Lee Angel saw a lot of rock & roll history up close.
Lee Angel saw a lot of rock & roll history up close.
Danny Liao

Lee Angel: The Muse Who Had a Front-Row Seat to Rock History

Dancer Lee Angel was midcentury rock & roll's premier muse, a backstage asset who exerted an irresistible force over Little Richard, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Jackie Wilson.

She was both a burlesque legend and the ultimate rock & roll insider — when John Lennon and Yoko Ono got together, Apple execs ponied up long coin and begged Angel to break 'em up — but she would have no part of the sleazy scheme, she has said.

For Angel, it all started as an out-of-nowhere fluke. "It was 1956, I was done with high school for the day and out doing an errand for my stepmom," Angel says. "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 Little Richard's music."

With his "Long Tall Sally" storming the Top 10, the frantic, self-proclaimed architect of rock & roll was pacing the floor in a hotel room when he spied Angel's stupefying physique gliding along the sidewalk.

"Someone came up to me on the street and said, 'Excuse me, Little Richard wants to meet you,'?" Angel recalls. "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 pair's instamatic perma-bond became an almost mythic alliance, one that bred much lurid speculation, due in no small part to Richard's well-known switch-hitting hyper-sexuality and penchant for staging the most untamed orgies. "He'd have little midget women running back and forth around this huge, giant man. All kinds of people," musician Dewey Terry told me in 2001. "But Angel never took part in it, because Richard just wanted her to watch and he made sure that's all she did."

Angel hit the road with Richard but soon found her own career in the arts. "Dizzy Gillespie 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."

She fell in with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the horror-rock wildman with whom she also maintained a torrid lifelong alliance. "I miss Jay," Angel says. "The insanity we had in our lives throughout the years was unbelievable. I left Savannah for Philadelphia and had just started dancing when I met him. We were staying in the same boardinghouse and he was giving me the 'I was the only one for him' line. Then he walked in with another 'only one' and I really gave it to him! And that went on throughout our entire relationship, back and forth."

Angel's trove of high-flying, hard-living memories is as inexhaustible as it is flabbergasting, but even at the most intense moments, she maintains a coolly elegant, very Southern air of reserved genteel. Following some recent health issues (heart surgery and a rehab stint), she bounced back in typically spectacular fashion, tossing her walker aside and hitting the dance floor at a 2017 fundraiser.

Ironically, she was never a big fan of rock music. "I always liked the freedom of jazz when I was dancing. I picked all my own songs and I did it all over the world for 30 years," she says. "I never dreamed I'd have such a life, but I did have a lot of fun."

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