He was a hero to our heroes. By time we came along, he was already a preacher.
Yes, our heroes were born during the war. Roger Waters has made a whole career writing about it, and he broke after the Beatles and the Stones.
You see while we in America were riding the zeitgeist, we were ignoring the heroes of our past, mostly our blues heroes, but they were soaking them up in England, and we ended up with not only John Mayall, but Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green…the list goes on and on.
But on this side of the pond, English blues-rock came after the British Invasion.
Now some boomers were conscious at the end of doo-wop. Some even experienced Fabian and Bobby Rydell. But the Beatles came along and wiped away all that had come before, except for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys, and suddenly music was the focus of attention for boomers across the land, the world, it was kinda like the tech frenzy of the first decade of this century (and the last half of the one before!), music was everything, you had to know about the new thing, hell, Michael Lewis even wrote a book entitled THE NEW NEW THING!
But then it died.
We can debate all day long what the first rock and roll record was. Most insiders agree it was “Rocket 88,” the press often says it was “Rock Around the Clock,” but one thing is for sure, what was happening in the fifties was different from what had happened in the forties. It was a new sound. With Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Fats Domino too, but baby boomers really only knew Elvis, who’d sold out and gone Hollywood, the Beatles of his day, the difference being, and it was a big one, he did not write his own songs. Then again, the Beatles didn’t always either, they covered Little Richard.
So by time most boomers reached consciousness, they thought Fats Domino was dead, the fact that he could be living in plain sight in New Orleans was unfathomable. We all knew “Blue Suede Shoes,” but few of us could tell you it was recorded by Carl Perkins. As for Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin Myra? That eluded us completely, until Lewis tried to make a comeback, when “Rolling Stone” made everybody aware of rock and roll news, and sometimes history.
So, there’d been a rock explosion, that had mostly expired. Kinda like the hip-hop explosion of the eighties and early nineties, just when you thought it was over, it fired-up with a vengeance, to the point it rules today. Pop, mostly meaningless, was dominating the airwaves, but then the Little Richard and early rock-influenced Beatles broke out, and through the door came a whole slew of acts brought up on the same influences. These were war babies, who’d grown up with hardship, they lived for the music in a way no one is focused today, with so many options for diversion.
We didn’t learn of Little Richard and the Beatles’ infatuation with him from “Meet the Beatles,” but on “The Beatles’ Second Album,” which was really the third, VeeJay’s “Introducing” came before, the opening cut on the second side was…
“Long Tall Sally.”
I’m gonna tell Aunt Mary, ’bout Uncle John
Paul McCartney emoted with exuberance. Even beyond that which was exhibited on the hits, like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” It was like he was plugged into a socket and had been shocked. Now they call him “Sir Paul,” but he used to be a scruffy kid from Liverpool, who played the catalog of the original rock and roll of the fifties in multiple sets a night in Hamburg. There’s not a boomer alive who is unaware of this version of Little Richard’s hit, no one today is as big as the Beatles were, forget the charts and statistics, these albums were oftentimes all people had, and they played them until they turned gray, and then bought the CDs and watched the documentary and…
So now, there’s a rock press. Rock info is readily available. And all these English rockers can’t stop testifying about Little Richard. They rarely talked Elvis, they’d mention Jerry Lee, even Ike Turner, but through their lens it appeared that Little Richard was their Beatles, that he meant everything to them.
So we started being exposed to these tracks. Most specifically, “Tutti Frutti.” Huh?
Whop bop b-luma b-lop bam bom
Who knew what the song was about. And this was in the era of one speaker radios and record players, misinterpretation was rampant, and everybody was convinced that there was something dirty in the song, not that they could agree on it.
And then came the covers. Like Mitch Ryder’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
Not that the average person knew it was a Little Richard hit, to most people, Little Richard was just a name. But we knew his real name was Richard Penniman, and what he was selling was energy, with no limits, the power of a sound that not only enticed teens, but drew them to gigs where they got caught up in the energy.
By the late sixties, the turn of the decade, covers became more rampant, and they weren’t always hits. “You’re My Girl” (a retitling of “I Don’t Want to Discuss It”), was the second best song on the Rhinoceros album, and the best was the legendary “Apricot Brandy.” And for those of us who got the memo on Rod Stewart, there was an absolutely killer version of the same song, now titled “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It,” closing “Gasoline Alley.”
But still, Little Richard was not a household name, he was nowhere to be seen. He was an oldie, maybe dead himself.
I met him in this era. With his producer Bumps Blackwell. And the funny thing about Little Richard…
Well, there were two funny things.
1. He was not little.
2. He was always on.
Now if you’ve met many celebrities, you know that oftentimes the character on stage is not the one you get in real life, especially if their rep is built on energy. But it was like Little Richard was plugged into that socket 24/7, who even knew how he slept. He’d fawn over himself, crack jokes and take mock offense at the tiniest of slights. It was weird, because he was an icon and he wouldn’t brush you off but he was always in character, meeting him was an indelible experience.
And then he made his comeback.
It was “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Back when Disney was the business story of Hollywood and flicks were all not high concept blockbusters. You went to the theater on a regular basis, and seemingly everyone saw this pic.
And put a face to the name of Little Richard. And was exposed to his magnetism.
And then suddenly he was everywhere. Even more than Orson Welles. Welles might have made the best movie of all time, but Richard was one of the progenitors of rock, with multiple hits, who could still perform on the same level whenever called upon. His contemporaries acted like old men, Little Richard seemed ageless.
And he became part of the firmament. Someone you always expected to be there. A god from another era here to walk the earth now.
But today he passed.
The news mentioned his son. Which was another point of mystery. Richard was seen as gay, back when “homosexual” was a bad word. I mean who really was this guy, he was a walking enigma!
And yes, he had a thousand watt personality.
But really, it comes down to those records.
Today a track is a means to an end. You build your brand and leverage it. But back in the original days of rock and roll, you didn’t even get rich on your hits. There were no royalties. You made what you got playing live. And if you were African-American, there were places you couldn’t play, and oftentimes white, Top Forty radio, wouldn’t play your songs at all, and if they did, they were covered by some white guy, like Pat Boone.
So, it was about the music.
And the drinking, the drugging and the sex.
This is what a musician used to be. Not someone computer-savvy posting to social media, but someone whose life mostly took place in the shadows. These were people who didn’t fit into regular society, or who didn’t want to fit in, who saw music as their way out.
And they created their own rules. They were renegades, they were outlaws.
And that was the appeal of their music. It was not dumbed-down, there was nothing cut off the edges for consumption, it was all raw humanity, in a way most people couldn’t even express, but resonated with when they heard it.
Now the weird thing is rock history is passing in front of our very eyes.
Sure, there’s the 27 club.
But in the last decade we’ve lost people we shouldn’t have, like David Bowie and Glenn Frey. And before that the inexplicable death of John Lennon.
But now it seems to be a regular feature in the news, celebrities tweet their condolences and everybody moves on. And we no longer live in a rock culture, and a lot of the work of those who’ve passed is not regularly played or remembered.
But Little Richard is different. This is the beginning. This was the moon shot. The fact that this guy was still walking the planet was utterly astounding. And if you missed him… You might have seen the Stones, but without Little Richard, would there be any Stones? Beatles too?
Somehow Richard was not a curio, his hits were stuck in the past, but his performances and his identity were not. Maybe because Richard was singular, anything but me-too. When they created him they truly broke the mold, hell, Richard broke it being birthed. He took on all comers. He could play in any arena. Michael Jackson might have called himself the King of Pop, but Little Richard was the King of Rock & Roll long before, and despite some detours, Richard continued to reign.
The king is dead.
Long live the king.