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Lisa Torem reminisces about one of her favourite rock ‘n’ roll heroes, Little Richard, who died in May.
There’s a not-so-tongue-in-cheek American expression which goes, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” That statement echoes my feelings about white rock ‘n’ roll and its relationship with the black musicians who preceded them; somehow their extraordinary roles often get relegated to the slush pile, rather than the masthead.
One supreme example of this oversight comes in the form of the ever-flamboyant Little Richard. His songs were covered again and again by white American and British American singers who earned great success; his own career was, however, short-lived.
True, it appears that the first leg (1955-1958) of his career (he would have a major comeback!) ended when he decided to return to the religious music of his youth, but still was he given enough performing credit for his grandiose gesturing and over-the-top image?
Another fan exclaimed, “Little Richard left the tame behind. He was more energetic and emotion-driven than many of the ‘Pat Boones’ that followed. He begged to be imitated; followed, but he was an original who came from ‘that’ era."
Yes. ‘That era’—a thinly-disguised reference to the greatest period in musical history, when performance was wildly rough-hewn, delightfully unpasteurized…
And Little Richard was that pioneer. And the more I read about him, the less surprised I get about his antics. By my account, Little Richard was always edgily frank; it’s just that his body language and bold cosmetics underscored that truth in a way that technology and political correctness has somehow sabotaged since then.
Without the benefit of auto-tuning and airbrushing, Little Richard was, perhaps, the only real deal.
And during his golden years, he was a charismatic marvel who exuded lust and unrelenting energy for his craft. I must disclose that he was way ahead of my time and I only got to know about his act through the Beatles, yet try telling my goosebumps about that trivial aside. See, whenever I’m down, all I have to do is pore through videos of his startling performances and the grey clouds turn to cumulus. Little Richard provides the best non-druggy high any American rocker can hope for.
His was never a “lather, rinse, repeat” routine. That sort of syrupy fare would comfort parents and enrage their offspring later. Before white-breadish Pat Boone gripped the mic for dear life; God knows he had to do something functional, Little Richard proclaimed four words that would turn rock ’n’ roll on its spleen: ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly.’ The way Little Richard toyed with the alliteration in that word-salad made me swoon the very first time I heard it, and, man oh man, it still does. And of course, his playful attacks on the labials ever-present in ‘Long, Tall Sally,’ ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ and his agency and urgent growling on the sadly-too-short ‘Lucille’ made me worship every mascara-laden lash his sparkling eyes flared beneath.
And although he’s no longer here to react, is it a stretch to conclude that the likes of Bowie benefitted from Little Richard’s luminous gender-bending?
Richard Wayne Penniman, who was born in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, was the third of twelve children. Life was stressful. At the age of thirteen, he and his conventional father locked horns. Consequently, he was kicked out of his family home due to his transparent homosexual tendencies. Then, when Richard was only nineteen, his father was shot outside a tavern. Fortunately, Richard found solace in his gifts. Thank God.
And perhaps because his extended family included three devout preachers, the church became his real sanctuary and musical haven. There, he eagerly soaked up vocal gospel music. There, he acquired the ability to rattle a set of ivories and ebonies with mucho gusto.
Now, my pop was once a solo saloon player who also swung hard with a jazz trio. That said, I fell in love with our bulging Baldwin at three. I took lessons from a stranger for a while, but detested the routine, and besides, the foul-mouthed patriarch was always checking his watch.
So I ditched sight-reading and perused my father’s treasured fake books. He’d sit me on his lap, scrawl a few chord changes atop the lyrics and urge me to experiment. Um, I couldn’t reach the pedal. So what? My ambitious little fingers packed enough of a wallop.
Once in a while, for a treat, he’d introduce me to a blistering ostinato. Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that I was some Little Richard, but I am saying that I gleaned something of value from those days—see, I love breaking the rules and the freedom that comes along with that practice.
Now, of course, Little Richard was much more accomplished than I am, and by no means am I comparing myself to him except in this way - Who more happily and successfully broke the rules than he? And someday, maybe I’ll even pounce on the keyboard and land with both feet intact!
In 1955, Richard’s recording of ‘Tutti Frutti’ ramped up the Billboard Charts, reaching No. 2 in the winter of 1956, but not without concessions. When the performer/songwriter’s original phrase, “good booty” caught the ear of the producer, there was concern about the sexual overtones. As such, the producer asked songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie for suggestions. Ultimately, “good booty” got replaced with the more innocent, “aw, rooty,” a slang expression meaning okay.
Ooh. That personnel swung hard. Accompanying the showman on vocals and piano were a tenor and baritone saxophone, a double bass, drums and guitar. ‘Tutti Frutti’ became No. 43 on Rolling Stones’s list of 100 Most Popular Songs.
Little Richard followed that hit up with ‘Long Tall Sally,’ ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’. His style would emphatically influence the genres of R & B, rock and hip hop.
Mirrored suits, deep-red lipstick and charcoal-black mascara. The garish image was deceptive as it served two purposes: the first, was, clearly, to draw attention to him on stage, but the second, was to avoid the heat of white American mothers, who feared that their daughters would find a heterosexual black man way too attractive…
He was an extraordinarly good-looking man with unbelievable style. Dark hair slicked back into a pompadour, fingers pounding a handful of keys, one foot anchored against a smattering of neighboring keys, he would belt out a lyric with his most muscular baritone or luxuriate into a thrilling falsetto. He was known and adored for his vocal acrobatics, which included the reverberating and insistent “woo,” a device slyly pinched by the Beatles for ‘She Loves You’.
Little Richard’s larger-than-life personality attracted movie directors. In 1956, he appeared in the film, 'Don’t Knock the Rock'. Back by popular demand, the next year he was cast in 'The Girl Can’t Help It' and 'Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll'. But the hymnals of his beloved church haunted Richard and in 1957 he left show business, resolving to only record gospel songs. Two years later, he kept his word, when releasing the debut 'God is Real'.
Despite changing musical times, Little Richard decided to make a comeback around the time that the Beatles’ covered ‘Long Tall Sally’ for an early album. The group, who had always been great admirers, performed with him at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in 1962. The chemistry was palpable. The following year, both acts toured together in the UK. During that time, Richard recorded 'Little Richard is Back', an album of rock ‘n’ roll classics, including ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Blueberry Hill,’ the latter made famous by Fats Domino. Perhaps in celebration of his long-time friendship with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard chose to cover “The Killer” hit, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The two pianists would eventually honour their friendship with a duet on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ on Lewis’s ‘Last Man Standing’ record.
Little Richard was known for his contagious sense of humour and transparency. His compelling laugh, alone, could fill a room. The biography by Charles White, 'The Life and Times of Little Richard';, included first-person testimonials about his drug abuse, homosexuality, return-to--church life, comeback and impressions of the music industry.
On May 9, 2020, Little Richard passed on from bone cancer in Tullahoma, Tennessee, leaving many fans and colleagues at sea. Producer Quincy Jones responded by saying, “There will never, ever, ever, be another Little Richard.” Mick Jagger called him “the biggest inspiration of my early teens.” A grieving Bob Dylan confided, “He was my shining star.” Elton John considered Little Richard, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, the only celebrities he ever wanted to emulate. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore expressed their gratitude, too — after all, this rock ‘n’ roll genius officiated their marriage. American movie director Spike Lee somberly remembers Richard as “one of the true creators.”
What is Little Richard’s legacy? He became one of the very first artists to be inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He was in excellent company, sharing that honour with the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and James Brown. A statue is in the process of being erected and placed outside of his childhood home. In addition, many claim that Little Richard was the first artist to cross colour lines. And then, there are those riveting, gold records, which will inspire the most jaded teen. After all, only a confirmed Luddite could ignore Little Richard’s irresistible call, “a whop bop b-lum b-lop bam bom!’
A huge piece of me died when I heard about Little Richard’s death. I realize we are fortunate in one sense; modern technology allows us to relive an artist’s work any darn time we choose it, but we can’t bring Little Richard back. That generous laugh, unflinching candour and warm affect? That thundering, soulful voice and those bad-ass basslines?
Even 3-D/Surround-Sound can never replace the man himself.