Archive for May, 2020

little richard, 1932-2020

Little Richard, circa 1956.

Nothing illuminates the improbable laws of circumstance within the music industry quite like the Grammy Awards. The year was 1988. The Grammys were being broadcast from Radio City Music Hall with the trophy for Best New Artist being presented by a world class odd couple – Little Richard and Buster Poindexter. The winner, Jody Watley, was about to be announced, but Little Richard had his own idea of who should be champion for the evening. He was going to let everyone out in TV land know it, too.

“And the Best New Artist… is me,” he shouted with full gospel fervor. “I have never received nothing. Y’all never gave me Grammys and I’ve been singing for years. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.”

The jaws of Grammy officials likely crashed to the floor while the Radio City audience sent the singer a standing ovation. Years would pass before the Grammys gave him the first of four Hall of Fame awards and, in what seemed like a conciliatory move, a Lifetime Achievement honor in 1993. But that’s the Grammys for you. More exactly, that’s Little Richard for you. Reticent, he was not.

Upon today’s announcement of the singer’s death at age 87 from cancer-related causes, memories of that televised circus came flooding back. With it came a reminder of just how potent his artistic presence was. In a wildly prolific two year run (1955 to 1957), Little Richard (born Richard Penniman) churned out a succession of hits that mixed juke joint rhythm ‘n’ blues in their sense of brassy drive, rock ‘n’ roll in their unharnessed immediacy and gospel in their unwavering vocal gusto. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Long Tall Sally.” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and more grabbed pop music, popular culture and all of the audience expectations they triggered by their collars and shook them feverishly.

Never one to be coyly poetic, Little Richard turned lyrics of seemingly nonsensical zeal into some of the most quotable rock ‘n’ roll verses ever uttered. Offered as evidence is the concluding line to the chorus of “Tutti Frutti,” which supposedly was a phonetic reading of a drum roll: “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom.”

But it was the personality and attitude behind those songs that will forever be Little Richard’s legacy. He was a black, openly gay artist from Georgia who embraced rock ‘n’ roll with songs full of sexual innuendo with a stage flamboyance that had him performing under layers of heavy facial makeup. The audiences who flocked to his shows, mixtures of white and black patrons, didn’t care. It’s a good bet, though, that the parents of late ‘50s America viewed the stardom of Little Richard as a social threat of incalculable extremes.

By 1957, though, he renounced the music that made him famous and became a traveling preacher. “If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody,” he famously stated in 1979. Little Richard would regularly return to secular music and, at times, battle some of the substance addictions that often accompany lasting pop stardom. But as that Grammy night proved in 1988, his rock ‘n’ spirit never diminished. The foundations this architect established still stand.

Such was the house that “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” built.

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