Little Richard, RIP

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 ┬átheir 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

Dave Bartholomew, RIP

The past weekend was full of news about war and peace and politics and possible economic problems, but we thought the big story was the death of Dave Bartholomew at the ripe old age of 100. It was another desultory reminder that a better century of American musical culture has also passed away.
You have to be an obsessively avid student of America’s glorious vernacular music history to know who Bartholomew was, but if you are you’ll know he was one of the very important guys who made it great. Back in the ’50s and early ’60s the essential American music city of New Orleans was right up there with Memphis as the rocking and rolling-est and rhythmic and bluesy place in the country, with the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard and Lloyd Price and Lee Dorsey and Shirley & Lee and Jimmy Clayton and Professor Longhair and Ernie K-Doe and Clarence “Frogman” Henry and The Showmen making it damned hard for a hep cat music lover to decide where to do his drinking and dancing on any given night. Bartholomew never seemed to mind they were all more famous than him, but in most cases he was the songwriter and arranger and band leader and record producer and session trumpet player and musical visionary who brought it all together, and he was seemingly content that all his peers acknowledged it.
Bartholomew was born in a small town near New Orleans not long after the Crescent City gave birth to the quintessential American art form of jazz, and he started his musical career as as trumpet player in the big bands of the brilliant swing era that soon followed. In ’42 Bartholomew wound up in the Army, where he learned to write and arrange music and put it all down paper while on a very lucky assignment in an Army band, and after that he was pretty much set on his career path. The post-war years proved crazy for American culture in general and American music in particular, but Bartholomew seized the moment. Jazz and swing had given way to rhythm and blues and then the even more subversive rock ‘n’ roll, and Bartholomew knew exactly what to do about it.
Up the Mississippi River in the other essential American music city of Memphis there had always been a harder edge to the music ever since it gave birth to the blues. Such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had piercing guitars and gravelly vocals, and with the unheralded poor white trash Sun Records boss Sam Phillips watching over such poor white trash boys as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis they added that to their country-and-western laments and rock ‘n’ roll was born. Surf and psychedelic and hard and heavy metal and punk and post-punk rock soon followed, for better and worse, but under the watchful eyes of Dave Bartholomew New Orleans went its own way.
Farther down the Mississippi River in New Orleans they tended to ignore the hard times and laissez les bon temps rouler, and hew to the ancient and venerable ┬átradition of jazz, and Bartholomew made sure that New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll kept that up. The white Elvis Presley was the record-setting singer of early rock ‘n’ roll, but the black Fats Domino was always close behind, with his rollicking piano licks and good times feel, and the very black Bartholomew was always closely involved in every hit. He was in on other countless New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll classics as well. As much as we love that low-down Memphis rock ‘n’ roll we have to admit the New Orleans version was jazzier and more sophisticated, and we credit Bartholomew with the occasionally more elegant turns that rock ‘n’ roll has taken since then.
In most of the many decades after that Bartholomew continued to be involved in great New Orleans and American music as a trumpeter and writer and arranger and occasional record producer, recording some great Afro-Caribbean and straight jazz tracks, and he didn’t seem to mind much if he didn’t become as famous as he deserved to be. The most avid fans of America’s great vernacular music will appreciate what he did over his century on earth, at least, and we hope that and his rich musical legacy and God’s mercy will satisfy his considerable soul.

— Bud Norman