On December 5th, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, The King of Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’ Rhythm & Blues Soulin’, turns 80.
Whether or not Mr Penniman invented rock ‘n’ roll as he has often loudly and boldly claimed – and, to be sure, he’s got a better, prettier claim than most – it’s as obvious as the eyeliner around his lips that this son of a bootlegger from Macon, Georgia invented glam rock. Way back in the ‘uptight’ 1950s.
The King-Queen of Rockin’ ‘n Rollin’ may possibly have been inspired in his style by the early 1950s tonsured ‘bad-boy’ TV wrestler Gorgeous George (who also influenced James Brown and Muhammad Ali), but wherever he got it from he definitely stole, to quote Oscar Wilde – he didn’t waste his time borrowing. With his imperious pompadour, his sequinned capes, his outrageous gestures, his shrieks, his full make-up and false eyelashes, he channelled a fun, furious, flaming effeminacy that bore down on the charts like a screaming, squealing steam train.
Wisely, the charts surrendered, unconditionally. From 1955-57 he had fourteen hit singles and three number ones.
“Lu-CILLE! You won’t do your sister’s will!” came blaring through the house like a pack of rabid dogs. It was as if a Martian had landed. My grandmother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, beyond comprehension. The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr Spock hadn’t warned them about this.’
– John Waters
Unlike Gorgeous George, however, the queerness of Little Richard wasn’t just a pose. According to Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell the producer behind his first hit ‘Tutti Frutti’, the ‘minstrel modes and homosexual humour’ of Richard’s original lyrics had to be bowdlerised for the mainstream. “Tutti Frutti, good booty”, for instance, was replaced with the slightly less sodomitical “Tutti Frutti, aw-rooty”. There’s also speculation that the hits ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ may have been about transvestites.
But there was no way to bowdlerise Mr Richard himself. Even in a safe, stay-seated-please film like Don’t Knock The Rock (1956) Richard plays piano with his leg up – fingers working away underneath, his face a picture of anal/vaginal joy, while the white kids lap it up (1:00).
And Little Richard certainly didn’t bowdlerise his private life, at least not during his 1950s heyday. According to his authorised biographer Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard on tour he would host parties that were so swinging they were orgies. He would invite men back to his hotel and enjoy watching them have sex with his girlfriend.
So when racist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council alarmed by his enormous, unprecedented popularity with white teens put out statements on TV, warning that “Rock ‘n’ Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation. It is sexualistic, unmoralistic and … brings people of both races together’, they weren’t entirely wrong.
Little Richard, like many people, had a complicated sexuality. Complicated by both his self-described ‘ominsexual’ tastes – he has had affairs with both men and women – and also by his devout evangelical Christianity, inculcated by his adored mother, which has led him to, ahem, turn his back on his homosexual side for much of his post 1950s life. Unsurprisingly, many gay people regard him with resentment as a result.
He gave an uproarious interview in 1987 to uberfan film director John Waters – whose famous pencil moustache was inspired by Richard’s own iconic lip-fur – in which he announced, not without foundation, that he was not only the architect of rock and roll but ‘the founder of gay’:
‘”I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who started to be so bold tellin’ the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing makeup and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”’
In the same interview he confesses the source of his inspiration for his unorthodox use of his mother’s curtains. Not Gorgeous George, but rather His Holiness:
“I idolised the Pope when I was a little boy,” he says reverently. “I liked the pumps he wore. I think the Pope really dresses!” But there were other, more low-down ecclesiastical fashion casualties who seemed a bigger influence. “There was Prophet Jones of Detroit – he used to walk on this carpet. They would spread this carpet out of the limo and he would walk on it. When I got famous, I had the guys just spreading carpet for me to walk on, and they would kiss my hand… and I used to like to live like that.”
Happy birthday, your Most Royal Magnificent Rockin’ Holy Highness!!
At Muhammad Ali’s 50th birthday celebration in 1992. Ali: ‘The king!’ Richard: ‘I love you. Happy birthday, baby’:
Check out the full length packet shot at beginning:
BBC Radio 2 today aired a documentary about Little Richard with lots of (archive, I think) interview footage with the great man himself. It also revealed that his friend the late 1940s jump blues singer Billy Wright, who helped arrange his first recording sessions, liked to curl his hair, wear make-up and sometimes threw his panties in the audience. So Gorgeous George is right out of the window….
It also reported that a fourteen-year-old David Robert Jones – later known as David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust – attended one of Little Richard’s UK gigs in the early 1960s, at which the showman pretended to die on-stage, before resurrecting himself with: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”