Yes, it’s refreshing to write about something that isn’t the C word; it’s just a pity that in doing so I’m bidding farewell to the greatest showman of them all – the first and finest embodiment of an outrageous archetype hotwired into the pop culture of the last half-century. Indeed, there’s a direct line that goes backwards from, say, Marilyn Manson – encompassing the likes of Prince, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Mick Jagger, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the young Elvis Presley – before finally arriving at Year Zero in the incomparable person of Little Richard. His passing comes as the earnest, preachy, lecturing bores who have colonised what remains of Rock have failed to grab a baton that was once passed from one generation to the next in a manner that implied there would always be at least one young and virile incarnation of Little Richard’s blueprint on the go; but so be it. Maybe the death of the man himself at the grand old age of 87 was perfectly timed, for he saw the whole saga from beginning to end.
Perhaps the legacy of Little Richard today is less evident in the musical genre he helped create than in the successful mainstream infiltration of the drag scene that initially gave him carte blanche to express his penchant for the flamboyant and effeminate. From the unlikely TV career of RuPaul to the adoption of visual tropes by the likes of Lady Gaga, something that was very much an acquired underground taste in the early 1950s is now very much over-ground and in yer face. And, at a time when a camp young man caked in cosmetics had to become a larger-than-life, cartoonish showbiz star to avoid being lynched by Middle America – and that’s not even addressing the colour of his skin – the whole non-binary mix & match that has become a chic affectation of contemporary youth is quite feasibly another element of the modern age that wouldn’t have been possible had not Little Richard put outré ambisexuality on the map over 60 years ago.
How he looked was just part of the explosive package, of course. There was the voice as well – a raw, unrestrained scream of joyous euphoria that blew the elegant croon of the tuxedo-clad song-stylist out of the mid-50s water. It’s almost impossible if you weren’t there to imagine what it must have been like to have heard that voice without any prior reference point in 1956 as the string of hits upon which Little Richard’s career was built thereafter followed one another into the staid Hit Parade. ‘Tutti Fruitti’, ‘Rip it Up’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Lucille’, and others – all of which were lyrically subversive celebrations of lascivious sexual practices – rejected that strain of the Blues that wallowed in self-pitying sob stories and instead revelled in its more profane aspects. And, as with Chuck Berry, Little Richard’s speeding-up of the Blues helped the faster, more urgent rhythms of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll cross the racial divide of segregated America by appealing to a generation of white adolescents eager for a soundtrack reflecting their post-war restlessness.
The musical background of Richard Wayne Penniman is a familiar one for a southern black boy born in the early 30s – the church and Gospel. His brief and premature retirement from showbiz just a couple of years after his first hit saw him retreat to his original comfort zone when the juxtaposition of his hedonistic lifestyle and his faith became too incompatible to sustain. He announced he was going to pursue a career in the ministry and would only record and perform Gospel music from then on; and with Chuck Berry in prison, Jerry Lee Lewis in disgrace, Buddy Holly in the cemetery and Elvis in the army, Richard’s retirement was in synch with the general opinion that Rock ‘n’ Roll had been little more than a fad whose era had come to a natural end. However, its popularity hadn’t waned outside of the US, and Richard was persuaded to embark upon a tour of the UK in 1962 – an experience that persuaded him to ditch the Gospel and return to the more secular sounds his audience wanted to hear.
For some of the dates on that 1962 tour, he was supported by an unknown beat combo from Liverpool; they also supported Richard in Hamburg. The band – whose name momentarily escapes me – had a bassist prone to the occasional fair stab at the characteristic Little Richard vocal style in one or two numbers, though Mr McCartney wisely used it sparingly. As the 60s progressed and the acts for whom Little Richard had been an early inspiration gradually eclipsed him, Richard’s backing band proved to be a canny learning curve for future stars, including Billy Preston and – for a brief period – Jimi Hendrix. The short stint Hendrix enjoyed as a band-member was allegedly curtailed by Richard’s concerns over being upstaged by his young guitarist, who had certainly learnt the art of showmanship from the master.
By the turn of the 70s, the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll were enjoying something of a revival, culminating in the spectacular ‘London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show’ staged at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1972 – the first such occasion in which the twin towers had played host to a non-sporting event. On a line-up that featured more or less every surviving rocker from the first 50s wave bar Elvis, Little Richard did his best to outshine Chuck Berry at the top of the bill; and the priceless film recording of the show contains segments of interviews with Richard that serve as a reminder of how the character he had cultivated was as much a force of nature offstage as on it. Indeed, the belated realisation of just how entertaining a personality he could be if given the opportunity to shine before the camera provided Richard with a profitable income as a chat-show guest throughout the 70s and well into the 80s. His huge contribution to the blurring of gender and racial lines in popular culture also began to be recognised as the family tree of flamboyance he planted decades before bore a continuous flowering of fruit.
Richard himself was engaged in a lifelong struggle to reconcile his urges with his faith, seeming to seesaw between being out and proud and denouncing his inclinations; but one only has to see a clip of him from his breakthrough period and to place him in the context of conformism and conservatism that characterised the mid-50s to realise what a fearless, risqué trailblazer he was. Just compare Richard’s original version of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ with Pat Boone’s lame and lifeless cover and one is immediately made aware of what he was up against. As Lemmy later commented: ‘How hard must it have been for him: gay, black and singing in the South? But his records are a joyous good time from beginning to end.’
As far as we’re aware, the death of Little Richard has no associations with any virus emanating from the Far East, which is itself a curious relief in the daily roll-call of Covid-related fatalities. Let’s not forget he was 87, after all, and he’d lived the kind of life most of us would find exhausting to live vicariously via a work of fiction, let alone in his shoes. To have outlasted almost all of his contemporaries is testament to the limitless energy that remarkable individual generated; and his reputation is assured as a man who lit innumerable fuses that have led to so much of what has kept us entertained for over 50 years. As he himself said, A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom…
© The Editor