By Daniel Garrett
Little Richard, Here’sLittleRichard, Specialty/ Concord Music, 2012
Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard, Omnibus Press, 2003
David Kirby, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll</cite>, Continuum, 2009
Little Richard’s singing is elementally human: brash, intense, rough, he creates moments of excitement and yearning, singing about desire and pleasure. Little Richard’s voice can sound as if it is scraping against his throat; and that sound is one of rowdy experience. His is an American black southern vernacular—with traces of the blues, and country music, and the most urgent rhythm-and-blues—and it is not polite or high-minded, but tremendously honest and it seeps through all the barriers established to protect people from their wilder impulses.
Some of Little Richard Wayne Penniman’s strongest songs are on the album Here’s Little Richard, with the musical compositions “Tutti Frutti,” and “True, Fine Mama,” “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave,” “Reddy Teddy,” “Baby,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Miss Ann,” “Oh Why?,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” and “She’s Got It,” with bonus audio tracks and videos. I have thought often that the limits of the singer-songwriter’s work was its repetition, the repetition of lyric and sound—so that Little Richard, once he had made his original contribution to music and society, ceased to introduce his audience to new rhythms, thoughts, or visions. Yet, on Here’s Little Richard the listener is reminded of the power of his work. In “Ready Teddy,” the furious speed and wailing of the singer’s voice are part of a hard-hitting approach; and in it one can hear a gospel past and a harder rock future. In “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a song about romantic and sexual disillusion, Little Richard’s tone is softer. Yet, his is not ever the sound of refinement or repression. The somewhat slowed-down but rhythmical “Oh Why?” surprises for being about an encounter with the justice system, with police, court, and judge, but that narrated experience makes sense for this kind of voice. “Rip It Up” has a tense, tight, torrid rhythm. Americans of African and European descent were drawn to Little Richard’s music: that is, the music of a minority artist was embraced by a majority audience.
A man who wears glass suits would not throw stones, but he sure can throw light and plenty of shade. Little Richard has been a legend for decades; and there is no one who speaks or sings like him. Little Richard had to be a force of nature: he had a lot of terrain to conquer and there was no established social infrastructure to help him; and he had only his charisma, energy, talent, and will. He is the son of a loving and loyal mother, Leva Mae Penniman, and a handsome, demanding father, Charles Penniman, called Bud, who was a preacher, club owner, a moonshiner, who thought his son was only half a boy, a father who would see the early days of his son’s success but not its full flowering. Richard Wayne Penniman, with a lull in his emerging career, would get a job washing dishes at a Greyhound station after his father’s death, a place of drudgery, travel, and illicit sex. It was the imposed calm of mediocrity within a stormy life. The mid-century American musical scene saw the emergence of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino; and Little Richard Penniman, sometimes referred to as the quasar of rook, other times as its king and its queen, a man whose influences included, among others, Marion Williams, Louis Jordan, Esquerita, and Earl King, was a musician whose sound and style no one had seen before.
Beautiful, eccentric, fast, flashy, honest, intelligent, lascivious, rough, spiritual, trashy, wild, witty, the singer, pianist, saxophonist and raconteur Richard Wayne Penniman performing as the frightening and thrilling Little Richard is a musician’s musician and a pervert’s pervert. Little Richard, who tried out some of his songs in front of audiences before recording them, an entertainer who challenged cultural barriers with his talent, and who for a time would live in Los Angeles in Sugar Hill near boxer Joe Louis, another Georgia boy from Macon, was a concert performer admired by fellow entertainers James Brown, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Prince—and Richard’s gospel singing was admired by Quincy Jones and Mahalia Jackson. Like many African-American artists, Richard Penniman would feel himself torn between the sensual and the spiritual.
His music had given Richard Penniman a new life too. “We were pretty but we were poor,” Little Richard is quoting as saying of himself and his siblings, in David Kirby’s autobiographical musical study Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009; page 30). The mischievous and mother-loved Georgia boy whose odd looks and unique manner—one eye that seemed larger than the other, and one leg shorter than the other; and curled hair, a woman’s make-up, and shiny suits—would augment a talent burnished in churches and nightclubs. Sister Rosetta Thorpe (or the popularly misspelled Tharpe), a gospel singer, and evangelical performer Brother Joe May, entertainer Billy Wright, big band singer Louis Jordan, and, most fabulously, the large-handed South Carolina pianist and prodigy Eskew Reeder Jr., better known as the gender-twisting Esquerita, were some of Richard Penniman’s early musical influences. Esquerita taught Little Richard how to play piano better. Various artists inspired Little Richard toward exuberance and theatricality, the impression and power of wild expression—but his final incarnation, an expression of an explosively sensual spirit, was his own. “One more thing about Esquerita is that, by word and deed, he suggested to Little Richard the slipperiness of boundaries: how, for example, it might be advantageous to be a man at one moment and a woman the next,” wrote David Kirby in the analytical, celebratory, and chatty Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (page 42). Little Richard was connected to the chameleon impulse, the possibility of transformation and transgression, which must have been of special value to a poor and queer boy in a town of music, community, religion, sex, and rage, the violently racist town that was Macon, Georgia, where black males were lynched by whites and black kids mocked Richard for his limp, which seemed feminine. “Who wants to spend your life in a place in which every single moment of your existence has to do with race?” asked Mercer University professor G. McLeod Bryan, who got out of Macon in 1956 (quoted by Kirby in Little Richard; 58). Music was Little Richard Penniman’s way through, way out, and way back.
According to The Life and Times of Little Richard (Omnibus, 2003), the authorized 1984 Harmony Books biography that Charles White wrote with Little Richard’s participation, a biography full of tales of music and arguments, sex, and drugs, Richard Penniman’s first recordings were in an Atlanta studio of songs for RCA, the songs “Get Rich Quick” and “Why Did You Leave” in 1951, with “Every Hour” getting local play, followed by other songs recorded in the same WGST radio station studio in 1952; and for volatile Don Robey’s Peacock Records in 1953 in Houston, in February and October sessions, Richard recorded “Ain’t That Good News” and “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens” and “Little Richard Boogie” and a couple of other songs. 1955 was a significant year in American culture and a significant year for Little Richard: it was the year Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, the year James Dean starred in <cite>East of Eden</cite>, and the year of a riot at an Elvis concert in Jacksonville, Florida. It was not until Little Richard went to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1955 to record several compositions for Art Rupe’s exploitive but necessary Specialty Records that Richard came to the nation’s attention, as among the tunes was the salacious song “Tutti Frutti,” originally a song about anal sex—“Tutti Frutti, good booty/ If it don’t fit, don’t force it/ You can grease it, make it easy…”—which had its lyrics cleaned up by Dorothy La Bostrie; and Little Richard began to be popular with a large audience (pages 235 through 262 in Charles White’s biography of Little Richard cover his recording history). Many of Little Richard’s songs were about desires and pleasures considered profane: and they were received as liberations.
Little Richard would be featured on television programs and in films such as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) on to <cite>Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and more, but his most pointed film appearance is with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley discussing record company contracts, in which the musicians received only a half-penny for each record single sale, in the documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987). Money and sex as well as the salvation of souls were, with music, among Little Richard’s lasting interests: they offered ecstasy, power, and transcendence. Little Richard had a girlfriend named Angel who was a devilish sex vixen who became the practicing bisexual man’s friend, lover, and tool, as much of a freak as he was: “I loved Angel because she was pretty and the fellers enjoyed having sex with her. She could draw a lot of handsome guys to me” (thus the libertine is quoted in 1984’s oral history of Little Richard’s life and career, The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White, originally published by Harmony Books in 1984, then Da Capo Press in 1994, and republished by Omnibus Press, 2003; page 73). When the performer Buddy Holly walked into a backstage dressing room in which Little Richard and Angel were engaging in sex, Holly quickly joined them. Following new religious devotion, Richard Penniman for a time would be married to a woman, Ernestine Campbell, who was satisfied with their married and sexual life but not with his renewal of show business obligations, leading her to seek a divorce.
Quotations from The Life and Times of Little Richard (Omnibus Press, 2003):
“Homosexuality is contagious. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s contagious…The gay thing really came from me being with a guy called Bro Boy, who was a grocery boy. Bro Boy really laid me into that—he and Hester. It started with them and it growed.”
—Little Richard, page 11
“We used to have a group called the Penniman Singers—all of us, the whole family. We used to go around and sing in all the churches, and we used to sing in contests with other family groups, like the Brown Singers, in what they called the Battle of the Gospels.”
—Little Richard, page 16
“There was this lady by the name of Fanny. I used to drive her around so I could watch people having sex with her. She’d be in the back of the car, the lights on, her legs open, and no panties on. I’d take her around so that the fellers could have sex with her. She didn’t do it for money. She did it because I wanted her to do it. She wasn’t very old. I used to enjoy seeing that.”
—Little Richard, page 41
“The tragedy about show business in the early days was that, like me, most performers were young, inexperienced, and uneducated. We just wanted to be away from home and travel around the country. So we were exploited, abused, misused, and just plain ripped off by record labels and managements as they quickly became aware of the money to be made in the early era of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
—Little Richard, page58
“We were breaking through the racial barrier. The white kids had to hide my records ’cos they daren’t let their parents know they had them in the house. We decided that my image should be crazy and way-out so that the adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England an in the next as the pope.”
—Little Richard, page 66
“I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. I would pay a guy who had a big penis to come and have sex with these ladies so I could watch them. It was a big thrill to me. If the girls didn’t think they could take it, I would watch him make them take it. As I was watching, I would masturbate while someone was eating my titties.”
—Little Richard, page 72
“The glass suits—I’ve thrown a lot of those away! Some of them I designed myself, but I had two fellers to make them for me, Melvyn James, from Detroit, Michigan, and Tommy Ruth, from Los Angeles…Sometimes the audience were so crazy to grab them that they cut themselves, trying to rip it apart and get a piece. They had to know it was glass.”
—Little Richard, page 142
“All I wanted was to have sex with the most beautiful women and get high…I used to like to watch girls be with girls, you know? I thought that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
—Little Richard, page 178
“Let’s say a guy comes along and gets friendly with the little boy and says he’s going to french him. The boy has never had that sensation before. He will fall in love with that guy and start hanging around with him. It’s a thrill he never had. And that guy will take possession of the little boy. Control him. And he becomes homosexual, too. That’s what happened to me.”
—Little Richard, page 179
“A habit like mine cost a lot of money. I was smoking marijuana and angel dust and I was mixing heroin with coke.”
—Little Richard, page 186
Richard Wayne Penniman may have had as much practical freedom in his life as was possible for a man of his cultural origin, class, and education. In a society in which a system of money and power and values reinforce each other, a society whose principal documents celebrate the common man while its daily practices either ignore, exploit or manage his interests, Little Richard made music, traveled the world, and did what he wanted to do. He had too much humor and pride, too much confident fun, for his life to be a tragedy, which it could have been. He is admirable for that. Little Richard may have had as much freedom as anyone: who knows? There are different paths to freedom and diverse uses for it. Is rampant promiscuity as dull a routine as the dreariest marriage? Whatever, I think many of the homosexuals (okay, gay people) I have met are tremendously tedious, sharing the larger society’s consistent conformity of mind, despite sexuality, gender, or ethnicity—I always have thought that, but I find the idea of homosexuality and of bisexuality more interesting than the facts: homosexuality interesting for its promise of great intimacy between men and for its traditional social transgression, and bisexuality for its promise of reconciliation—reconciliation of the masculine and feminine within the self and for reconciliation between the genders, reconciliation that might be symbolic of peace with all the world. Ideas are intriguing—and dangerous too: the mind may be the most dangerous place in the world. Poets see experiences and people as symbols but it is self-betrayal (and cruelty) to go through the day trying to live that way. You end up in bed with people you do not like at all. Facts we must live with. Little Richard’s facts, his exuberant talent and extreme eccentricity, make for a hilarious combination—but he would be thought a crazy, vain degenerate if he were not an artist. His presence in the world and his acceptance by the world have been hope for, and proof of, reconciliation in the world.
A man educated by life rather than school, a man who embodied complexities and contradictions, Little Richard first walked away from rock music in the first years of his great popularity, after beginning to have premonitions of disaster, first thinking the wings of a plane he was flying in were on fire: and, while performing at the West Melbourne stadium in Australia, he saw the Russian satellite Sputnik burning through the air, and not knowing what it was, saw the fiery streak as a sign from his god—what rises must fall; and after life is death. He was determined to leave entertainment for a spiritual life, despite the lost money and lawsuits; and he enrolled in the Seventh Day Adventist Oakwood College and married Ernestine Campbell, with whom he was wed for two-and-a-half years. Richard Penniman’s return to show business was intolerable to her. Was his a spirit or a talent—selfish and generous, inspired by ecstasy and power and transcendence—that could be confined for long by marriage or religion? Whatever else Little Richard Wayne Penniman did—such as the albums Pray Along With Little Richard, Volumes 1 & 2 (Goldisc, 1960), God’s Beautiful City (World, 1979)—Little Richard always would return to the applause, money, and pleasure of secular entertainment. The collection Here’s Little Richard is entertainment and souvenir of a remarkable life and talent, but is it art? Does it have that lasting significance? Each of us must decide that for himself, herself. The producer Art Rupe of Specialty is quoted in an interview here saying that if Little Richard had been more disciplined Little Richard might have become someone like Frank Sinatra, the establishment crooner. And there are songs—the bonus tracks, the demonstration songs “Baby” and “All Night Long”—when Richard Penniman’s voice is quite soft, but conventional discipline and expectation were among the things that Little Richard ignored to bring something new into the world.
He was a Dionysus made flesh, a dark screaming Orpheus. On Here’s Little Richard, the rude, insinuating singing of “Tutti Frutti,” a song that retains a suggestion of promiscuous life, its lyrics punctuated with little wails, is one kind of revolution. (The female personas in the song might be actual women or drag queens.) The harmonious male chorus of “True, Fine Mama” is doo-wop, the support for an asserting but pleading lead voice, a voice that has broken with the protocol of suavity, whether personal or cultural. Even the ballad “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave” is direct, urgent, as the narrator refuses to accept a lover’s abandonment. In those songs is the opposite of a beautiful tone: this music insists on the existence of less than ideal circumstances that require an improvised and realistic response. The saxophone interlude is typical of many of Little Richard’s songs, which are boisterous songs whether they are personal or social narratives. A fast, forceful run of words goes through the party song “Ready Teddy,” in which the present moment is all, the sense of immediate experience. Yet, Little Richard’s voice has an almost androgynous ring in “Baby,” an entreaty to a single person, a song full of energy—and tinkling piano and blasting saxophone—that indicates that love is just one more social activity. The singer’s phrasing is very appealing in “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” with hot saxophone playing underneath, in a tune from a betrayed lover’s perspective. The singer’s more controlled inflected tone is attractive, while not losing any of his unique energy. Little Richard hits his words hard, and wordlessly wails beyond the lyric lines, in “Long Tall Sally” about an adultery involving Uncle John, Aunt Mary, and bald-head Sally. Little Richard’s rattling voice asks for a woman’s recognition in “Miss Ann,” with its suggestion of boogie woogie (if he is not off-key in this song, I do not know what is). There is a gorgeous, short introduction to “Oh Why?,” a song about a nightmare of police arrest and a plea of mercy, with some of Little Richard’s most charming singing and the saxophone as a duet partner. In “Rip It Up,” a manifesto of fun and spending money, the rhythm is classic, akin to a chanting, schoolyard rhythm; and “Jenny Jenny” is a wild-voiced address to a woman, offering diamond rings and pearls, with “She’s Got It” a frantic and intense disavowal of a girl’s prudishness. Here’s Little Richard is the music of youth, and part of music history. What might the man have achieved if it he had broadened his repertoire of subject, lyrics, rhythms and melody, drawing on the complexities of his own experience, and changing with the times?
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics</cite>, and <cite>World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for <cite>Offscreen</cite>, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.