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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Little Richard paved the way for generations of stars, but was an icon in his own right

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There was a moment in the documentary Hail! Greet! Rock ‘n’ Roll when Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry get together to talk about Chuck’s run-in with authority.

With his characteristic lack of inhibition, Little Richard asks Berry why he thought he was having so much trouble, and then answers the question himself.

“You were black, and they didn’t want this black image; their kids admired you,” said Little Richard.

“What children?” Berry asks knowingly.

“The white kids. They didn’t want that fat old fat black guy out of Georgia, Mississippi or Chicago, they wanted their kids to see a smooth, pretty white boy,” says Little Richard.

Without knowing it, speaking of Berry, Richard had pretty much summed up his own life. I mean, in 1956, what sensible parent would want their child to watch a crazy black man to sing “Tutti Frutti, Aw Rudi”? And what does it mean “a wop bob alu bob, a wop bam boom”?

But it was the power of Little Richard. Ability to bridge the racial divide.

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Part of the reason for this lay in his style. There was no logic here, just a chiseled expression of excitement, bravado and lust.

To see little Little Richard, died Saturday at the age of 87, in mid-flight had to experience visceral shear excitation. Everything was outrageous. Hair, makeup, scream. And the young people, black and white – but particularly white – understood this.

“‘Tutti Frutti really started racing by being together,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.

“From the start, my music has been accepted by white people.”

An influence for adults

With Elvis Presley, Berry and Diddley, Little Richard created the model for the secular church which is rock and roll. It is more difficult to know who played the greatest role in its formation.

With typical modesty, while receiving an award for all of his achievements, Little Richard claimed that he was the architect of rock and there is much evidence from those who came later that he was right .

Elton John said that once he heard Little Richard, he “understood it”.

Paul McCartney would be almost unthinkable without his influence. To hear McCartney and the Beatles sing Long Tall Sally is to hear a group of white boys pay homage to their hero.

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But his influence goes beyond that. McCartney’s vocal style would echo Little Richard in his own songs, including one that intrigued Charles Manson so much – Helter Skelter.

Prince also owes a huge debt to rock and roller. Never one to back off to the applause, Little Richard told interviewer Joan Rivers that Prince was the Little Richard of his generation, reminding Prince that he wore purple first.

With Little Richard, it’s not just the music or the colors that put him ahead of his time.

It was the look, the femininity and its androgyny. Fast forward to 1969 and watch Mick Jagger strut around the Hyde Park stage in what looks like a dress, with charcoal black makeup around his eyes, and you can see the influence.

Dressed in white and sitting at his piano, Little Richard smiles and greets the crowd.
Little Richard performs at the Westbury Music Fair in New York in 2004.((AP: Ed Petz)

Become little Richard

Despite all the applause and all the influence, life was not easy for the born man Richard Wayne Penniman. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, he sang in the local church. Later, he will say that he was born in the “slums”. His father, he said, sold whiskey to survive, but his father also denied it because he thought his son was gay.

As a result, Richard left home at 13 to live with a white family. Music remained his obsession and he began recording in 1951.

His breakthrough came in 1955. While washing the dishes, he began to compose the song which would become Tutti Frutti, with his refrain “a wop bob alu bob, a wop bam boom”.

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He sent a tape to a Chicago record producer and Art Rupe liked what he heard. The fans too – even if it has to be said that the lyrics have been “cleaned up” a bit.

In its original form, the song said “Tutti Frutti, Good Booty”. It was changed to “Aw Rudi” and another part of the lyrics that said “If it’s tight, it’s good. If it’s fat, it makes it easier” has also been changed.

What followed was a manual under development in rock music with a series of singles including Long Tall Sally, Rip it Up and Lucille.

It says a lot about America that even when Little Richard released his classic songs, many were covered by white artists, including Pat Boone. The Boone version of Tutti Frutti reached number 12 on the cards, higher than the original.

Seventy years later, these are Richard’s originals that can not be forgotten for any reason other than their originality and intensity.

“I think I was the founder of gay”

In every song by Little Richard, there is always a battle. A battle between good and evil. Sin and redemption. A battle between the boy who sings in the church and the black and gay man in the face of violent repression. It was a battle raging in the singer’s head and expressed in everything he did.

In part, this tension was fueled by his own battle to reconcile with his sexuality. At various times in his life, he denounced homosexuality.

In the late 1950s, he was ordained a minister, perhaps in order to flee his true self, but later in life everything changed.

A black and white photo of rock musician Little Richard with his hands about to cheer.
Little Richard in 1966.((AP)

In the 1980s, he said to an interviewer, “I love homosexuals. I think I was the founder of homosexuality. I started to be so bold in telling the world!”

He continued: “I wore makeup and eyelashes when no man wore that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere.

“If you let someone know you’re gay, you’re in trouble. So when I went out, I didn’t care what no one thought. A lot of people were afraid of being with me.”

Looking at Little Richard’s career, it’s surprising to know that while Rolling Stone magazine ranked his signature song Tuttu Frutti in the top 50 singles of all time, none of his records ranked number one and he had no top 10 after 1958.

In truth, Richard’s career cannot be measured by numbers. Influence is what counts.

When the Beatles played at the Star Club in Hamburg in the early 1960s, they were Little Richard’s first act. As they remembered, each night their idol read the Bible before going on stage. John Lennon said he just likes to sit backstage and listen to Little Richard speak: “I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.”

Few can say that they influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Little Richard can and has done it. We have so many reasons to thank him.

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