Obituary

Little Richard: Sexual Shaman and Embodiment of Rock 'n' Roll at Its Most Incendiary

Little Richard
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Little Richard photographed in 1975.

Richard Penniman was a skyrocket. He was a dazzling light, and then he was gone.

Like Buddy Holly, who gets an unforgettable sex scene in Charles White's biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, Richard Penniman was a skyrocket. He was a dazzling light, and then he was gone.

But where Holly was gone because he died in a plane crash, Little Richard was gone because one night in Australia, he mistook Sputnik for a message from God and proceeded to quit music and return to Jesus, or so he thought at the time. In fact, he would continue to embody the spirit of rock and roll at its most incendiary until bone cancer got him at 87 on May 9. And he did it without ever having another hit.

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Think of it -- nine top 40s between early 1956 and mid 1958, then nothing. Though two of his many later recordings creased the Hot 100, his radio days were over -- unlike Fats Domino, a top 40 regular well into 1963, or Chuck Berry, who charted three of his greatest songs in 1964, or Jerry Lee Lewis, who had bum-rushed the country market well before the decade was over.

Yet Little Richard kept burning bright. Nik Cohn's first-ever 1969 history of rock and roll was called Rock From the Beginning stateside, but in Cohn's Britain, the title was Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. In 1975, the prologue to Greil Marcus's canonical rock book Mystery Train was hooked to a 1970 Little Richard intervention on The Dick Cavett Show: "He got what he wanted but he lost what he had! That's it! Shut up! Shut up! He got what he wanted but he lost what he had! The story of my life. Can you dig it? That's my boy Little Richard, sure is. Oo mah soul."

So of course I didn't feel the need to explain what "awopbopaloobop alopbamboom" signified. Even people who hadn't played a Little Richard record in decades before May 9 know very well that that's how "Tutti Frutti" begins. My inaugural 1967 Esquire column cited the self-same syllables to remind my readers why Little Richard was "the one our parents hated."

Elvis was Elvis -- foundational rocker, magnificent singer, world changer. Chuck Berry is forever favored by rock and rollers who love words no less than music. Between them, Presley and Berry made The Beatles possible. But the Beatles actually opened for Little Richard in Hamburg, a gestation point for the soaring whoo-hoos and yeah yeah yeahs with which they'd soon be promising pop utopia. And of course Richard also wrote "Long Tall Sally," which Paul McCartney covered so wildly and credibly it's been his ticket to rock 'n' roll heaven ever since, with none other than George Martin on piano. And that's just the white people side.

James Brown, who early on pretended to be Little Richard when the original was double-booked, credited Richard's drummer Charles Connor as "the first to put funk into rhythm." And Jimi Hendrix was Richard's guitarist until the boss fired him, proclaiming: "I'm the one who's going to look pretty on stage."

As with Brown and Hendrix, it's not mere metaphor to claim Little Richard as some kind of shaman -- Rogan Taylor's The Death and Resurrection Show cites his far-ranging voice, spirit-calling gibberish, and pansexual makeup as long-established shamanistic accoutrements. But minstrelsy scholar W.T. Lhamon's concept of "lore" is more redolent, emphasizing the deep roots of "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally" in both blackface shtick and the drag shows replete with "pompadour and countertenor final syllables" that Little Richard played all over the Southeast in the early ‘50s.

Lhamon stresses that in this period Richard was recording gospel and jump blues far tamer than his classics. He believes that while his extensive early showbiz experience made Richard a walking encyclopedia of African-American usages, it wasn't until he was put in a studio with Specialty Records' conservatory-trained producer Bumps Blackwell that he figured out what to do with them. It was at Specialty that he mustered the confidence and savvy to bestow those usages on a '50s America that just because it was stiflingly conventional was engendering a teen audience ready to break free -- and also, never forget, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that challenged U.S. racism head on by banning school desegregation. Why were Little Richard's later recordings so inconsequential? Lhamon thinks the answer is no Bumps Blackwell.

While Lhamon certainly doesn't ignore how "homosexual closet humor" informed Little Richard's genius, I think he underrates it. Still half closeted in the '50s, by 1984 Richard was ready to tell Charles White that Buddy Holly story, which involved a male-male-female threesome in which the het guy stays that way. Because he was always a believing Christian, however, his homosexuality continued to trouble him -- he even married for a while, fathered a few kids -- and with many back and forths seems never to have come to terms with it.

In 2017, in fact, he condemned homosexuality as “unnatural affection” on a Christian broadcasting network. But I prefer to remember him as he was when my wife and I caught him at the Beacon in the '80s. Then he seemed to have reached a resolution. He loved God, he told us. Fine, we thought -- have it your way. But he went on in words my wife at least never forgot. "I wouldn't love God if he didn't love gay people," he explained. "You wouldn't love God if he didn't love gay people."

Oo, mah soul.