The weekend was full of sad news, with the coronavirus death toll continuing to rise and the scholarly and loving preacher at our church and our sister-in-law’s mother dying of other causes, and on top of that Little Richard died of bone cancer at the age of 87.
The man born as Richard Penniman last appeared on the pop charts the year before we were born, but his influence on all the weirdness of the popular cultural revolution that has occurred over our lifetimes never waned, and he remained one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mesmerizing performers well into his 80s. He was one of those rare musicians who changed music and the broader culture.
Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Fats Domino and a few others had already scored hits that introduced a a stunned America to the scary sound of rock ‘n’ roll when Little Richard burst upon the scene, but he was the one who fully unleashed the style’s most subversive influence. His music was rhythmic and raw, with a pumping boogie-woogie piano and four fat-sounding saxophones driving a hard beat, and he sang scandalously suggestive lyrics with a guttural growl that swooped to a primal scream. His public persona was as provocative as his real personality, and after he somehow got away with that in the staid ’50s it all the weirdness of the ’60s and ’70s was inevitable.
Little Richard was one of 12 children in a religious family in Macon, Georgia, and grew up in the Great Depression singing the effusive and emotive music of the black Christian tradition, which would always infuse even his most secular music, but he was an unlikely gospel singer. He was a highly libidinous bisexual, and although he didn’t publicly admit to it he adorned himself in silk suits and elaborate pompadours and heavily massacred eyes that left no doubt about his omnivorous sexual appetites. David Bowie and Mick Jagger and Elton John and and Michael Jackson and Prince flaunted the same sort of gender-bending ambiguity in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, and it was considered shocking even by then, and only a Little Richard-sized talent could have gotten away with it in the ’50s.
After Little Richard, all the aspiring rock ‘n ‘rollers in garages across America and the rest of the hepped-up world knew that they could take their music as far to the hard and weird side as they wanted. He and Jerry Lee Lewis banged the piano so hard it inspired all the hard rock styles, from psychedelic to heavy metal to punk. His singing style led to James Brown, which led to soul and funk and hip-hop. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and all the biggies of ’60s freely acknowledge how they idolized and emulated Little Richard, and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan penned a heartfelt tribute in Rolling Stone magazine about the man who inspired him to play music.
Between his heyday and his much mourned death, Little Richard led an interesting life. In the early ’60s he renounced rock ‘n’ roll and his longtime sex life and enrolled in Bible school to become a preacher, and eventually did start effectively spreading the gospel from the pulpit and singing some very compelling gospel music. After a while he started playing that devil’s own rock ‘n’ roll again, and was still damned good at it, and after that he alternated between the sacred and the secular. Eventually he decided to do both, and proved quite good at it.
Time eventually slows down even such inexorable forces as Little Richard, though, and we’ve read that he spent the last decade or so of his life alone in a tiny apartment, emerging only to walk the sidewalks and hand out religious tracts to passersby who didn’t recognize him. We hope it give him some satisfaction that wealth and fame and adoring audiences never did, and he’s arrived at the unalloyed joy he always sought and tried express in his primal music.
Thanks to the miracle of modern recording technology, even time cannot conquer the inexorable force of Little Richard’s music. You can drop an old 45 rpm record of “Tutti Fruitti” or “Lucille” or “Good Golly, Miss Molly” our many other gems onto your turntable, or ask Alexa to play it for you or look it up on YouTube if you’re the newfangled type, and that wondrously rowdy and raucous and rebellious will still come pouring out. We suggest you do, because in times like these we all need to shake our butts to some real deal rock ‘n’ roll.
— Bud Norman