As a student of rock history, Lenny Kravitz considers himself a lifelong fan of Little Richard, the rock & roll architect who died Saturday at 87. Long before Kravitz’s own career would take off, he met Richard in the late 1970s at a time when the pioneer had abandoned rock music to devote himself to his faith. They attended the same Los Angeles church during Kravitz’s teen years, and the pair’s lives would continue to intertwine until their last conversation just last year. Kravitz called Rolling Stone from his Bahamas home to discuss a life of listening to and learning from Little Richard.
I had heard him since I was baby in our house. My parents had all these great records, 45s, and, of course, listening to the radio in the car when I was toddler in New York City. So I was familiar with his songs. I had probably first heard “Tutti Frutti” or “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
What’s amazing is that his recordings, compositions and the production were so dynamic and timeless. When you put them on today — which I have — the force and the energy that comes out of the speakers is still so mind-blowingly strong. I think back to if I was alive in 1955 and heard that coming off the radio…people must’ve been really freaking out. [His music] sounds just as fresh and just as powerful today when we’re used to hearing so many sounds now. It helps me to see how strong and how pure and how new that was then. Now you can understand why people were saying that it was “the devil’s music.”
He was fearless in a time where there was a lot to be fearful of. To be that bold, to be that flamboyant, to be that original, he didn’t care what would happen or what the results would be. He was just on a path. He knew who he was. He knew what he came to do. I think that is so amazing and so powerful, especially at that time. To be a black man and invent this powerful art form that would influence every race in every corner of the world, and to then have the flair that he had with his dress, with his makeup, with his hair, with his attitude. It was beautiful. I don’t know how many folks at that time had the power to be that fearless and that fierce.
I saw him play when I was a kid. We ended up in the studio together in 1991, when the Gulf War broke out. Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono and myself did a remake of “Give Peace a Chance.” There was a video and a recording where the words were rewritten to fit what the current events were. Richard came in and sang on it and was in the video. That was the time I got to work with him.
Where I got to see him the most was in the church. When I was a teenager, around 14, 15, 16, I used to go to a church up on Adams Boulevard, up on the hill where we called Church Row. There’s a lot of churches up that street on Adams, east of La Brea and Crenshaw. Richard Penniman went to that church at the time. He would do sermons, and he would sing and perform gospel. For a couple years, I went to that church and would see him there every weekend and got to know him. It was a time when he was really focusing on the spiritual area of his life. That was a whole other side of him.
He had done so much and been through so much. I’m speculating — I knew him, I was a kid and he was a beautiful human being to me — but I feel like he needed to reconnect with God in a way that he wanted to and in a time when he was looking for saving and to be redeemed. It was interesting because you know his personality, you’ve seen it, but he was very soft-spoken, humble and he dressed very conservatively.
He put on a suit. His hair at the time was a short little afro. No chemical, no hair-do. I think he was really trying to walk the straight and narrow, as they say. That was his journey. I can’t really speak on it much more than that, but I could see he was really dedicated. He was reconnecting with God. Some people can do that while they’re still doing what they’re doing, but he was an all-in kind of guy. He stopped singing secular music and dove in. He went back later. I think he really needed to disconnect to do that.
I spoke to him about a year ago. It’s always so sad. I was down here in the Bahamas, actually in the studio, and called him. He was in Tennessee. I was getting ready to go on tour and I said, “I’m going to come see you. I’ll try and find you somewhere on this tour so I can come over to sit with you and talk with you.” It never happened, which really saddens me. I knew at the time that he was laying low. But he was wonderful. We talked about that time at church. It wasn’t about “Lenny Kravitz” or who I am now. We went straight into conversation about the old days in Los Angeles going to church. It was beautiful to talk to him and just talk about that.