(I started this blog last Thursday, and then got totally swamped with all the Little Richard links available!)
"My music makes your liver quiver, your bladder splatter, your knees freeze -- and your big toe shoot right up in your boot!"
My friend Z Budapest has always said, "I want to have Little Richard's Tutti Frutti played at my funeral. If I don't get up and dance, then you'll know I'm really dead."
And now the Tutti Frutti man himself has gone. I'm assuming they played his first hit song, recorded in 1955, at his funeral, to make sure HE was really dead.
Little Richard proclaimed himself the Architect of Rock n' Roll. I think when you've toured with, first the Beatles, and then the Rolling Stones AS YOUR OPENING ACTS, when Jimi Hendrix played guitar in your band, and James Brown was a back-up singer --you're entitled to proclaim yourself whatever you want!
That was just a tad too overtly sexual for a crossover hit, so the initial line became Tutti Frutti, aw rooty, and the
other lyrics magically metamorphosed into Sue who knows just what to do and Daisy who drives him crazy.The original song was obviously about sex and even obviously about GAY sex, and Little Richard was obviously gay, very gay and openly so until he found Jesus later in life, for about the fourth time. He said in many later interviews, "I realized that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Now, Little Richard was an original. He made up his OWN jokes. The fact that he borrowed this ancient, creaky one to explain his late-blooming heterosexuality only proves to me the phoniness of his transformation.
When Tutti Frutti became popular, another record company re-recorded it with squeaky-clean Pat Boone -- what an outrage! -- and this bleached white Tutti became an enormous hit that buried Little Richard's version --- temporarily.
Little Richard made a grand 1/2 cent for every original Tutti Frutti sold. A half a cent! I can't help but wonder how much Pat Boone was paid. So Little Richard's income for the 500,000 copies sold of his hit came to $2500. And he sold the rights to the hit song to the producers for $50, so he didn't even make half a cent out of Boone's recording or anyone else's. Thus it was in the early days of recording Black artists. Those who refused to go along with whatever deal was offered were branded as difficult and never recorded again.
That's the great thing about Little Richard's story. He was born poor, he was disrespected, his managers took all his money and paid him a pittance. But in the end, he triumphed. He lived long and well, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its very first year.
He bounced back and forth between playing rock concerts and preaching evangelical Christianity, between being Little Richard and being Richard Penniman, devout Christian. And those alternating realities seemed to suit him. Eventually, he got married, but his wife divorced him when she found out he was still sleeping with men. So, despite his understanding of the Bible, he just could not resist Steve!
Here he is on the left playing with his leg up on the piano. Click the photo to hear this performance of Long Tall Sally and Tutti.
What gave this gay, poor black boy with a limp, born in the Deep South, the courage to be himself in all his fabulous flamboyance? I think it was his mother's love. "I always loved Mother more than Daddy. I idolized her. Every movement. I'd imitate the things she said and the way she said them. She'd say, "Oooh, it's so hot." Then I'd go outside and sit with my friends and say, "Ooh, it's so hot." I just felt that I wanted to be a girl more than a boy."
Little Richard called himself the Architect, the Originator, the King AND the Queen of Rock and Roll. When he was challenged in an interview about taking too much credit, he responded, "I'm not conceited. I'm convinced!" Watch him at the 1988 Grammy's, where he's presenting the award for Best New Artist --- and claiming it for HIMSELF and asking "How come I never got one of these?"
I love that about him. He never stopped demanding his place for himself -- always in the most amusing way possible. He inspired so many. And Little Richard acknowledged those who inspired him, especially gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who gave him his first paying music gig when he was 14. She hired him to perform when she played Macon, Georgia, his hometown. Perhaps Sister Rosetta was open to seeing this gay boy's talent, as she was known for playing guitar "like a man" and enjoying same-sex relationships herself. You MUST watch this fabulous video of Sister Rosetta performing at a train depot in England, in the rain.
There was one group of people who never forgot Little Richard's importance, and that was other rock musicians. They understood that he broke the mold with his pounding piano-playing, his falsetto screams and whoops, his pompadours, his glittering attire, his wild moves. Here's the eulogy of one of the greats, who DOESN'T come to mind when you think of Little Richard's style -- Bob Dylan:
"I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.
I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot. He was always generous, kind and humble. And still dynamite as a performer and a musician and you could still learn plenty from him.
In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone."
Thanks to Tavia Nyong'o's article in The Guardian and Gerri Hirshey's article in Rolling Stone.
Below are more links to info on Little Richard's life,