Yoko; she declined.
Between dance engagements, she toured with the roadshows of soul/R&B royalty (James Brown, LaVern Baker the Jackson 5, Etta James) and developed a sustained reputation as a sage insider capable of stewarding interventions for crack enslaved musicians, a sympathetic shoulder to cry on in any adverse circumstance.
Richard was a constant presence in her life and after he got hot again during the early 70s rock revival, she spent most of her time at his side. Richard had hardly mellowed; at one point he kept insisting he knew Angel was going to secretly dose him with LSD, an assertion that quickly reached ‘don’t throw me in that briar patch’ altitude—she realized he wanted to try it. So, she slipped him some acid, everything seemed fine and she went to bed; hours later she awoke to hear Richard on the phone berating a promoter who was hesitant to supply the singer with a private jet, climaxing with “If you don’t like it, you can kiss my ass—and if you think I have a pussy, well, you can kiss that too!”
By the turn of the century, Hawkins was living in Paris, but still pursued her—via fax, of all formats, advances rebuffed by the chronically hard-to-get Angel as so much hot air. In February 2000, she received a final transmission, with the song lyric “All right, Okay, You win, I’m in love with you” scrawled in magic marker. He died the following day. Richard moved out of the Hyatt House to Tennessee and Angel fell into poverty.
Health failing, she and I discussed collaborating on her autobiography but the stars did not align. After undergoing heart surgery and a month-long rehab stint in 2017, Angel returned home, penniless, to find her utilities had been shut off. A hastily arranged fundraiser (featuring Richard’s original drummer Charles ‘Keep A-Knockin’’ Connor among numerous other acts) provided some relief; Angel was in high spirits and when Connor took the riser, she cast off her walker and hit the dance floor, as graceful and beguiling as ever.
It was an electrifying moment but one that, considering her monumental life in entertainment, paled to insignificance. Farewell, Angel.