I didn’t get to see Little Richard at the Atlantic City Pop Festival where he followed Janis Joplin and revived his own legend, but when he appeared in Central Park skating rink during the summer, he really tore it up. His effect was magnetic. You couldn’t really call it a comeback because most of the kids there had never seen him when he first appeared; some weren’t even born then. But it was a revival, a spontaneous generation of the rocking pneumonia. For the first show he came out in a red velvet suit with a gold embroidered jacket, prancing up and down like an exhibitionist talking to the kids, posing to let chicks take his picture, his “wings held high,” throwing kisses, camping about, and right away starting to take off his clothes, “You want my vest?—takes it off and throws it into the audience.
“All you want is my vest?” he asks incredulously, pointing to his velvet pants. The audience shrieks, and Little Richard comes back: “Shut up! I rather do it myself!”
Then the classic speech:
“Look anywhere . . . I am the only thing left. I am the beautiful Little Richard from way down in Macon, Georgia. You know Otis Redding is from there, and James Brown’s from there, and Wayne Cochran’s from there . . . I was the best lookin’ one so I left there first. Prettiest thing in the kitchen, yes sir! I want you to know I am the bronze Liberace! Shut up, shut up!”
His thing is a contagious induced frenzy, a contagious explosion that is compelling in spite of the set responses, perhaps because of them, the infectious responses and repetitions of the gospel formula, fusing the audience into a single reverberation. All flesh shall see it together. “Let all the womenfolk say ‘wooooh,’ an’ let all the men say ‘uhnnn,’ come on, everybody!” Sympathetic magic. Little Richard calls it the “thang.”
“I always did have that thang, I didn’t know what to do with the thang. I had ma own thang I wanted the world to hear.” And the Word was made flesh. “If you hear a funny tone in my voice, that’s the Angeltown sound.”
The second show he came out in a vest made of tiny mirrors (he’d already given the first lot of clothes away). Under the brilliant kleig lights they flashed out like rays from a disintegrator gun, doodling puddles of light on the floor and roof, splashing into the audience. But little Richard is dazzling without his coat of light. His stage act is mesmerizing because like all great shamans, demagogues, preachers and prophets, he hits the cosmic mainline, a source of radiant energy that has the power to dissolve the ghosts of identity. Unclean spirits crying with loud voice came out of many that were here possessed. Soul Music. Driving out the demons, letting the body speak.
Like any true shaman, all Little Richard asks for is a little respect. His Majesty the King of Rock and Soul! “I don’t want you goin’ out tellin’ the people Little Richard is conceited. I am not conceited!” It’s just that, well, the Spirit of the Lord came to Richard Penniman and entered into him.
Outside the gates a crowd of young kids has gathered to touch him, get his autograph, exchange a glance. His Majesty emerges in a long embroidered cloak, like a bishop in hip threads. He takes each of their hands gently, stretching out his arms in a ritual gesture of benediction, whispering in a soft hoarse voice, “God bless you.” St. Augustine could not have done it better.
Back at the hotel, Little Richard’s manager, producer and the co-author of some of Little Richard’s classics, “Bumps” Blackwell, entertains us while His Majesty gets ready to receive us. “Why did it take Little Richard so long to surface after he left the ministry?” “Well, principally I’d put it down to the martyrs.” The martyrs? A conspiracy of martyrs? The idea itself is as bizarre as anything out of Genet. “Bumps” explains that the martyrs are certain revival preachers who disapprove of show business, and when Little Richard started to appear at clubs and concerts in the south, they made life very hard for him by sabotaging his appearances, cancelling shows, and forbidding DJ’s to play his records. It’s enough to make you want to sing the blues.
TV static crackles and flashes like someone deep frying electricity, the road manager wrangles on the phone, “Bumps” raps about that time in Chicago when Little Richard was coming off stage and pouring with sweat and this chick (a spade) came up and handed him her handkerchief . . . on TV it’s a program about training animals for the movies . . . then the road manager: “He’s been breaking box office records right across the country” . . . “And here’s a little fellow I think you’ll all remember” . . . “See, so he reaches out to grab it” . . . “Here’s an episode where Cheetah saves Tarzan from the alligator men . . .” “This razor blade drops out . . .”
We are led in to the room. Little Richard is lying out regally on the bed, resplendent in an iridescent jump suit like the shell of a cerambycidae beetle. He speaks in a confidential whisper, greeting us. He says everything very sincerely and when you ask him something that gets him going, he gathers momentum, letting out his famous phrases like little supplications that add fuel to the fire, a kind of instant revival meeting . . . “My, my, my . . . oh, my sooooul!” And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire. My power’s comin’, my power’s comin’! Hallelujah! Little Richard Child of God!