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Little Richard rocked the music in all the right ways

By on March 29, 2021 0

Little Richard
on Saturday May 9, 2020 in Tullahoma, Tennessee, at the age of 87. This essay was originally published as part of the bookGood Booty: love and sex, black and white, body and soul in American music
, written by critic and NPR Music correspondent Ann Powers and published by Dey Street Books in 2017.

Elvis’ two greatest contemporaries were Little Richard and Buddy Holly, each standing on either end of the spectrum on which nonsense thrived. The King of Memphis claimed the right balance between the two extremes of his rivals: the strategic outrage of Richard Wayne Penniman, the original Black Weirdo, shattering all seams apparently for hell, but really as a way to share secrets underground of two centuries. value of racial and sexual mavericks; and the shy, bespectacled Charles Hardin Holley, archetypal White Nerd, stumbling over his words and music as a way to get them into shape. Little Richard represented what happens to unspeakable desires after they are unearthed from the land where society has buried them. Buddy Holly’s song embodied longing in training: thoughts that seem untold because they have never been spoken before. Elvis came across as wiser than Holly and more innocent than Little Richard. All had the same basic mandate: to transform feelings of fear into pleasure.

Richard Penniman was out of control early in his life in Macon, Georgia, a queer little boy whose penchant for dressing “handsome” scared his father but whose precocious piano playing saved him from total marginalization or of an even worse fate. Inspired by gospel music and jump blues, he developed an above all strong vocal style. When a band touring the South chose him as their singer, his father ultimately approved of Richard’s pompadour hairstyle – because that’s what artists looked like, after all. His childhood as an artist included touring with drag queens, minstrel shows and girls who, as he told his biographer Charles White in the early 1980s, “rolled their bellies and everything” – the granddaughters of Little Egypt transporting the exotic into the nuclear age.

Unsurprisingly given the company he kept, Richard developed a wild act on the road and did a bunch of relatively successful rhythm and blues sides for labels like Peacock and RCA-Victor. But in the fall of 1955 he was still mostly a Deep South sensation, and when he walked into Cosimo Matassa’s famous J&M studios in New Orleans with producer Bumps Blackwell, nothing was working. Richard felt tense. He couldn’t be loud enough. It wasn’t until he and the studio musicians took a break at the nearby Dew Drop Inn and Richard decided to show off by playing a very dirty act that drove queens in drag bars that Blackwell heard. the madness he knew the singer could deliver.

But the song was obscene – all about “good loot” and what people did with it. Blackwell enlisted an ambitious young songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to add lyrics thin enough that Little Richard could saturate them with libidinal chaos without breaking the rules of censorship. What Little Richard did on “Tutti Frutti”, as the song was called, was cut out the double meanings and make things a lot more straightforward. Most of the debauchery R&B songs pointed to sex, albeit sometimes with a giant foam finger. Little Richard’s vocalizations promulgated the sexual arousal itself. Richard spat out notes like raging hormones, growling like a bluesman one minute, screaming like a gospel queen the next, shouting absurd words in a way that meant everything and nothing, entering a state really undone. Historian WT Lhamon identified Richard’s particular gift as promiscuity: “The ability to seamlessly blend the worlds, white and black, straight and gay, gospel and blues and pop. If doo-wop groups have cleared space for this sense of play leading up to the moment of sexual engagement, and Elvis made this play charismatically personal, Richard captured the very moment the reader took over. and drove him straight into the restless arms of his fans.

That’s not to say Little Richard was more primitive than his compatriots. He was just more attached to the excitement. He knew what it bought for him. After following “Tutti Frutti” with equally ungovernable “Long Tall Sally” in 1956, Richard became a pop star with an equal number of black and white fans, and protected himself by becoming even more outrageous. “The white kids had to hide my records because they didn’t dare let their parents know they had them in the house,” he told White. “We decided that my image had to be crazy and stand out for adults to think I was harmless. I would appear in one show dressed as Queen of England and the next one dressed as Pope.” Literally embodying the confused impulses parents just didn’t understand, Little Richard was happy to be the elephant in the room. He put a big smile on the face of depravity. Fans responded in kind. He was the first rock and roller to be bombarded with feminine underwear thrown by crowds, and one of the first to have his shirts regularly torn from his body in small pieces.

And Richard was depraved, by his own estimation. In his biography – which consists mostly of outrageous stories he told Charles White – he was shown to be an omnisexual voyeur especially fond of locker room encounters. Richard probably knew that his refusal to play politely or subdue the signifiers of his darkness would cost him the chance to be the king of rock and roll; and there is no doubt that homophobia, internalized or not, contributed to his leaving the secular music world in 1959 to marry and become a preacher. (He would repeat the cycle of release and return, minus the woman, several times during his career.) Yet the omnivore Richard represented both live and on record also couldn’t last beyond the early years of the rock and roll era. . By 1962, when he made a comeback that began with a tour of England, the frenzy of promiscuity of the early years of the music had died down and the old orderly divisions reasserted themselves. Richard was then classified by many as a novelty act selling scandal on talk shows. He continued to be a strong presence in rock, but his most significant contribution during the 1960s was to insert some chaos into the sound of the next big thing: The Beatles, who literally taught his feet when they toured in Germany, and included just enough of his squall in their sound for the girls to throw off their panties again.

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