Little Richard's debut album.

Music, News & Commentary

The heart of Little Richard

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Somewhere, deep in the mud at the bottom of the Hunter River in Newcastle NSW, there are four diamond rings. In 1957, they were bowled overboard from the deck of the Stockton Ferry by a diminutive source of energy known as Little Richard.

These days we discover that our musical idols have died when we check social media and notice that people are posting YouTube clips of their songs. So it was last Sunday when I woke up, opened my phone, and discovered that Little Richard Penniman has lost out to Jerry Lee Lewis as last hep cat standing. In this strange sad time, it seemed like more evidence that the world I had grown up in was disappearing.

Not that Little Richard was popular when I was a teenager in the 1980s. His career effectively ended that day on the Stockton Ferry but more about that soon. By the 1980s he was a nostalgia act at best, a fading memory at worst. But not to my friends and I. Our things were rockabilly, leather jackets, Levis and greasy ducktails. We hated most of the music that was on the radio and had little interest in the 1960s revival that was running parallel to our scene. Our touchstones were Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, and lesser known geniuses like Billy Lee Riley.

His legacy in rock and roll is impossible to miss. An entire genre, Glam, seems to me to have been almost exclusively based on his early career.

To this day, I go to Gen X birthday parties and recognise little of ‘our’ music. I wasn’t dancing oddly to Blancmange, I was jiving to Little Richard. And he was everything that slick 1980s pop wasn’t. His best-known songs are the very definition of garage punk. Listen to his version of Keep A Knockin’. The band sounds like they are going into battle and Little Richard just sounds insane. The intensity of this performance has rarely been equalled in the studio. The Stooges came close on Funhouse but that’s it.

Richard Penniman began his career in the deeply conservative but ridiculously musical world of Macon, Georgia in the period after World War Two. He was discovered by guitar hero Sister Rosetta Tharpe and inspired to explore his inner dandy by Esquerita – someone you should certainly look into if you like 1950s rock and roll. His first single, Tutti Frutti, was a smash hit in 1955, making him a real contender for the crown that Elvis wore so uneasily. The lyrics are now better understood but one of the funniest sights, for those in the know at the time, was the ‘square’ star Pat Boone singing them on National TV.

He followed it up with a string of frantic hits. He toured endlessly and his shows became increasingly theatrical. When he took the stage at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in 1957, he was wearing a yellow suit, a red cape, and green turban. By the end of the show, by some accounts, he was wearing only the turban and a pair of brightly adorned undies. The Beatles played the same venue about seven years later. They must have seemed rather staid to anyone who remembered Little Richard.

There are too many cases of stars coming undone in Australia for it to be simply coincidence. From Judy Garland to Joe Cocker to Oasis, something happens to musicians who are brave enough to tour down here. Is it jetlag? The tyranny of distance? The lack of access to dependable dealers? Who knows but it is, as the kids say, a ‘thing’.

Little Richard struck trouble on the flight to Sydney for his next show. He decided the plane was on fire and started to pray. The flight landed safely, convincing him that someone was listening. Then he saw a fireball in the sky in Sydney. It was supposedly Sputnik but he’d grown up in a place where the preachers were particularly fond of ominous Bible passages. Little Richard knew what fire from heaven meant and don’t talk to him about Soviet spacecraft.

Like all 1950s rock and rollers, he signed terrible deals and never saw a penny from some of the most famous music ever recorded.

The tour headed to Newcastle where he deposited his rings in the sandbanks of the Hunter. He quit after the show there and headed back to the US where he enrolled at a bible college. He got married and announced that he was giving up the life of sin he was leading as a musician. I seem to remember some story about him recovering his rock and roll soul (though not his rings) in England at the height of Beatlemania. He was playing gospel music only at the time. It’s not hard to imagine him listening to Paul singing something like I’m Down and thinking, ‘I’ll show these boys how’s it done and, ahem, maybe see some money for once.” Like all 1950s rock and rollers, he signed terrible deals and never saw a penny from some of the most famous music ever recorded.

He carried on for the next five or so decades, touring and recording. A lot of the albums are rehashes or dull attempts at ‘current’ pop but there are gems. 1972’s The Second Coming is one of them. It’s a wonderful late night only mix of murk and funk. If you have only ever heard his Specialty Records singles, it’s worth tracking down.

Now he is gone but his legacy in rock and roll is impossible to miss. An entire genre, Glam, seems to me to have been almost exclusively based on his early career. Elton John famously had little interest in Jerry Lee Lewis but considers Little Richard his most important influence. Elvis might be believed by the general public to be the pivotal figure in early rock and roll but Little Richard spoke directly to the musicians that followed him.

When The Beatles really wanted to rock out, they channelled Little Richard. Helter Skelter is an interesting example. Little Richard’s former guitarist, a talented fellow named Jimi Hendrix revealed his debt to the master when he lit his guitar on fire at Monterey while dressed in a frilly shirt and red pants. Look at Mick Jagger’s outfits in the early 1970s, Bowie’s Ziggy period, the doomed but influential New York Dolls. Many obituaries also mention Prince’s admiration for him.

Little Richard’s frantic early recordings, his outrageous outfits and the bacchanalian theatre of his concerts are the building blocks of the genre. Elvis might have been king of rock and roll but Little Richard is its eternal heart.

“Little” Richard Penniman 1932 – 2020.

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