The Sound of Freedom: Little Richard 1932-2020

Saturday, May 9, 2020: News leaked that Richard Wayne Penniman of Macon, Georgia — better known as Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “innovator, the originator, the emancipator, the architect of rock ‘n’ roll” — had passed on, a victim of bone cancer according to his lawyer, Bill Sobel. He was 87.

His place of death? Tullahoma, Tennessee – 63.95 miles outside Nashville. Oxford American writer David Ramsey, in a beautiful 2015 profile titled “Prayers For Richard,” indicated the singer had  “reportedly been living the last several years in a penthouse suite at the Hilton hotel in downtown Nashville (the Hilton will neither confirm nor deny that they have a guest named Mr. Penniman).”

“Most Nashvillians I’ve talked to have no idea,” Ramsey continued, “although a local country singer told me he once happened to spot Richard sitting in the passenger seat of his black stretch Cadillac Escalade, the window cracked. He shouted out Little Richard’s name and Richard rolled down the window to say, ‘God bless you,’ and hand him a book of prayers.”

“I came to Nashville to see my sister,” Ramsey quoted Little Richard as informing a crowd gathered at a 2014 luncheon held in his honor at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon, hosted by the National Museum of African American Music. “I bought a home for me and her here in the hills. And I went in for surgery on my hip. I was walking on my way in but I couldn’t walk out. The hip surgery was really bad for me. I haven’t walked since. I’m in pain twenty-four hours a day. I have never seen nothing like it.”

Thereafter, if anyone spotted Little Richard, he was in that wheelchair, his head now bald on top with white fuzz over his ears, wearing a suit displaying none of the sartorial flash for which he’d been known. And he’d be preaching the word of the Lord, displaying a homophobia more apropos of Westboro Baptist Church than the once-flamboyant, self-proclaimed “king AND queen of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“God, Jesus — He made men, men,” Little Richard informed the Christian fundamentalist Three Angels Broadcasting Group in a 2017 interview. “He made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. So much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God.”

Little Richard apparently thought of God a lot in his final years. Or should I say, the Rev. Richard Penniman did? This should have surprised no one. All of rock ‘n’ roll’s early pioneers who were true sons of the South — Penniman, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, you name it — grappled with the battle between Saturday night and Sunday morning. All had been raised in the church, and all had felt the liberating power of barrelhouse boogie and blues. They knew they made the music of and for the sinners. But no one felt the anguish of those conflicting impulses harder than Little Richard. It led to him periodically leaving music to preach the gospel. The most notorious instance? 1957, when he enrolled at Huntsville, Alabama’s Oakwood College to become ordained after having seen a sign in Sputnik flying over an outdoor stage he was tearing up with his demon music in Australia. It’s easy to gather he’d seen his post-op crippling as another sign: God had smote him. The only way to live his final years in peace, then, was to turn his back on Little Richard again and spend his last days as the Rev. Richard Penniman.

But his Nashville residence is most intriguing given the historical context in which he rose to fame. After all, in 1956 and 1957, a good portion of Nashville was terrified of Little Richard, completely unaware that he had honed his revolutionary sound in many of the nightclubs that lined Jefferson Street. For the country music establishment, all that mattered now was that he, and all those good country boys following his and Elvis’s lead, were going to be the death of country music. Bad enough that Presley kid was transforming potential Grand Ole Opry stars into greasy-haired rockabillies every time he curled a lip and shook a hip. As Bob Luman famously said of witnessing a 1955 Elvis Presley gig in Kilgore, Texas: “That’s the last time I tried to sing like Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell.” But Little Richard? Whom all these boppin’ hillbillies idolized and covered, including Elvis? He dressed like a neon peacock, swished like he preferred men over women, had a face-full of Max Factor pancake/lipstick/eyeliner and played loud, raucous noise! And he was, as Chuck Berry sang in code, a “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man!” at whom their delicate Caucasian teenage flowers were screaming and peeing their panties!

Awop bop aloo bop a lop bam boom! It sounded like nonsense to adult ears. And yeah, “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It” — all recorded, released and annihilating the charts within a two-year span — were nonsensical. They were the most rockin’, exciting nonsense ever made. But they were more profound in their own way than the collected works of Yeats or Keats or whomever you might care to name. They were the sound of sex and liberation. Little Richard was the sound of freedom. That’s what scared all these good Christian grey flannel Caucasian parents of 1956 and 1957, the Howard and Marion Cunninghams of the day. It’s what scared the powers that be on Music Row. For one thing, this uppity non-Caucasian homosexual’s shows were drawing white and black teens. They were side-by-side, enjoying themselves. And — Shock! Horror! — perhaps some might have been dancing together. Little Richard may have done as much for the cause of desegregation as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and Malcolm X combined.

Interesting to think about, in these post-George Floyd days, when racism is dominating the news again.

As for the frequently hurled accusation of cultural appropriation, Little Richard often screamed about? Yes, Pat Boone ruined a number of Little Richard classics and charted higher with each one; even King Elvis, great as he was, could not do Little Richard songs justice — his renditions of things like “Tutti Frutti” and “Rip It Up” just sounded stiff and frantic. (His “Long Tall Sally” was pretty good, though.) But be honest: No one remembers the Pat Boone records. They were weak. If you hear “Long Tall Sally” on oldies radio, you hear Little Richard’s recording, not Pat Boone’s. If you have “Tutti Frutti” in your record collection, you have Little Richard’s recording. The real thing always obliterates the cheap knock-offs in the long run. Little Richard won. History will remember him. It won’t even remember the label heads, publishers, and promoters — they’re the real devils of the piece! They’re the ones who worked Little Richard to death and pocketed the money! There is your white supremacy!

But did Little Richard invent rock ‘n’ roll, as he so often claimed? No. Not even Elvis did. Face it — in the six months before “Tutti Frutti” was even recorded, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Bill Haley & His Comets all issued monumental rock ‘n’ roll hits, and the musical stew pot that they sprang from had been simmering for years. What Little Richard innovated was the hard-driving “straight-eight” beat that characterizes the most propulsive rock ‘n’ roll, all the way to punk rock. He — and drummer Earl Palmer, the other hero of those classic Little Richard 45s — pounded the bejeezus out of eighth and sixteenth notes down at Cosimo Mattassa’s J&M Studios in New Orleans. That’s that propulsive freight train rhythm that even Buck Owens tapped into on all his classic Capitol singles in the Sixties. It’s a groove as innovative as Ray Price’s honky-tonk shuffle with the walking bass line. That pounding eighth-note drive is what Little Richard ultimately brought to rock ‘n’ roll.

And here he was in his last days, in country music’s capital, which was so terrified of him in the 1950s. Perhaps the only way Little Richard could live in Nashville was to abandon his dangerous charms and serve God. Was it a survival mechanism? No, that spirituality was as much a part of his DNA as those straight eights. The tension between the two fueled the music that liberated the world. One might even dare say it eventually killed him as surely as bone cancer did. But as he told Time magazine upon the occasion of Elvis’s 1977 death: “I ain’t rockin’ no more, and now he ain’t rockin’ no more.” That’s the saddest thing, ever. R.I.P., Little Richard. 

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