Imagine sitting next to Little Richard at a dinner party:
I remember one night, we had this wonderful orgy going. It was one of the best I have ever been to. And in the middle of this orgy, that was fantastic, somebody knocked on my door. I said: “Just a moment! This is an orgy!”
Sex was a potent part of the blues — and of course this influence came down into rock and roll as well. But it is safe to say the music would not be quite the same if Little Richard had never existed. The utter ecstasy, the lubricous excitement, he brought could never be equalled, not even by Prince. In the life of no other star did sex play so wild a part — as we shall see.
Indeed, there’s a story that demonstrates that Richard, who died today at 87, owed his very career to his embrace of his libido. In 1955 a young Richard Wayne Penniman was recording in New Orleans. The session was his big break, though really, a big break back then involved being crowded into a small studio at the back of a furniture store. But Richard’s producer wasn’t hearing anything exciting in the music he was recording. They went out for a liquid lunch at the local club, which was actually called the Dew-Drop Inn.
Richard, who never could sit still, jumped over to a piano and belted out a number from his stage act.
It started like this —
— and rocketed into a wild ride that was basically a fairly graphic how-to manual for gay sex:
Tutti frutti — good booty!
If it don’t fit — Don’t force it!
You can grease it — Make it easy …
The song was filthy — and utterly irresistible.
Now this, the producer thought, I can work with.
A set of bowdlerized lyrics later, “Tutti Frutti” was cut onto acetate, and kickstarted Richard’s outlandish and chaotic celebrity. His falsetto voice and boundless explosive energy at the keyboard made for hits of unprecedented psychic force. They are persuasive evidence of his claim to being the first king of rock and roll — and at his death he was one of our culture’s last links to the giants who created the music in the early and mid 1950s. (Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, at 84.) Little Richard, Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley — they all did different things that, we can now see, collectively made up rock and roll. But at the time they were all just misfits doing things no one had ever heard before. That said, it’s true to say this: In 1955, no one had ever made a record even half so explosive as “Tutti Frutti.”
Richard’s sui generis nature was his calling card. He was schooled in black gospel music; he loved Sister Rosetta Tharpe and he adored Marion Williams, another famous singer of the era. Like many of rock’s other progenitors, from Elvis to Chuck Berry, he was infatuated as well with the hopped-up jive styling of Louis Jordan. He was an inventive and powerful pianist, but he wasn’t a brilliant synthesizer of influences like Presley or Lewis. He was, simply put, a star, a showman, a force of nature, and an original. “Little Richard had invented something,” wrote historian Ed Ward of “Tutti Frutti” in his History of Rock & Roll. “Reaching back through years of striving, of living in a shadow world of black Southern gay bars, of hollering his lungs out while washing dishes in bus stations and dives, he had finished inventing Little Richard.”
His music aside, Richard was a visual phenomenon as confrontational as his music. Wildly effeminate at a time when (it needs scarcely be said) this was not the norm, he wore lush flowing robes onstage, pancaked his face with white makeup, drew kohl rings around his eyes, and sported eyelashes that could be seen from the balcony of the enormous venues he played. He topped it all off with a towering pompadour. In this getup, he stood — not sat — at his keyboard howling his innuendo-filled songs. It was everything rock-and-roll haters hated.
“The mere mention of Elvis or Little Richard,” Elton John writes in his recent autobiography, “would set [my father] off on an angry lecture in which my inevitable transformation into a wide boy [petty criminal] figured heavily: One minute I’d be happily listening to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly,’ the next thing you knew, I was apparently going to be fencing stolen nylons or duping people into playing Find-the-Lady on the mean streets of Pinner.”
Richard’s spectacular sexuality — the term bisexual doesn’t begin to capture it, implying as it does merely two poles — encompassed multitudes, sometimes literally; at his height, he graciously hosted an orgy after every show. But sexual exploitation in his childhood and his religious upbringing gave him demons that tortured him most of this life. After his initial acclaim he whipsawed back and forth among positions as extreme as his music — extravagant, even perverted sexuality one year, and then chaste, and even unattractively intolerant religiosity the next.
He was popular in a way his relatively minor chart impact didn’t reflect in his heyday, and he remains one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. The first song Paul McCartney ever sang in public was Richard’s hit “Long Tall Sally.” “My idol when I was a kid was Little Richard,” David Bowie once said; he was transfixed to see him long before he himself embarked on a life of sexual and musical trailblazing. Mick Jagger, on tour with Richard in the early 1960s before the Rolling Stones were famous, sat on the side of the stage for every one of Richard’s concussive and riot-inducing performances, just to see how he did it. “The most exciting moment of my life was appearing on the same stage as Little Richard,” said his bandmate Keith Richards.
For many years Richard lived magisterially at the Hyatt hotel on the Sunset Strip, bemoaning the way his income had been stolen from him over the years and, now and again, denouncing his own sexuality. But there was one thing he was always consistent about — his own appreciation of who he was and what he meant in the world:
“I am the only thing left … the King of Rock and Roll, the originator and creator of soul!”
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, at the height of the Depression. His father, Bud, was originally a bricklayer, and then a church deacon or preacher of some sort; the latter didn’t stop him from moving illegal liquor around to supply a local bar he ran. Bud married Leva Mae Stewart when she was 14. She spent the next 14 years having children. Richard was her third; there were 12 altogether. The last one was born on his father’s birthday, but by that time he had died — murdered outside his bar after an altercation with a customer.
Richard was born with some minor disabilities; one leg was shorter than the other, giving him a noticeable limp when he walked. One eye was noticeably bigger than the other as well. In today’s world we can understand that Richard early on felt that he needed to present himself as a woman; in his telling this included wearing makeup, draping himself in curtains, and proclaiming himself “the Magnificent One.” This was not welcome in rural Georgia in that era. Richard said his father beat him, sometimes naked, and denounced him for not being the son he wanted.
The boy’s life got better after his father’s death, and thereafter he was raised in a relatively loving environment; he remained close to his mother and siblings throughout his career. Early on, however, he was notorious as a troublemaker. As a child he had a penchant for slightly outré pranks — sometimes involving pooping into a jar, or a box, and then leaving the jar in the pantry for his mother to find, or wrapping the box up as a present and delivering it to an elderly neighbor.
Richard gave an elaborate oral history for his authorized biography, Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard, and it is safe to say that no more explicit, or appalling, a debriefing will ever be heard from a rock star. For the record, one should note that Richard over many decades of garrulous, amusing, and sometimes appalling interviews always wholeheartedly embraced the Grand Diva’s right to assert memories, repeat them, walk them back, revise and then retract them … and then repeat them again, with the retractions walked back and then retracted as well. The narrator is way beyond unreliable.
In today’s world we would report that, barely out of puberty, he was apparently molested and raped by older female women in his neighborhood. Richard himself described it this way:
One of the ladies I would sit around with — I’ll call her Miz C, ’cos she’s still alive — would ask me to have sex with her. She would say, “Boy, how big are you down there now?” and I’d say, “I don’t know.” And she’d look and she’d say, “Ohhh, you’re big enough.” She’d say, “C’mon over here.” And then she would put it in herself and go screamin’ and hollerin’, “Boy, you brought me, you brought me, you brought me,” meaning she had gotten a thrill. She’d push me up. I had done nothin’. She had done it all. She pushed me up. She just wanted me.
Richard described worse:
There was a lady we used to have sex with called R.M.S. She used to be there in the school grounds at night and the guys would run trains on her — six, seven, ten boys in a row.
He was molested by older men as well:
Sometimes white men would pick me up in their car and take me to the woods and try to get me to suck them. A whole lot of black people have had to do that. It happened to me and my friend, Hester. I ran off into the woods. My friend he did it. It was sickening to me. I was scared. The gay thing really came from me being with a guy called Bro Boy, who was a grocery boy. Bro Boy really laid me into that — he and Hester. It started with them and it growed.
Richard was musically talented from a young age; he and his family sang in church and sometimes other venues as well. He once got to meet and sing with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But the wildness that seems to have been in him from birth soon spun him at a young age into a strange, dangerous, abusive and colorful world of minstrel shows, misfits, female impersonators, predators, and con artists in the Deep South in the 1940s. He began singing with traveling shows coming through town — self-styled spiritualists and the like. He eventually ran away with an aggregation called Dr. Hundson’s Medicine Show, which sold snake oil, and for which Richard would sing Louis Jordan’s “Caledonia” every night. His next few years were spent in ensembles with names like B. Brown and His Orchestra, Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, the King Brothers Circus, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, and others.
B. Brown put him on stage in a red dress, calling him Princess Lavonne. Along the way, he would recall later, he met various colorful characters — the great blues player Roy Brown, who wrote “Good Rockin’ Tonight”; Miz Marie Cunningham, who owned a block of Atlanta’s bustling Auburn Avenue and had diamonds in her teeth; Sister Rosa, who sold something called “blessed bread” (“It was nothing but regular old bread”); a blues singer named Billy Wright, who introduced Richard to his trademark white makeup, Pancake 31; and then, finally, a piano player named Esquerita, a star in his own right, who would demonstrate to Richard the template of the black gay man in a pompadour banging wildly on a piano.
Richard’s talents were apparent to many early on. He recorded a number of songs for RCA Victor in Atlanta in late 1951 and early 1952; these were in the vein of the typical music of the time, called gospel blues, or “jump blues.” The songs went nowhere and soon he was back in Macon washing dishes. With a new band, the Tempo Toppers, he traveled to New Orleans and then Houston, where he again had a shot at recording, this time with the notorious Don Robey, at Peacock Records.
The songwriter and talent whisperer Johnny Otis was there at the time, and recalled seeing Richard this way:
I see this outrageous person, good-looking and very effeminate, with a big pompadour. He started singing and he was so good. I loved it. He reminded me of Dinah Washington. He did a few things, then he got on the floor. I think he even did a split, though I could be wrong about that. I remember it as being just beautiful, bizarre, and exotic, and when he got through he remarked, “This is Little Richard, King of the Blues,” and then he added, “And the Queen, too!” I knew I liked him then. He’s just great. He was new to a lot of people around then, and they were just saying, “Boy, that’s something else.”
Robey was a criminal and possibly an organized-crime figure; but he put out some important music in the era, including work by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Johnny Ace, who killed himself goofing around with a gun backstage at the age of 25. (Peacock also put out Big Mama’s Thorton’s original version of Elvis Presley’s later hit, “Hound Dog.”) Richard recorded a number of tracks in Houston, but, in Richard’s telling, when he tried to stand up for his rights he was beaten so badly by Robey that he was hospitalized and eventually had to have a hernia operation.
Richard returned to Macon and started his own band, Little Richard and the Upsetters, which was designed to be a lethal ensemble and make him a star.
Richard was poised to perhaps become a significant musical force in the area, but his personal life interfered. In his oral history, Richard said he had a girlfriend named Fanny, whom he induced to ride around with him in a car half-naked — and lure men to have sex with her so Richard could watch. (“She wasn’t very old. I used to enjoy seeing that.”) In time, Richard was arrested. Here’s how he said his lawyer handled the dénouement to his childhood in Georgia:
He told the court, “This nigger’s going to get out of town. He ain’t gonna be here no more.” So they let me go, and I left Macon. I couldn’t go back and play there no more because of that. We just stayed on the road.
He then became a journeyman bandleader and star, herding a large ensemble of musicians over great distances and crummy roads to godawful corners of the country and occasionally causing pandemonium. He was arrested at a show in Amarillo, Texas, one night, and at the next, in Lubbock, caused a riot. An awestruck Buddy Holly was in the audience; the pair’s lives would cross frequently during Holly’s short career. (Richard later told a story that Holly took him to his house for dinner that night — but that Holly’s racist father wouldn’t let him in. It’s unclear whether that actually happened.)
During all of this time, Richard was pestering a Los Angeles label, Specialty Records, to listen to his music. After some difficulties in getting Richard out of his Peacock contract, Specialty told Richard he could meet their producer in New Orleans. Richard abandoned his band — and headed south. (The band, left stranded, improvised by hiring another wild Georgia singer with a high pompadour, a man who had just been released from prison, to step in and bill himself as Little Richard. His name was James Brown. Amazingly, the group would later use Otis Redding, another Georgia singer, for the same role.)
His producer at Specialty was Bumps Blackwell, who among other things would go on to husband the career of Sam Cooke; the studio was Cosimo Matassa’s place, where Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew created Domino’s many hits.
But the session didn’t jell. Blackwell later put it this way: “The problem was that what he looked like and what he sounded like didn’t come together. If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse it just doesn’t work out.” That’s when they adjourned to the Dew-Drop Inn — and Blackwell got a sense of what Richard was doing onstage.
According to historian Larry Birnbaum, the words “tutti frutti” go back to a 1938 song by an act called Slim and Slam. Virtually all of the breakout hits of the era were variants on earlier songs. But Richard’s a cappella opening and the tune itself were apparently original. Blackwell felt he’d found a vehicle that fit the singer’s image. He enlisted a young wannabe songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to reshape the words. In the oft-told story, Richard was too ashamed to sing his original lyrics in front of the young woman, and finally faced the wall to play it for her so she could come up with new words. They were rudimentary — “I got a gal / Named Sue / She know just what to do” — but worked. That furniture-store session to record “Tutti Frutti” lasted 15 minutes.
It was the moment the world changed, and the moment a star was born.
“Tutti Frutti” was not a hit in the way that, say, Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” would be — but that was two years later. This was in 1955; Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first national hit, would not be released until early the next year.
In 1955, Richard’s outlandish, almost hysterical approach to music had never been seen before, and perhaps had not been wanted before either. But as America rebuilt itself after the war, a new generation of teens entered the consumer market, and some had money to spend on buying records or going out and listening to jukebox music. The records that Richard and some of his coevals made drove many traditional pop, jazz, and even some R&B practitioners crazy: It was crude — sometimes overly simple and sometimes loud and boorish. It was overly dependent on a honking saxophone or a crashing piano. And beyond that, it often was a new musical creation (like Domino’s music) or it represented some odd amalgamation of musics that were generally practiced separately — like the way Chuck Berry’s early songs were R&B crossed with white hillbilly music. But the kids (a) didn’t care, and (b) liked what they heard. And, in economic terms, for the first time they had a way of getting noticed in the marketplace.
In any case, “Tutti Frutti” has reverberated across the decades. In the 1990s, Mojo magazine put it at the top of a list of the most important rock songs of all time. The rock writer Nik Cohn titled his first book Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom.
This was still a conservative 1950s America; Richard may have been the most flamboyant public figure in the country at this point: “When Richard first arrived in Hollywood, he was so far out!” Blackwell recalled. “His hair was processed a foot high over his head. His shirt was so loud it looked as though he had drunk raspberry juice, cherryade, malt, and greens and then thrown up all over himself. Man, he was a freak.”
It’s unsurprising that Richard became at this time the epitome of the black star whose work was appropriated by white artists — denatured and repacked. Pat Boone will forever be remembered for the most pathetic of these, a puff-pabulum take on “Tutti Frutti” — which went into the top ten, whereas Richard’s version never made it into the top 20.
Richard’s follow-up to “Tutti Frutti” was “Long Tall Sally,” which according to Blackwell had been brought to him by a young woman looking to earn some money for a sick aunt. The words went, “Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally / They saw Aunt Mary and they jumped back in the alley …”
Most people took the words “Long Tall Sally” as code for what we would call transgender. Blackwell and Richard massaged the idea into a song, and recorded it at such a breakneck pace that a Pat Boone version couldn’t compete with it. (Boone tried, and it didn’t go anywhere.) This song, like “Tutti Frutti,” ricocheted across a culture — at least as far as Liverpool. “This record stopped John in his tracks,” a young friend of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s recalled years later. “His reaction that day was something that stuck in everybody’s memory, because he really was struck dumb by this record. He didn’t know what to say, which for John was most unusual.”
Said John Lennon, much later:
When I heard it, it was so great I couldn’t speak. You know how you’re torn? I didn’t want to leave Elvis. Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. We all looked at each other, but I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind. How could they be happening in my life, both of them? And then someone said, “It’s a nigger singing.” I didn’t know Negroes sang [rock and roll]. So Elvis was white and Little Richard was black? “Thank you, God,” I said.
Richard would have only a few hits that inched into the U.S. pop top ten. But he had more than a dozen R&B hits, and eight of these would be in the top three. Together, Richard and Blackwell concocted hit after hit: “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Lucille.”
Richard had a blues belter’s voice, but wasn’t really convincing in straight readings. His major work managed to bring together a number of dynamic forces: urgency, desire, anxiety, excitement, and catharsis. If anything he cranked up the speed — “Jenny Jenny” is entirely frenetic. He dialed up the sex too, dispensing with innuendo and code words entirely in “Rip It Up” (“Gonna rip it up / And ball tonight”) and in the titanic “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (“She sure like to ball”).
The force of his records came out of nothing more than his delivery: “Little Richard was one of the few singers who became more expressive with meaningless sounds and disconnected phrases and images than he was with properly constructed songs,” wrote Charlie Gillet in his early seminal history of the music, The Sound of the City. “Almost every other singer needed some solid idea from which he could improvise images, but Little Richard worked from almost nothing.”
Richard’s initial rock and roll stardom lasted about 18 months, from 1955 into 1957. He spent most of that time on the road, where his natural flamboyance melded with his growing celebrity in explosive fashion. His shows were known for causing riots. The grind of the tours, Richard would say later, was horrific: two and three shows a day, sometimes seven nights a week. He was one of those performers who did not enjoy not being the star of every show, and drove his band hard onstage, creating new levels of excitement and frenzy. He claimed that his band would sweat through their suits two or three times a performance.
Soon, Richard was driving to shows in a Cadillac with its trunk full of cash. After the shows were over, he indulged himself. Sex, he said, was a smorgasbord. He included his band members — that is to say, his employees— in sex parties after his performances:
I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. I would pay a guy who had a big penis to come and have sex with these ladies so I could watch them. It was a big thrill to me. If the girls didn’t think they could take it, I would watch him make them take it. As I was watching, I would masturbate while someone was eating my titties. They should have called me “Richard the Watcher.” My whole gay activities were really into masturbation. I used to do it six or seven times a day. In fact everybody used to tell me that I should get a trophy for it, I did it so much. I got to be a professional jack-offer. I would do it just to be doing something, seven, eight times a day.
One day, on tour in Savannah, Georgia, he caught sight of a young woman, who turned out to be 16, out a window. He tracked her down at her home. (“Is he aware that I am a girl?” she asked.) It was the start of a nearly two-decade on-and-off relationship, during which she would rename herself Lee Angel. Richard told outrageous stories about their relationship:
Buddy [Holly] liked Angel. He was a wild boy for the women. One time we were playing at the Paramount Theater and Buddy came into my dressing room while I was jacking off with Angel sucking my titty. Angel had the fastest tongue in the West. Well, she was doing that to me and Buddy took out his thing. He was ready, so she opened up her legs and he put it in her. He was having sex with Angel, I was jacking off, and Angel was sucking me, when they introduced his name onstage! He was trying to rush so he could run onstage. He made it, too. He finished and went to the stage still fastening himself up. I’ll never forget that. He came and he went!
For her part, Angel, over the years, has demurred when asked about some of Richard’s tales: “I guess being in the same room where people were … doing things … means I was a part of that,” she told the writer of a lengthy GQ profile of Richard in 2010, when she was 70. “But Richard would never let anybody touch me. What was going on across the room was a different story. Richard has a wonderful imagination.”
His celebrity spread in other ways as well, In 1956, he sang the title song and appeared, in a dynamic performance, in a film called The Girl Can’t Help it. The film is one of the many rock exploitation films of the time, but in that context it is an oddity, not a cheap B movie but a Cinemascope color affair with real movie stars in it: Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield. Richard sang two songs, along with Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent.
Richard was one of the first stars to publicly complain about the rapacious financial practices of the labels that capitalized on artists like him. The business of blues and rock labels was a thoroughly corrupt and complex one. Songwriting and record royalties were dispensed in myriad ways, ranging from utter theft to the merely patrician and exploitative. In any case, Richard always complained about his tiny half-cent royalty rate — and the trouble that accrued to stars like him who called the labels on it. “If you spoke for your money, you were a trouble maker,” he told a BBC interviewer in the 1980s, “but if you just went along and didn’t say nothing, you were a good boy. Never a man — a good boy.”
Richard the hitmaker went out on tour, playing very large venues and driving his crowd into a frenzy every night. He bought his family a large house in L.A. — and moved to the West Coast.
What happened next was one of a consequential set of disparate events that would, for a time, seem to mark the end of the rock and roll era. Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash; Chuck Berry was jailed for his involvement with an underage girl; Elvis Presley entered the Army; and Jerry Lee Lewis vaporized his career by marrying his 13-year-old first cousin. Richard could have been the once and future King of Rock and Roll he always wanted to be.
Instead, in September 1957, he decided to leave rock and roll for good.
Unfortunately, he made the decision in the middle of a tour of Australia.
Leaving chaos in his wake, he flew home and, before anyone could stop him, publicly renounced his music — and went off to Bible school in Alabama. A preacher had knocked on the door at his house in L.A. one day, he said, and he’d listened and returned to his churchy roots. He met a woman named Ernestine Campbell at an Evangelist conference in Washington, D.C., and eventually married her.
In the end, all of this went about as well as you’d expect. Richard drove around campus in a yellow Cadillac and disrupted classes. He tracked Lee Angel down at a gentlemen’s club in Atlanta and tried to reconnect. (She declined. “I was only 17 years old … He was a preacher and I was a stripper and I felt guilty about it.”) When he eventually got married, he showed up six hours late. Richard’s celebrity was apparently valuable to the school; in his telling, they even overlooked it when he was caught seducing a young male student. But he eventually left. He concentrated on a gospel record (with strings arranged by Quincy Jones) and ended up staying away from the darker side of his past, at least publicly, for almost five years.
A turning point came when he went to England to star in a series of shows with Sam Cooke in 1962. Whether it was supposed to be a gospel tour or a rock tour is a matter of some dispute; in any case, Richard found his gospel songs could not compete with the incendiary performances being put on by Cooke. He reverted to his rock and roll show — and immediately started causing sensations again. “How do you describe the most fantastically exciting and shatteringly dynamic stage offering you have ever seen?” wrote the NME of a Little Richard show on that tour. “I’d heard so much about the audience reaction that I thought there must be some exaggeration,” Mick Jagger would recall later. “But it was all true. He drove the whole house into a complete frenzy.”
In Liverpool and then Hamburg, the Beatles opened for him. He connected particularly with Paul McCartney, whom he showed how to accomplish his signature squeals. (You can hear the result in the Beatles’ version of “Long Tall Sally.”) Lennon was properly reverential at first — asking Richard to sign a souvenir program, and even to include his address, should the teenagers unthinkably ever someday make it to America. But his other antics Richard had no use for:
John had a nasty personality … John would do his no-manners [break wind] and jump over and fan it all over the room, and I didn’t like it. You know, sometimes he would do two in a row and say, “Oooh whee! He did two tonight.” It would bother me. I didn’t want to hear that stuff, y’know.
He went back home and broke the news to his family and religious cohorts that he would be returning to rock and roll. Around this time he was arrested in a raid on a men’s restroom in Long Beach; that helped end his marriage. (“Ernestine was right,” Richard reflected later. “I was a neglectful husband. A terrible husband.”) And he hit the road again, playing around the country, including Vegas. (For a time he had a left-handed guitarist named Jimmy James in his traveling show; he was ultimately fired for being late for gigs. He went on to great fame under his real name, Jimi Hendrix.) Richard was the subject of TV specials and was a frequent guest on TV shows, where he invariably made himself the center of attention.
One night on Dick Cavett, the host was interviewing Erich Segal, riding high on the best selling Love Story, with Rita Moreno on the couch next to him. Richard, next to Moreno, broke in:
“Let me say something. My Lord — you’re taking over the whole show!” He then launched into a diatribe about how no one could write a book about love.
When Moreno tried to say something, Richard said, “Shut up! Shut up!”
“You’re talking to a Puerto Rican girl,” she warned him.
“You’re talking to a Georgia peach!” Richard shot back.
Later in the show, as Segal, a classics professor at Yale, discussed Aeschylus and Euripedes and the tension between popular acclaim and critical appreciation, as one did back then, with New York’s John Simon, Richard exploded again, apparently on the subject of critics.
“I don’t care what you write,” Richard tells the group, “I don’t see how a man can tell how the beans are supposed to be in the pot when he don’t even eat beans!”
Meanwhile the wild shows continued — ”He would play you into the ground,” recalled one musician, “and then he’d go another half hour” — and so did his life offstage:
We stayed at The Waldorf-Astoria, in New York, for about a month, with Warners picking up the tab. Angel flew in with some other girls and we had a wonderful time. I was getting into drugs by this time, smoking marijuana and using a little cocaine. We used to have orgies all the time. Whenever I was in L.A. we’d book a suite at the Carolina Pines Motel, on La Brea and Sunset. We just let it all hang out. All the hookers, hustlers, and dealers hung around there. I had special people I’d ask along, like Keith Winslow, the best valet I ever had, a guy named Chick, and another guy named Little Jessie. And girls. All kinds of girls. I’d be the one who’d get it started. I’d say, “Everybody take off your clothes. Take ’em all off right now,” and sometimes if they were a little slow I would pull them off myself and just lay ’em down. They’d be so shocked they wouldn’t know what to say. And they wouldn’t know what had happened till it was all over.
Similar stories came from his musicians. The valet had stories as well:
“ … Diane stayed with us for quite a while. She called me her student. We used to have orgies every day. She used to masturbate in front of everyone and she always wanted to race. Everybody wanted to race. Sex in those days was incredible. I think nowadays it’s gotten slower!
This might seem strange after what I’ve been saying, but Richard has always been a very religious person …”
By 1980 Little Richard had lived four or five lifetimes, and he was only in his 40s. In the decades since he toured and talked — oh Lord how he talked — and recorded, as well, with periodic comeback affairs. The Rill Thing, from 1970, is a good example; it’s energetic, and the work of an undeniable figure; but its retro sensibility and production made for less-than-compelling listening in a time of extraordinary changes in the sensibilities of rock’s ruling cadres, not to mention their production techniques. Even when he sang convincingly, on this or that blues song, there was a disconnect between the performer and the song. Did the world want to hear Little Richard wailing, “I’m a two-time loser”?
By the late 1970s, he was also a cocaine freak, supplementing it with angel dust and heroin. “Every time I blew my nose there was flesh and blood on my handkerchief, where it had eaten out my membranes,” he said.
He was well-known as a celebrity officiant at weddings, or you might see him on Hollywood Squares, or doing an outlandish cameo in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
And then came another retraction of his life’s work. He found God again and devoted himself to selling bibles, an Afrocentric edition called the Black Heritage Bible — that cost $24.95. In the 1980s, the BBC found him preaching again at, ironically enough, a storefront black church in Los Angeles where his old friend Johnny Otis — who was white, but had spent his life in the black community — was the pastor.
“I have rejected homosexuality,” he announced. “I have rejected sex. Now I get my thrills from the ministry … My true belief about rock and roll — and there have been a lot of phrases attributed to me over the years — is this: I believe this kind of music is demonic. I have seen the rock groups and the punk-rock people in this country. And some of their lyrics is demonic. They talk against God.”
He made the talk-show rounds again, but this time he’d dress conservatively with a modest Afro and go on, say, Letterman, explaining to the host how when he’d been gay he wasn’t a man, but now he was a man, because he could experience having sex with a woman. Letterman nodded politely.
His last act was uncharacteristically quiet — he hadn’t appeared in public in years. His lawyer said the cause of death was bone cancer. Richard had spent his later years in Tennessee.
You can remember Richard as some sort of victim himself, and someone who victimized others. You can also remember him as someone who was born in a world that was not a kind one to any African-American, and worse to one with some physical deformities, and worse still to one who found he couldn’t live in societal gender constructs of the time.
His very survival was something of a miracle — and his marathon great-star’s life a marvel on another level entirely.
There is a photo of Little Richard, a portrait of ecstasy. He is standing, perhaps backstage before a show, in the presence of three fans, all adorable young African-American women, all plainly thrilled to be in the presence of such a star; one, to his right, points to the man in disbelief; behind her another smiles and cranes her head to make sure she is in the shot; and, to his left, a woman cups his chin tenderly and plants a chaste kiss on his cheek.
Richard, for his part is … well, he is Little Richard. He is wearing what is plainly a rock-star coat; his teeth are framed by some glistening lipstick, and topped by the narrowest of mustaches — a tiny line drawn on right over his top lip. And crowning his head is a pompadour — that pompadour, the greatest mountain of hair that rock ever saw. But you don’t notice any of that because Richard is raising his eyes, rolling them heavenward at the touch of the woman’s lips to his face. It may be partly mocking, true, but there is in that look his own moment of ecstasy.
It says: This is what a star is, this is how he is treated, this is what it is all about, what it is all for. It was a moment in which a great and troubled star — taking a break from the music, the concerts, and, yes, the orgies — could be happy.