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Obituary: Little Richard, a flamboyant pioneer
Little Richard a flamboyant pioneer who has died at the age of 87, was the self-styled “king and queen of rock ‘n’ roll”.
Off stage, he set the benchmark for wild and debauched behaviour. He was the devout believer in God who indulged freely in the lurid temptations of fame.
On stage, he was a one-man hurricane, the manic piano playing and raspy voice appealing across the racial divides of segregated America.
He lit the beacon of a revolution in music in the late 1950s and inspired a legion who took it forward.
“Mick Jagger used to watch my act,” he would boast. “Where do you think he got that walk?”
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on 5 December 1932. His mother was a devout Baptist with 11 other children. She had meant to call him Ricardo but somehow a spelling error crept in.
His father was a preacher, albeit one who ran a nightclub and sold moonshine. Richard’s early musical influence was the Pentecostal Church. He loved the wild dancing in the Holy Spirit and the speaking in tongues.
As a child he put on his mother’s lipstick and dress to entertain his sisters – a crime for which his father tied him to the bed and made hideous use of a whip.
He was the butt of homophobic jokes at school and walked with a limp due to a birth defect. When Richard was 15, his father kicked him out.
“My daddy wanted seven boys, and I had spoiled it, because I was gay,” he later said.
He began singing rhythm and blues, which his parents saw as “the devil’s music”. He adopted on stage his childhood nickname – Little Richard – despite being 5ft10 (1.77m) without his heels or bouffant hair.
A struggling star
He became a drag act – often forced by the police to wash the make-up off his face – and spent time in prison when a gas station attendant saw sexual activity in the back of a car.
At 18, he was spotted in a talent competition which led to a recording contract with RCA Victor. The resulting single – a ballad called Every Hour – sold well and improved his relationship with his father, who put it on his nightclub jukebox.
But a year later, his father was shot dead outside a local bar. “My best friend Frank shot him,” the singer later claimed. “He was out of jail in a week. We never quite found out what really happened.”
Richard returned home and worked washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station cafe. It was no place for a peacock. “Can you imagine beautiful hands like these,” he would later ask, “messing with pots of rice and beans?”
The way out was music. He developed a wild piano style in the manner of Esquerita, a gay New Orleans performer he’d met at the bus station. Richard began hitting the keys hard, often breaking the strings.
In 1955, he auditioned for a Los Angeles-based label, Speciality Records. Richard was vocally powerful but somehow rather flat. The producer, Bumps Blackwell, abandoned the studio and, in a moment of rock ‘n’ roll history, suggested a trip to a Dew Drop Inn.
Richard spotted a piano and, more importantly, an audience. He leapt up and crashed out a new number: Tutti Frutti. “A-wop-boppa-loo-bop-alop-bam-boom.”
It is a series of explosive yelps that capture the lightning bolts of love. It speaks of the joys of sex with an accuracy that proper words cannot express. Richard delivers it fully charged with electricity. It is a demand to join the party which cannot be refused.
But the rest of the lyrics were filthy. A songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, was scrambled to write with a cleaner version – stripped of explicit descriptions of gay sex.
By this time, their studio booking was running out. “In 15 minutes, we did two cuts,” said Blackwell. “It’s been history ever since.”
Tutti Frutti sold more than a million records. His next release, Long Tall Sally, did even better. In the next two years, Richard recorded 18 hit singles, including Good Golly Miss Molly and Lucille.
He began touring with his band, The Upsetters. Richard was outrageously camp and tremendously popular. His lyrics were suggestive and the concerts often ended with black and white youths dancing together. In segregated America, this was dangerous stuff.
Sin and salvation
Now rich, he bought a mansion in Hollywood. He was openly gay but also had relationships with women. He even married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow Evangelical, and later adopted a son.
Richard blew thousands on drugs, booze and sex parties. Even by rock star standards, his thirst for depravity was high.
But it jarred with his Old Testament morality. He would take his Bible to orgies and later condemn his own “satanic” behaviour. It wasn’t a lifestyle to last.
In 1957, Richard – literally – saw the light. During a concert in Sydney, he saw a fireball in the sky above him. He took it as an instruction from God to repent.
It was actually the Sputnik satellite returning to Earth. But Richard threw his diamond rings into the water, gave up sin and popular music, and pledged himself to the Almighty.
A few days later, his original return flight to America crashed into the sea. It was a sign, he said, that God was watching and had taken him under his wing.
Richard began recording gospel records – some produced by a young Quincy Jones – and signed up at Bible college in Alabama. He was soon asked to leave after allegations he had exposed himself to a fellow student.
Beatles and Rolling Stones
And, within five years, he was back touring. The music promoter Don Arden – father of Sharon Osbourne – convinced him to come to Europe. Richard sang gospel to a lukewarm reception. Then he suddenly let rip.
The crowds loved the old hits. Brian Epstein persuaded him to let a young band from Liverpool support him in Hamburg, where Richard taught The Beatles how to emulate his vocal gymnastics.
A year later, it was The Rolling Stones’ turn to open for him. “Little Richard drove the whole house into a complete frenzy,” said Mick Jagger. “There is no single phrase to describe his hold on the audience.”
In 1965, his band hired a new musician. “I want to do with my guitar what he does with his voice,” said Jimi Hendrix. But Hendrix had his own brand of stage theatrics and, inevitably, the two of them clashed.
But Richard wasn’t writing new hits. Instead, he was drinking heavily and spending $1,000 a day on cocaine. Religious leaders, disappointed at the abandonment of his ministry, told American radio stations to ignore him.
An impossible act to follow
He concentrated on live performance, slipping down the bill as his protégés eclipsed him. But, as John Lennon complained to Rolling Stone magazine, it was risky going on stage after Little Richard.
“I threw up for hours before I went on,” said Lennon. “I could hardly sing any of the numbers.”
In the 1970s, Richard recorded a bewildering range of styles including blues, funk and rock ‘n’ roll. He had little commercial success.
He was held at gunpoint over drug debts and saw his brother die from cocaine abuse. Deeply shocked, Richard turned back to religion. He spent the next seven years selling bibles.
In 1984, he checked into a hotel on Sunset Boulevard and stayed for 22 years. He recorded the odd gospel album, officiated at celebrity weddings and was re-baptised as a Seventh Day Adventist.
Richard’s glory days were over but, in those two years at his peak, he recorded a catalogue of era-defining tracks that helped redefine social attitudes and change the course of musical history.
He was an electric live performer – with an energy and command of the stage which was often imitated but never bettered.
He was a pivotal musical figure in the late 1950s. Elvis called him the greatest, his androgyny inspired the likes of David Bowie and the diamond-studded outfits were snapped up by Elton John.
Richard Penniman came to popular music when it was dominated by gentle crooners. Little Richard was the flamboyant pioneer of a new and more exciting path.
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