The Incendiary Talent of Little Richard
An explosive rocker and cultural force, but also a great singer. RIP.
The white-hot flaming center of rock and roll has been extinguished. Little Richard has left the planet at age 87, presumably ascending on a luminescent cloud of joy. So where do you even start with someone like this?
His legacy will remain, fanning out in all directions across a landscape he had a major part in creating. His version of rock and roll music was faster, sexier, crazier and completely irresistible. He has as much claim as anyone on its invention — maybe more. That’s a discussion he can now have with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Try to think of modern culture without the energy he pumped into it. Rock and roll was striking sparks when he first appeared, but Little Richard found the power switch and sent a surge of electricity through it.
His first hit, “Tutti Frutti,” induced permanent psychosis in teenagers across the land and later, around the world. It was simply too much, the pounding piano, the ecstatic screams, and the lyrics, cleaned up but still salacious enough to shock the elders and titillate the youngsters — he was a grand invention.
The giant pompadour resting atop his head was about a foot shorter than his lesser known predecessor, Esquerita, but it was still a marvel of engineering. The next tonsorial statement of that magnitude would be made by a group he influenced, The Beatles. They opened for him on a tour of Germany and took copious notes. McCartney’s screamer “I’m Down” would not exist without him.
Let’s review the evidence of his brilliant assault on all things staid and proper in Eisenhower’s America.
“Tutti Frutti” was the opening salvo of his campaign and completely different from anything that had come before. He used the best musicians in New Orleans to make his records, including drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen. Experiencing this wild man screaming “A wop bop a lu bop a lop bam boom!” and the song that followed had to be like pouring espresso into your energy drink, topping it off with hot sauce and chugging it. Watch his hips on the instrumental and picture parents around the country lunging for the TV controls. As many writers have mentioned, when Pat Boone covered this song lamely and tamely and sold more records, it was white privilege at work.
“Long Tall Sally,” his second single for Specialty, doubled down on his formula of intense gospel shouting, out of control piano with horns and the rhythm section gunning all the way to the finish line. It’s from the film Don’t Knock The Rock and at 1:19 Bill Haley is shown smiling as his career goes up in smoke.
“Lucille” Rhymes with squeal and Mr. Penniman underlines it joyfully every time he calls her name. It’s an absolute gem among the songs he wrote, including the two above and many others. The Everly Brothers recorded this and had a hit with it. Cover versions of his songs would make him rich all over again and make his semi-regular retirements for religious reasons anything but a hardship.
“Directly From My Heart To You” A change of pace, this ballad, cut with Johnny Otis’ Band, showcases Little Richard’s bluesier side and the magnificent vocal talent he possessed. There’s no doubt in my mind that, had he not been an outlandish performer and solid pianist, he could have made it on his voice alone.
“Good Golly Miss Molly” The clip says 1958, the fros and Little Richard’s outfit say otherwise. Who cares? No matter which of his songs is playing, it’s my favorite. Then the next one plays and that’s my favorite. It’s almost beyond comprehension how one man could have so many great songs. This one has a special place in our family as the theme song of a younger Molly we’re all quite fond of.
“The Girl Can’t Help It” Written by Bobby Troup, the wordsmith who gave us “Route 66,” it comes from the movie of the same name. It features Jayne Mansfield as the girl whose smile causes beefsteak to become well done. This song would have a second life in John Waters’s notorious debut, Pink Flamingos. In it, his favorite drag queen, Divine, sashays through Baltimore as it plays. For those easily offended, it’s probably best to bail before you get to the end.
I could go on; there’s so much more. His string of hits in the 1950’s were so groundbreaking it’s hard to imagine how the modern world would look without him. Unfortunately, most of the worst excesses in rock can probably also be traced back to him, somehow. But please don’t blame the man — had he foreseen things like Kiss, he might have reined it in a little. Paradigm shifters always leave a lot of bad imitators in their wake. On the plus side we have those who did something very much their own while building on his inspiration. From The Beatles to Prince, and maybe even RuPaul, his presence is still felt. To do what he did at the time he did it was just plain revolutionary. His skill in making it all look like so much fun puts him in a class by himself. He didn’t toss molotov cocktails — his music and performances were incendiary enough.
There should be a moratorium on bad news for a while, but we know there won’t be. Through the long winter hangover, into reluctant spring, the gloom, the doom, the virus, all the way down to the sad example being set by the man in charge, the gift of music brings me back from the brink. Little Richard’s sparkling tonic works every time I need it to. It makes me grateful to be alive — I hope it does the same for you.
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