Quick – before it’s too late, I want to send happy birthday wishes to a rock n’ roll legend.
Yesterday was Little Richard’s 75th birthday, and ever since I was young, I’ve been a fan of his. That fire, that energy. The outfits. The hair. The mustache. The makeup. And that unrelenting smile. I love everything about him. Seriously, I think Little Richard would be the best uncle ever. Imagine how much fun he’d be at Thanksgiving dinner. Wait — thanks to his Geico commercial, you already can. “Mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. Wooooo!”
Little Richard Penniman’s background is straight-up gospel music. His earliest influences include Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe — according to Wikipedia, she invited him to sing a song with her on stage at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945 after hearing him sing. He was also greatly inspired by the great Marion Williams (they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, listen to that voice).
Although his most successful songs were decidedly secular — the original lyrics for Tutti Frutti rhymed the phrase with “loose booty” — Little Richard kept that gospel sound alive in his music. Forget Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard’s version of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On brings some church heat right into the rock n’ roll scene. He steals Elvis’s thunder with this searing version of Hound Dog. Little Richard took that fire, that stomp, that “woooo!” over to England, and left an indelible mark on the music scene there. Where’d you think Paul McCartney got that from? The spirit of Little Richard infuses many of The Beatles’ most popular songs. Case in point: Long Tall Sally. Paul McCartney’s always loved it. James Brown called Little Richard his idol. So did Elvis, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, John Fogerty, Otis Redding, and David Bowie.
His influence can’t be denied, and of course Little Richard will share that with anyone. Like he does here, talking about Jimi Hendrix. He talks about Jimi’s skill and musical virtuosity, naturally. And then he talks about the definitive look that they both shared. “He didn’t mind looking freaky, like I don’t mind. Cause I was doing it before he was. And I know when he saw me, it gave him confidence, and great recompense of reward, my Lord.” The two musical giants toured extensively together, and reportedly had numerous spats for a variety of reasons. Musical direction, money, and apparently, fashion. This webpage, Jimi Hendrix and the Chitlin Circuit, features a hilarious Hendrix quote: “I had these dreams that something was gonna happen seeing the number 1966 in my sleep, so I was just passing time til then. I wanted my own scene, making my music, not playing the same riffs. Like once with Little Richard, me and another guy got fancy shirts cause we were tired of wearing the same uniform. Richard called a meeting. “I am Little Richard, I am Little Richard, he said, the King, the King of Rock and Rhythm, I am the only one allowed to be pretty! Take off those shirts!” Man, it was all like that. Bad pay, lousy living, and getting burned.”
Little Richard does have that diva reputation, but he worked hard to get where he is. I think that hardscrabble desire to always be the star probably came from his experiences on the road to stardom, being rejected or hurt or insulted because of the color of his skin and the style he displayed. This article by Bruce Vilanch from The Advocate considers how difficult and scary it might have been to be a Little Richard from Macon Georgia in the Fifties.
In this Rolling Stone interview, Little Richard himself talks about being out there before out there was out there. “Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn’t go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car. You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car. I had a Cadillac. That’s what the star rode in. You remember the way that Liberace dressed onstage? I was dressing like that all the time, very flamboyantly, and I was wearing the pancake makeup. A lot of the other performers at that time — the Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters — they were wearing makeup, too, but they didn’t have any makeup kit. They had a sponge and a little compact in their pocket. I had a kit. Everybody started calling me gay.” Which brings me to the makeup.
I made fun of Little Richard early in my blogging life — I swear, I imagine him like a little angel on my shoulder and telling me, “honey, that’s too much” when I get heavy-handed with my foundation. I’d love to interview him and find out what foundation he’s using these days. I am positive that he’s a liquid foundation fan (I am so not). But who knows — by now he might be using Bare Escentuals.
One of the things I love about Little Richard is that he’s not afraid to laugh at himself, and he’s pretty much up for anything. To wit: this clip of Little Richard and James Brown on Wheel of Fortune. Yeah, you read that right. Aww. So cute how they embrace after solving the “quotation.” Then Richard tells the audience to “shut up!” He’s always seemed like a generally jovial person, someone who’d be fun to be around. This performance of Lucille and Tutti Frutti is one of my favorites.
I love what he says between the two songs. “You can look at me and see, that I am a Georgia peach. Shut up, I’d rather do it myself!”
The end of that Rolling Stone interview ended on a somewhat down note —
“I wish a lot of things had been different. I don’t think I ever got what I really deserved.
I appreciate being picked one of the top fifty performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because it won’t be who I think it should be — it’s not going to ever be any of the entertainers from the past. The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made a record — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me. I fed them, I talked to them, and they’re going to always be in front of me.
But it’s a joy just to still be here, to have stood the test of time. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear the old-time rock & roll. And I’m just glad that I was a part of that. There’s only a few of us left: myself, Bo Diddley, Chuck, Fats, Jerry Lee, the Everly Brothers. It’s getting thin. So I think this is the last of it, the last of the good days. Soon there’ll be a totally new thing. But it won’t be the same. Never.”
He’s right. It’ll never be the same. So many of his peers have gone now, but Little Richard is still here, still healthy, still able to perform when he feels up to it. He’s a living legend. Little Richard turned 75 yesterday, and some of his music is also being re-released to the public — the first post-war African American-owned record label, Vee-Jay Records is digging in the crates and releasing several catalogue titles in digital formats just in time for the holidays. Among those, Little Richardâ€™s Little Richard is Back which dropped on December 4, and Talkin’ Bout Soul 1964-1965 will be similarly released on December 11.
Undercover Black Man paid tribute to Little Richard yesterday, check out his post for some great audio.
I hope Little Richard had a wonderful birthday yesterday, and I hope he knows exactly how loved and appreciated he is!