Little Richard is the alpha and omega of American culture. And he be pretty—very pretty.
Little Richard's eyes are absolutely radiant. I'm in the bar of the Sunset Hyatt on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, waiting for Little Richard, and the historical irony is not lost on me. His first hit, "Tutti Frutti," coincided with Rosa Parks's letting the whyte folks know she knew her place on the bus, thus launching the civil rights movement. So "Tutti Frutti" wasn't only one of the first "race records" to cross over to the Top 4o, it was a liberating an-them for Eisenhower-era America. Richard's jungle cry "AWOP-BOP-A-LOO-MOP-ALOP-BAM-BOOM!" was the 195os equivalent of H. Rap Brown's "Burn, baby, burn!"— emancipatin' booty in all kinda colors!
But when Little Richard arrives, trailing a royal blue cape—with an entourage of drippy-curled young men who look like extras in a "Let's Not Stop the Violence" rap video—my first thought isn't, It's the Martin Luther King of Rock 'n' Roll; but, rather, That man has got an impressive pair of peepers. His eyes blaze with a white-hot underglow and shimmer with startling luminosity. I've never seen anything like them on man, woman, or beast. And that includes the Chi-inflamed eyes of the seventy-something Gung Fu instructor I once saw roll around in a pile of broken glass during Chinese New Year. As I look into Little Richard's eyes, staring deeply into the stained-glass windows of his soul, I see mania. It's a mania rooted in the divine. The heaven-sent madness of genius.
Little Richard takes my hand. His face beams, those eyes flitting to my tie. He exclaims in a sprightly Georgia accent:
"Buckwee was my frien'!" The pattern on my tie is a collage of the famed Our Gang ragamuffin. "You got my frien' on you!"
"Lil' popcorn eater," he mutters in reverie. "Usta eat up all th' popcorn!"
You knew Buckwheat, huh?
"I knew them all," he replies. "I knew Buckwee an' Charlie Parker an'..." (That, gentle reader, is a magic Kodak moment. Never again in life will you read a sentence linking these two in complete, bald-faced seriousness. Think about it.)
Little Richard cocks a suspicious eyebrow. "Haven't I seen you some place before?"
Yeah, I confess. The Norwalk Oyster Festival. I was the rabble-rouser shouting at the promoters.
"Oooo, buddy!" he rolls his eyes. "I been tryin' to forget that one."
What Little Richard is trying to forget is a rainy night last summer when Connecticut residents gathered to tramp through a field of ankle-deep mud, slurp tumors-on-the-half-shell, and see the King of Rock 'n' Roll for a measly five bucks. Little Richard showed up with a full band, his traveling ministry, and a pair of hiney-shakin' young boys in spandex leotards. Homeboy was ready to turn those yokels out!
Amid clamorous applause, he stepped onto the rain-swept bandstand, sat at his baby grand, and began to play. But instead of delivering the sound of the legendary rock 'n' roll juggernaut, the PA squawked and crackled, and all anyone could hear was the faint tinkle of breaking glass.
I got hot. I paid $5 to get up in that muthafucka! And besides, if that fat slobbering drug addict—that pretender to the crown Elvis—were still alive, ain't no way in the world they'd supply him with a cheap sound system. So I stood up and started screaming: This is a disgrace! If it weren't for Little Richard you would have no "culture" in America! Y'all'd still be jitterbuggin' in 'coon coats to Rudy Vallee's megaphone! Free Little Richard!
The crowd was unnerved. Little Richard looked up from his keyboard and glared out into the audience, zeroing in on me with those high-beam eyes. His expression read: "Who is that knotty-headed fool makin' all that racket?!"
Fortunately, the sound guy got it together. And, trouper that he is, Little Richard went on with the show, managing, at one point, to hop on top of the piano, as he often did in his young lion days. But at 63, with a bum leg caused by a car accident, he had to be helped down by a stagehand. The man wore the crowd down, makin' 'em beg for more with his blustery, barrelhouse-blues style; in fact, you didn't want to listen to his band, you wanted to hear him pump that piano and sing. And he didn't need the two boys poppin' their buttcheeks either, 'cause, well, Little Richard is pretty.
The Little Richard I encounter in the hotel bar is not the preening narcissist known for his outrageous looks and wicked bons mots. Instead, I meet the Reverend Richard Penniman, Rock 'n' Roller, the evangelical Little Richard who believes that "God is the all and all, a cloud by day and a fire by night."
In 1957 Little Richard saw a sign. As the newly launched Sputnik beeped above Sydney's municipal arena, Richard cut short his two-week Australian tour. "This is it," he declared. "I am through. I am leaving showbiz to go back to God." His reasons for dropping out at the pinnacle of his career were both spiritual and earthly. He said his label, Specialty Records, wanted to "buy me body and soul—with my own money!" By 1959 he'd enrolled in Huntsville, Ala.'s Oakwood College to study to become an ordained elder of the church.
"The dollar is not the bottom line in my life," he says today. "I've never made the money that a lot of people have made through my stuff. But I have a joy they will never get. I have a contentment they can't buy....You can't have it all, but you can have some. I like what I just said. Isn't that beautiful?"
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in the Pleasant Hill section of Macon, Ga., the third of 12 children. His mother, Leva Mae, actually named him Ricardo, but whoever filled out his birth certificate thought she was speaking "Ebonics" and translated his name back into English.
"The word 'poor' really don't apply to how I came up," he says. "Po' is the word fo' us. I remember my mother used to cook breakfast. I would go in the kitchen, gettin' ready to go to school, an' I would take the grease out of the pan an' pour it on grits. We wouldn't have no butter, so we used grease. Nobody complained: We was used to it.
"I was the one in my family they told wasn't going to be anything. I used to say to my mother, I'm gonna be famous. An' she didn't understand it. She said 'Boy, git on out here.' But one thing my mother did do for me, she made me study piano lessons." There was a good reason why his mother made him study too. "I would play piano with my mouth," he reveals. " 'Cause I didn't have no piano. My grandfather had one, but he wouldn't give it to me till I was almos' grown. He was one of those folks who wanted to keep everything. Now that I got old, I do the same thing—papers an' everything all up in my room."
Little Richard bursts into laughter. His laughter reveals a silly but very loving man. And a man who's seen his share of tragedy. "My best friend killed my dad," he informs me, the pain still evident in his voice after all these years. "Blew my daddy away in our front yard. Here's a boy my daddy fed, gave nickels an' dimes an' quarters an' fifty cents to. My daddy had a lil' nightclub called the Tip In Inn. An' this boy—my dad caught him stealin' out of a peanut vendor. An' he blew my daddy away!"
He says he first became aware of God's presence as a little boy. "People would come to me for prayer," he says. "My mother thought they was crazy....I would pray for the sick; I would pray for them that God would bless and open ways for them to lift their burdens."
Along with God, his constant companion was music. "Sometimes we be all singin'. My mother be out in the backyard washin' clothes with a washboard. You see Mr. Willie over there singin'. You hear my mama over there. An' you hear Miss Bessy there. It be a big choir. The whole neighborhood singin'.
"There was a guy there we called Cuzzin' Buddy," he confides, "—you know, everybody was ya' cuzzin'. He used to walk down the streets in the evenin' playin' git' tar, down the middle of the street jus' like he onstage. I wouldn't sit on the porch like the other people. I'd run right wit' 'im. He'd say, 'Boy, git out the way,' but I'd be right there 'cause that's what I wanted to be."
More than any other person, Little Richard says Brother Joe May inspired him to become what he is today. "Brother Joe May sounded like Mahalia Jackson. He was out of East St. Louis, Il. They called him the Thunderbolt of the Middle West. He didn't need no microphone. You could hear him twenty blocks down the street. I usta hear that man sing, an' chills be goin' down my spine."
In the heat of the moment, Little Richard is moved to sing a song made famous by Brother Joe May. Unfortunately, the printed page cannot convey the sincerity, special beauty, or simple sweetness in his voice. When he finishes, Little Richard shows the kind of excitement children reserve solely for Christmas morning.
"There was so much feelin'!" he exclaims. "I would jus' have to get up out of my seat, 'cause I would feel it all over my body! When he got through with a show, if you had a burden, it was gone. If you had a pressure, it was lifted. If you was depressed an' distressed, it was out. It was upliftin'. It was very, very gratifyin'. It was—oh my God—inspirin'!"
Another crucial influence was gospel singer Marian Williams, whom he credits as the source of that "high holler" in his voice—the signature scream that has electrified the world for nearly half a century. And I'm compelled to ask what his scream means.
"It's a scream like you been whupped," he answers. "One of the screams I give is different from the other screams. The scream that I scream just before the saxophone player takes a solo is a scream of excitement; but the other holler I give is not. It's almost like a whistle. It's a lonely sound. It's a sound like you need somebody; you need help. You need...." He looks me in the eye and giggles. "You in need, really—and you hollerin' for it."
In the fall of 1986, the year Little Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I had a gentleman's disagreement with Black Rock Coalition co-founder Vernon Reid (who told me if I repeated this tale he would "beat my butt." My drawers are down, Vernon). I insisted Little Richard was the alpha and omega of rock 'n' roll, its beginning and its end. Vernon said no, it was James Brown. Absolutely everybody steals from Little Richard, I countered, from Michael Jackson to the Rolling Stones. No, Vernon insisted, it was James Brown.
Since Vernon's reasons corresponded to the finer points of music theory and my own were rooted in cultural history, we batted back and forth with no resolution. I didn't change Vernon's mind. And my thinking, too, remained the same: Little Richard is a national treasure, like the redwood forests or the Rocky Mountains, the perfect cultural symbol of the best of what America has to offer.
Schooled in the music traditions of the black church, Little Richard entered show business in his teens. He first appeared with Dr. Hudson's Medicine Show, followed by B. Brown and his Orchestra, and a minstrel show called Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam, in which he first performed in a dress. "I was the biggest mess you ever saw!" he says in the Charles White bio The Liji and Times of Little Richard, a book he's not pleased with because he feels it sensationalizes certain aspects of his life and doesn't present solid arguments for his place as rock 'n' roll's "inventor, liberator, and founding architect."
In truth, he underestimates his own importance. Little Richard's personal and professional career encompass the sum total of popular American entertainment. His minstrel-show beginnings place him at the epicenter of the genesis of American culture. The minstrel show was America's first successful form of popular entertainment—a form that evolved into vaudeville, radio, movies, and television. Once you understand that, you realize that Little Richard is a living history of much more than just rock 'n' roll.
You can take his singing voice, for example, and trace the sound back to the plantation slave's field holler, through the blues, spirituals, and gospel to urban sounds like R&B and jazz. All culminating in his signature shriek—a profoundly liberating influence on modem pop music. His scream can be heard in the work of performers as diverse as JB, Paul McCartney, Janis Joplin, the Glyph Who Was Once a Slave to the Evil Time Warner Empire—even in the orgasmic guitar screech of Jimi Hendrix, who used to play in Richard's band. Little Richard's scream is the expression of primal emotions with the power to drive crowds into a Dionysian frenzy. His voice is the true voice of America. He sings for all of us.
Four years after our conversation, I was watching Vemon's band, Living Colour, on The Arsenio Hall Show. As the song "Elvis Is Dead" climaxed, who trotted out from the wings as rock's true king? Was it James Brown? No. It was Little Richard.
I could only assume Vernon had finally seen the light. Perhaps he'd discovered this obscure Little Richard fact: In 1955, after recording "Tutti Frutti" for Specialty Records' A&R man Bumps Blackwell—the man who mentored Ray Charles and Quincy Jones—Little Richard left for L.A. His abrupt departure left his band with a number of dates booked and no singer. So who ya gonna call? Richard's manager, Clint Brantley, remembered a singer/dancer who crashed a gig in South Carolina. Brantley tracked him down and discovered that he was an ex-jailbird who had been busted for theft and "general delinquency." Brantley pulled some strings with the singer's parole officer and put him on the road with the band, billed as "Little Richard." The singer's name? James Brown.
Throughout our interview, at odd moments, the skin on Little Richard's face tightens like the head of a drum, his eyes harden, and his attention is redirected toward another part of the barroom. He throws these strange hand signals, fingers flipping every which way. It's some wild, pinwheeling-eye-ball-Svengali-controlling-his-zombie-minions—type sh*t. And it's buggin' me right the f**k out. So I have to ask what the hell that crazy shit is he's doing.
He says he's signaling the waiter because the coffee is cold. I don't buy this story. But what the hell—the man conducts music. Maybe he likes to control the people in his life the same way he manipulates musicians onstage. So I ask him if he treats the members of his band the same way.
"I just look at them," he answers, "and they know. It's an embarrassing thing onstage to be the one to make a mistake. I give them hand signals. Nothing I do is timed. It's not like Prince or Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen—everything they do is correct. The way I do it is not the correct way it's written on paper. My band knows they have to watch me at all times because I have no set time. They never know when I'm going to stop. They don't know what I'm going to sing. I don't tell them what the next song is."
Why do you do that to your band?
Little Richard looks surprised, then laughs. "It's better for them to not know, an' I jus' sing an' they follow me. By me leading with the piano, it puts me in control. Everything I sing is led by the piano—everything."
His past relationships with bands offer some insight into the severity of his approach. "When I recorded in New Orleans," he says, "me and Fats Domino recorded with the same band: Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, Red Tyler, and Bumps Blackwell producing me for Specialty Records. Bands didn't want to play with me," he adds. "They had never heard nothin' like that. They were ashamed to go onstage with me because nobody was gonna applaud. You out there sayin' 'Awop-Bop-A-Loo-Mop,' everybody look at you like you stupid." He mimes a disgruntled musician with a pained expression: 'You out th' jungle or somethin'?!'
"But the vibration of my generation was different," he explains. "We didn't want what our parents had—the lowdown blues of sufferin'. They was depressed and distressed. Nothin' but blues. I was runnin' from that 'I woke up this mornin' an' my baby was gone.' I wanted my baby here. I didn't wanna tell nobody about the trouble I saw. I wanted a celebration."
In preparation for this interview, Little Richard's manager and publicist, Gloria Boyce, alerted me to two subjects that I should handle with discretion. The first was the Charles White biography; the second was a certain rival performer.
"I can't think of his name offhand," Ms. Boyce says, "but he stole his whole act from Little Richard."
I hazard a guess. Esquerita?
She answers like she's just fingered a suspect in a police lineup. "Yeah, that's him."
Esquerita, a.k.a. S.Q. Reeder, a.k.a. the Magnificent Mark Milochi, was an early rock 'n' roll freekateer. With his pompadour and rhinestone shades, standing at a good seven feet in his patent-leather Cuban stomps, Esquerita was one imposing drag king. He began as a church pianist—according to one published source, Esquerita was an organist with, uh-hum, Brother Joe May—and became one of the legendary unsung figures of rock 'n' roll. Little Richard once called Esquerita, who died of AIDS-related complications on October 23, 1986, "one of the greatest pianists." And that included "Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder, or anybody I've ever heard. I learned a whole lot about phrasing from him. He really taught me a lot."
Given the religious convictions of the honorable Reverend Richard Penniman—who once repudiated the bisexual past of Little Richard by saying "God put Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, in the Garden of Eden"— it's not surprising that he wants to protect the main-stream acceptance he once sacrificed for his love of God and has only recently regained. To approach the history of "a rock that dare not speak its name" was to open a can of worms.
The key to that history was a New Orleans club called the Dew Drop Inn, known as much for its "Baby Doll" acts as for its featuring the nation's leading R&B headliners. It was also the club where Bumps Blackwell first heard Little Richard play "Tutti Frutti," which, in its original form, was quite risque. A history of the acts appearing at the Dew Drop would shed a great deal of light on the androgynous personae of rock 'n' roll, and account for figures such as the Glyph, David Bowie, the New York Dolls, the Cycle Sluts, and, of course, RuPaul. But when I ask Little Richard about the original "Tutti Frutti," alluding to the facts I've just mentioned, he stares at me in sustained silence. His eyes narrow and smolder for a very long time. Finally, he speaks.
"We was young kids full of devilishment," he says. "That was what ol' people used to say: 'devilish.' I never did sing it for the public that much. I used to be real bashful back in that time. I couldn't look at nobody an' talk about it like I'm talkin' to you now. I was real, real, real shy. It's strange to say it, to see me now."
He would have been frightening had he not such beautiful eyes.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Darius James | Photography by: Photofest and more.