This appears in The 11th Hour, a gleefully subversive Village Voice-style publication in Middle Georgia that I urge you to check out.
Little Richard feels pretty.
“I’m beautiful!” he squeals at every concert, between manic performances of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and other standards that still rattle the rafters. He probably tells his postal carrier, too, and his manicurist. “I’m not conceited – I’m convinced!” At age 77, without a doubt in the house, “The Beauty is still on Duty.”
He is perhaps, among other titles, the Inventor of Daily Affirmations.
That guileless and unassailable self-love has proved one of the few constants for Little Richard, the Macon-born “architect of rock ’n’ roll,” whose career otherwise has been defined by its zigzagging contradictions. He has sallied back and forth, tracking glittery stardust all over the South’s switchback dirt-trail between the juke joint and the church; between flesh and spirit; and between men, women, and the transgender folk in between. Through it all, Little Richard seems never to have wavered, though, in his conviction that he is beautiful and blessed, “a child of God.” And so are you.
This singular anointing of agape helps explain not only his triumphs, but also his very survival. Plug his particulars into any actuarial table — the runt son of twelve black children born into Depression-era poverty in a small, segregated Southern town; eyes and legs that were slightly mismatched in size, resulting in a mischievous leer and a limp; some pronounced sexual ambiguities, including a penchant for drag; and plenty of cheeky attitude to boot – and the odds-on projections would doom Richard Penniman as another hate-crime statistic, most likely a pineywoods lynching too harrowing to speak of.
“I was what they called a freak,” he says.
So how did Little Richard transcend the bullies, Klansmen, and workaday enforcers of conformity to become a beloved international superstar and, in his words, “the king and queen of rock ’n’ roll”?
“I think he’s just too charming,” says David Kirby, who just published Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll (Continuum), a meditation on art and culture through a lens heavily lined with kohl. “Richard is a cuddle bear; who’d want to hurt him? In his heyday, he was a threat to everything parents and preachers and politicians stood for, sure, but he coated that threat in happiness, sass, and gobs of Pancake 31 makeup.”
Little Richard, born Richard (or Ricardo, according to some accounts) Wayne Penniman in Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood in 1932, is a vocalist; songwriter; pianist; evangelist; pompadour-crowned dandy; hedonist; and outsize cut-up – a glow-in-the-dark Personality, capital “P” — who is credited with launching rock ’n’ roll, and, by extension, the explosion of a rebellious youth culture primed to shake off social, racial, and sexual repression. He was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone ranked him No. 8 on its list of “Immortals,” while citing three of his songs – “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” – in the “Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
“People called rock ’n’ roll ‘African music,’” Penniman wrote in the magazine when he received the “Immortal” designation. “They called it ‘voodoo music.’ They said that it would drive the kids insane. … Only it was worse back then, because, you have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me. We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”
The music liberated their bodies, and their spirits followed. For context, recall that “Tutti Frutti” was released in 1955, just after Emmett Till’s senseless murder in Mississippi.
“All new music changes the world, but no music changed the world the way this song did,” asserts Kirby, whose goal is to honor this spangled revolutionary in his proper place on the historical stage. He writes, “…all the parts that make up rock ’n’ roll had been moving toward critical mass for years, but when Little Richard shouted, ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom,’ suddenly, to quote the Book of Genesis, there was a firmament in the midst of the waters. It’s a huge song musically, but it’s also a seminal text in American culture, as much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘Song of Myself,’ and the great documents of the Civil Rights era are. In a sense, it’s America’s Other National Anthem.”
In a poem Kirby published years earlier, he riffs, “I hear America singing, and it sounds like Little Richard.”
“Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are fine by me,” he says now. “But when the world can be changed by a gay, black cripple from a town that no one had heard of, that’s when I start taking notes.”
Keith Richards famously observed that “Tutti Frutti” was like flipping a switch that changed the world from monochrome to glorious Technicolor.
However, the ecosystem that produced Little Richard was always plenty colorful, and that factor, too, has to account in some way for his scrappy survival.
One of the most authoritative guides to the midstate’s demimonde is The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock, an authorized biography, which is more of an as-told-to oral history edited by BBC’s “Dr. Rock,” Charles White, and published in 1985. Even today, it shocks readers with its frank, salty, offhand details about Little Richard’s cocaine addiction, threesomes with Buddy Holly, dalliances accessorized with a colostomy bag, and other acts of what Freud might call polymorphous perversity. It concludes, however, with Penniman’s earnest, counteractive religious testimony. Still, one message that blares like a trumpet in both books is that Little Richard was an extraordinarily talented “freak” in a city that, based on anecdotal research, is second only to New Orleans in its assembly-line production of eccentrics.
“I’ve had some of the weirdest conversations in my life in Macon,” Kirby marvels.
The city, in the sweaty navel of Georgia, holds a prominent zip code, if not the honorific of “capital,” in what cultural historian Greil Marcus dubs the “Old, Weird America,” that deliciously gamey pageant of hucksters, shake dancers, geeks, vaudevillians, snake-oil pitchmen, hermaphrodites, and other raffish characters one does not see at the chrome-and-glass mall. Macon was once headquarters of the Silas Green Show, the country’s largest and most successful African-American traveling revue, and among the gold-toothed chorines was a dancer christened “Arty Missy Candy Fishey Georgia Yancy Barntown Williams.”
“My daddy was a bootlegger, and most of the time that boot was empty,” Little Richard says, of his father who eventually was shot to death outside the Tip In Inn in 1952. One of Penniman’s first jobs, which taught him the knack of the hustle, was recruiting customers for Doc Hudson, who sold a questionably curative “elixir” in a medicine show. Still a kid, Little Richard ran away with the circus, and as a “drag baby,” called himself “Princess Lavonne,” dressed all in red and tottering on high heels. Other influences on his showmanship include Eskew Reeder, better known as the big-haired, piano-playing drag queen “Esquerita” (“rhymes with excreta,” his protégé would quip) and later as “Fabulash”; Atlanta crooner Billy Wright for his “loud-colored clothin’ and shoethin’”; and Dr. Mobilio, the turban-wearing Macon “prophet” who would brandish a “Devil’s Child,” described by Penniman as a “dried-up body of a baby with claw feet like a bird and horns on its head.”
Given all that, the primal scream of “Tutti Frutti” seems inevitable.
The lyrics are seminal in every sense of the word, having originated as a jaunty paean to anal sex in the gay bars; Little Richard probably picked it up, along with sundry companions, at Miss Ann’s Tick Tock: “Tutti Frutti/ Good booty/ If it don’t fit, don’t force it/ You can grease it,/ make it easy.” A young wordsmith, Dorothy LaBostrie, was brought into the studio to sanitize the lyrics, which a sheepish Little Richard trilled with his back to her. She later attributed her inspiration to more wholesome dreams of ice cream. (A guileless-seeming teenager named Enortis Johnson reportedly furnished the adulterous concept of “Long Tall Sally,” which she had scrawled on a napkin.)
Not surprisingly, some Maconites have groused privately about the gnarly descriptions and over-the-top characterizations in Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “The important people love my book,” says Kirby, who kept a research file of his sources labeled “OTG,” for “old, toothless guys.” “I haven’t heard from the town fathers yet. But remember, Little Richard’s message is that we shouldn’t let the grownups take over, so I think that’s appropriate.”
The image of Macon conjured by this discursive, little book is not exactly the tourist-brochure material favored by burghers, deacons, and Junior League-types, the crowd who once gave Penniman the bum’s rush, “running him out of town” for reasons that are still hotly debated – driving around town with a “nekkid lady,” pimping and tricking at the bus station – but could be succinctly chalked up to “flamboyance.”
Music promoter Alan Walden recalls a typically memorable sighting of Little Richard in downtown Macon: “He was in flaming glory, dressed in a tight, red suit with red shoes and a matching red parasol. Both Phil (Walden) and I were star-struck and shy at the same time. One of our friends called out ‘Tutti Frutti,” and Richard, in true style, without missing a beat, called back ‘good booty,’ then shook his butt in a couple of fancy steps before strolling down Cherry Street, twirling that red umbrella. Did this ever make our day!”
In White’s bio, Penniman writes, “We decided that my image should be crazy and way-out so that the adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England and in the next as the pope.”
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame displays the original piano that Penniman played at Miss Ann’s Tic Toc Room, along with a black and silver jacket and some sequined, red Italian boots he wore on stage. Recently, he has expressed a desire for Macon to erect a statue of him, a fountain that sprays water from his “pretty hands,” which friends agree would make a perfect yin-yang counterpart to the Confederate soldier who stands sentry downtown.
His famous opening line, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom,” started as a coded, but clarion, howl of rebellion against “the man.” Little Richard was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station, where he indulged his compulsive habit of drumming on pots and pans. “When the supervisor tried to hurry things along, Little Richard would scream that as kind of a G-rated version of cussing out the boss,” Kirby says.
The entertainer also claims to have shrieked the non sequitur in the face of segregationist governor George Wallace. “He didn’t know what I meant…and neither did I,” Penniman writes, burnishing his image as a sort of holy fool who is a crazy like a fox.
“He is genuinely comical,” says Macon music producer and promoter Gary Montgomery, who has maintained a friendship with Penniman for almost 30 years. “What you see on stage is what you get in person; he’s a card. But never underestimate him. He’s one of the smartest — if not the smartest — person I’ve ever met in the business, and he is a man of his word, a man with character, a consistently loyal friend.”
Montgomery met Little Richard, he says, over a stack of Bibles.
Fittingly, Little Richard’s first time in front of a screaming crowd was at Macon’s City Auditorium, at the behest of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a buxom siren who sang fervent gospel with a wink at the boogie-woogie side of life. She had heard him warbling as he helped her unload her gear. The applause hooked him.
Years later, at the pinnacle of his career in 1957, Little Richard underwent one of the world’s most celebrated conversions. During a tour of Australia, he glimpsed Sputnik, the Russian satellite, scudding across the sky. “It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads,” he writes in White’s biography. “It shook my mind. I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. … I am leaving show business to go back to God.”
Disregarding millions of dollars in canceled bookings and lawsuits, he enrolled in Oakwood College in Alabama and became a minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, launching a career in evangelism that would include his marriage and a son, some exquisite gospel recordings, and a role officiating at the Las Vegas wedding of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. In 1984, he encountered Montgomery at the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam in Nashville.
“I had set up a table with Bibles to give away, and Richard liked that idea,” says Montgomery who owns Left Lane Entertainment. “So he grabbed some Bibles to throw out to the crowd. We ended up talking theology, and we still talk more about Scripture than we do the music business.”
At the time, Little Richard was speaking at crusades and hawking “black heritage” Bibles for the Memorial Bible Company. “For awhile, he honored the Sabbath by not performing or traveling between sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday,” Montgomery says. “The William Morris Agency finally told him, ‘We can’t book you – nobody wants to come out on Tuesday night.’ So Richard adapted his theology a little. He said, ‘My daddy was Holiness, and my mama was Seventh Day Adventist. I’ve become a Holiness now so I can perform on weekends.’”
Even after so many decades, Penniman remains ambivalent about the old Saturday night/Sunday morning impulses, Montgomery says. “He has mixed feelings in that he believes if you’re going to do rock, do rock, and if you’re going to do gospel, do gospel, but don’t mix the two – that’s how strong his upbringing was on that subject. But he still rocks out on the old songs.”
Ingrained habits do die hard. Like any proper Southern belle, Little Richard usually does not leave the house without full makeup and a cresting pouf of wig. However, other behaviors have changed, Montgomery says: “He’s completely cleaned up his act and become a different person from what he was in the ’70s. Richard is a true Christian – no drugging and no messing around with girls or boys.”
One of the entertainer’s trademark rhymes: “God has never been too far. I may stumble, but I didn’t crumble because He was there when I fumbled.”
His faith has sustained him, agrees another old friend, Seaborn Jones, a nationally recognized poet who met the singer outside the Macon Coliseum around 1970. “Little Richard had the reputation in Macon for being someone you could count on because he didn’t drink and wasn’t a troublemaker,” Jones says. “The Little Richard I know is so different from his public image. He’s calm, not a frantic wild-man. He’s the ultimate gentleman, always appropriate – no profanity, no whiskey, no drugs. And he’s completely focused on others, not on tooting his own horn. He was really the first person to give me any encouragement as a writer, to tell me I could do it.”
And, always, behind all of the kabuki mugging, he is full of love.
“When I was working as a herpetologist, he was concerned about my safety and kept asking if I was afraid of the snakes,” recalls Jones, who worked at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. “I told him that I respected the snakes. He said, ‘That’s what’s wrong with the world – people don’t respect snakes or each other.’ … We’d been talking on the phone, and before he hung up, he asked me to do him a favor. He asked my daughter’s name. I told him ‘Bronwyn.’ He said, ‘When you hang up, I want you to call Bronwyn and tell her Little Richard loves her.’ He had the most tender tone in his voice. That spelled out something to me and touched me deeply. That’s the real Little Richard – a gentle being.”
Asked if he has ever written a poem about Little Richard, Jones says, “He is a poem. How do you write a poem about a poem?” Then he recalls some verse by William Matthews in which a narrator, sitting next to Little Richard on a plane, exclaims, “I know who you are!”And Little Richard replies, “You sure do, I’s a child of God.”