R.I.P Little Richard “When you’re rockin’ and a rollin’ can’t hear your momma call”

Trading card photo of Little Richard In 1957, Topps gum cards issued a series of movie stars, television stars and recording stars. He was part of their recording stars cards. TGC-Topps Gum Cards / Public domain

From The New York Times (Tim Weiner):

Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, who combined the sacred shouts of the black church and the profane sounds of the blues to create some of the world’s first and most influential rock ’n’ roll records, died on Saturday morning in Tullahoma, Tenn. He was 87…

Little Richard did not invent rock ’n’ roll. Other musicians had already been mining a similar vein by the time he recorded his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” — a raucous song about sex, its lyrics cleaned up but its meaning hard to miss — in a New Orleans recording studio in September 1955. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had reached the pop Top 10, Bo Diddley had topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, and Elvis Presley had been making records for a year.

But Little Richard, delving deeply into the wellsprings of gospel music and the blues, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before — something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous. As the rock historian Richie Unterberger put it, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.”

Art Rupe of Specialty Records, the label for which he recorded his biggest hits, called Little Richard “dynamic, completely uninhibited, unpredictable, wild.”

“Tutti Frutti” rocketed up the charts and was quickly followed by “Long Tall Sally” and other records now acknowledged as classics. His live performances were electrifying.

“He’d just burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn’t be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience,” the record producer and arranger H.B. Barnum, who played saxophone with Little Richard early in his career, recalled in “The Life and Times of Little Richard” (1984), an authorized biography by Charles White. “He’d be on the stage, he’d be off the stage, he’d be jumping and yelling, screaming, whipping the audience on.”

An Immeasurable Influence

Rock ’n’ roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, but Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen. Offstage, he characterized himself variously as gay, bisexual and “omnisexual.”

His influence as a performer was immeasurable. It could be seen and heard in the flamboyant showmanship of James Brown, who idolized him (and used some of his musicians when Little Richard began a long hiatus from performing in 1957), and of Prince, whose ambisexual image owed a major debt to his.

Presley recorded his songs. The Beatles adopted his trademark sound, an octave-leaping exultation: “Woooo!” (Paul McCartney said that the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” which he later recorded with the Beatles.) Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was “to join Little Richard.”

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From The New York Times (Myles E. Johnson):

Little Richard, who died Saturday, showed us what sexuality, queerness and passion looked like onstage. When he first rose to prominence in the 1950s, it was more common for popular performers such as Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles to don a suit and tie. Even in the 1960s, he was an anomaly — James Brown may have matched him onstage in exuding sexual energy, but the Godfather of Soul’s sartorial choices remained primarily urbane until the 1970s.

Little Richard’s style was a reckoning between the sweaty southern Baptist church revivals he witnessed as a child, and the raw sensuality that characterized jazz and blues. He bridged and made sense of the flamboyance and theatricality of the black church, and fed it to millions of hungry consumers. And he did it all while embracing a femininity that can be directly traced to his queerness.

We often think about the history of rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of white artists and record executives profiting from black culture, but it’s rare we recognize that the musicians being stolen from have often not only been black, but queer as well. Artists like Little Richard are often seen as separate from their sexuality and gender performance, even though those are the very things that informed their innovation.

Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin to name just a few — it would not be a stretch to say that mainstream culture as we know it is a black queer project, often appropriated by others but birthed by black queer people.

One of the primary ways we remember and memorialize our biggest stars is through onscreen dramatizations of their lives; often, these images play a huge part in the mythmaking of their personas. This format is also a common way to erase more complex facets of those figures. In the 2000 biopic “Little Richard,” there is no mention of his queerness, no attempt to connect his gender performance to his brilliant artistry. Likewise, in the 1991 biopic “The Story of Josephine Baker,” there is no reference to Baker’s reported relationships with women…

The loss of Little Richard, the person, is sad. But he remains living through the work of so many artists who followed in his footsteps: Aretha Franklin, Prince, Marilyn Manson, Björk, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and on and on.

Now is an opportunity to show reverence to the artist. It’s also the right time to remind ourselves that black queer contributions have changed the way we live, think and in the case of Little Richard, listen.

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