Tribute today to “Little Richard” Penniman (b, 1932-2020).
Richard’s life and career are an example of the perils and pitfalls of Manicheanism, his life perpetually pendulating between the poles of a decadent lifestyle and Evangelical Christianity. On one shoulder sits the angel of Gospel music; on the other the devil of rhythm and blues. He managed to fuse them musically, but he’s always seemed to have a difficult time living their philosophies simultaneously.
There really was no one more revolutionary or influential during rock and roll’s early years (and I include Elvis Presley) in terms of what I think of as rock and roll’s essential quality which is ABANDON. Richard was and is a singularly weird cat (look at the picture above). While a more or less conventional R & B singer during his early years (1951-1955), he found his sound and his persona with 1955’s “Tutti Frutti” and followed it up for the next two years with a string of similarly amazing hits, characterized by his raspy shouted vocals, percussive piano style, and the periodic punctuation of vocal lines with what he called his “woo holler”. Part and parcel with this untrammeled, nearly terrifying wild-man style, of course was a backstage lifestyle to match, with epic partying, booze, drugs and uninhibited sex with partners of both genders (which will probably come as no surprise when you take into account that the man wears mascara.)
In 1957 he dealt rock and roll a massive blow by becoming Born Again and retiring from the secular music scene in order to devote his life to gospel music and preaching. For him there appeared to be no middle ground. (And when we consider Pat Boone’s version of “Tutti Frutti” maybe Richard was right – -the middle is no place for a real rock and roller OR a real man of God). At any rate, six years later, during a tour of England he backslid big time (the adulation of new groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones surely helped). He came back to rock and roll, and for a couple of years one of his sidemen was Jimi Hendrix. He played nostalgia shows for another 12 years or so, until he was almost killed by fellow rocker Larry Williams (author of “Dizzie Miss Lizzie” etc) in a drug-fueled incident. Which drove him back to Jesus. And so and so.
I listened to Richard’s records incessantly when I was about 19 or 20, and learned to play most of his songs, although singing any of them (at least like he sings them) was certainly out of the question. And singing them like Pat Boone is worse than nothing. This is one of the few cases where the words “We’ll never see his like again” will be completely true.
For more on show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.