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!
What do you think about what James Brown is doing now—”I’m Black and I’m Proud” kind of thing?
I imagine he’s doing what he feels, but I have a different feeling. My feeling is, if I die I must be truthful, to me; I figure that the nations of the world—I call it God’s bouquet—I figure with my brown here—you understand what I mean—it’s just like my little sister picking some roses and sunflowers and medallions and lilies is a bouquet, the nations are a bouquet—the Chinese, the Japanese, the white man, the brown man—we all belong to God; God is a God of beauty of love of peace, so I think that we are all together this bouquet. He’s not a God of one race, He’s a God of all races, and I don’t think God intended us to have hatred against any man, because hatred is a sickness, and God wanted us to be well, we should stay well.
Who needs a sickness of prejudice in any form? I mean a black man can be prejudiced, a white man can be prejudiced, and if I’m a militant against a man I’m prejudiced, and so if I’m prejudiced, I’m sick. You understand, we are all God’s bouquet, we all need each other the same as the birds need air. If a man is hungry, I don’t care if he’s black, white, Jewish or Mexican, you don’t need to go out and talk to him about his hunger. Feed that man; then talk to him about eating again and how to keep eating. I think we need to learn to live together because unity is going to make things happen, and where there’s unity there is strength. Division kills. It steals from the will of mind and the love and the hope and the joy that God has given us.
How did you come to write “Tutti Frutti”?
Oh my God, my God, let me tell the good news! I was working at the Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia, oh my Lord, back in 1955.
How old were you then?
O my Lord, that’s the only secret I’ve got. I’m only 24, folks. I was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station at the time. I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, “I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots to me to wash,” and I said, “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom, take ’em out!” and that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the kitchen, I wrote “Good Golly Miss Molly” in the kitchen, I wrote “Long Tall Sally” in that kitchen.
How did you get them onto record?
I met a singer, Lloyd Price who had a big hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” So he came to my home town, I was selling drinks in a little bucket at his dance, and so he saw me and I stopped by the stage and I said, “I could do that,” but they wouldn’t let me, so I went back in the dressing room, they had a piano in the dressing room, so I played “Tutti Frutti” on the piano for Lloyd. Lloyd said, “Man, say I believe that could be a hit. I want you to send a tape to Specialty Records.” So I sent a tape to Specialty and they waited one year before they wrote me back. So I forgot about it, I just kept washing dishes. So I recorded “Tutti Frutti” and it was an instant hit.
What was your reaction?
I didn’t know I had sold a million; I was sittin’ in Macon broke with no money, hungry. And the record company said, “You know you’re the hottest thing in the country.” I said “Me? Me?” I had never been on a airplane before so they said, “We’re sending you a ticket, you’re coming to Hollywood.” So I went to Hollywood and “Tutti Frutti” was Number One, and so immediately they released “Long Tall Sally” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” which I wrote, and so that’s when everything began happening.
What inspired you to write “Tutti Frutti”? Where did the style come from?
Well, you know I used to play piano for the church. You know that spiritual, “Give Me that Old Time Religion,” most churches just say, [sings] “Give me that old time religion” but I did, [sings] “Give me that old time, talkin’ ’bout religion,” you know I put that little thing in it you know, I always did have that thing but I didn’t know what to do with the thing I had. So the style has always been with me but I had never introduced it for the people to hear. Because I would hear Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ruth Brown, Faye Adams, the Clovers, the Drifters, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and I admired them, but I always had my little thing I wanted to let the world hear, you know.
What was it like in 1956?
In 1956 after “Tutti Frutti”; the engagement in Atlantic City reminded me of 1956. I’ve never been on a show like this in all my life, in all the 20 years I’ve been in the business, I’ve never been on a show like this. And Jenny—Janny—Janis, she’s fantastic. And so I watched the show—the lady works, and she’s got all this soul, and it proved something to me that God didn’t give all the soul to the black man, He gave some to everybody. And this woman was just singing from the heart and I became numb.
Now, I’m closing the show, and this lady tore the house down, a standing ovation, 60 thousand people standing up, calling her back and back again, and I go on behind her? Oh my God, I said a prayer like I always do, and I know that He heard my prayer. And so I went on, leaped up on the piano with my wings high, talking to the people and spreading joy to them, and the kids just came, it was like magic power came over—[whispers] oh Lord, oh God, it was one of the greatest experiences.
And it reminded me of when Elvis was touring and I was touring and Fats Domino was touring and we were going all over the country and playing to 40 thousand people a night, and when I played Europe in 1961, and there were 40 thousand kids screaming at the airport, ’cause they understand so much and they like the real things, and that’s what the kids in America were excited about; they don’t want the falsehood, they want the truth. And a lot of the old people refuse to let the truth come through, and the young people are gonna tell it like it is, and they see it as it is, and I’m one of the truth because I am one of the originators, and so the kids want to accept the truth, they don’t want nothing pretending for that, they want to see the actual thing. So when they see me they see the real old shakin’, hand clappin’, foot stompin’ rock and roll from down in Macon, Georgia. Old Georgia Peach in person, that’s what it is.
This is what they call “underground.” I can’t see why they call it underground. Like I don’t like the word “hippie.” I call it the “real people.” Because they are saying “hippie.” I was the first one, ’cause I’ve been wearing the long hair and fancy clothes, I’ve been doing it all my life, so I was the first hippie, yeah, in Macon, Georgia. And everyone would call me silly and stupid, my father would put me outdoors, he said, “The man has gone crazy.” So I like to say the “real people,” they are willing, they’ve got guts enough to admit they’re doing their thing, what they want to do and expressing their rights and don’t care what society thinks, because what is society? I’ve been on society all my life; I’ve been called everything but a child of God. Because society is a bunch of old people with money, that stays cloaked up to themselves and stays away from the world; they want everyone to do as they have done through the years.
Like they smoke marijuana, they take LSD, they use pills, but you just don’t hear nothing about it. They just do it among themselves, so when the young kids are coming up taking over the same habits that they had. It’s just your mother and father who came along with my music, they had long hair, too, but they called them “beatniks.” They were all out on the street screaming over Elvis Presley the same as kids scream over the Beatles.
And how many rock and roll riots did you see during the Fifties?
Oh my God, every one I played I saw one. They had to ease me out in trucks. I came out as janitors, I’ve been everything.
So what you’re saying is that the Fifties were wilder than today, and society has gotten rotten?
What I think society is mad about is they’re getting old and very soon they’ll be gone, and they wondering what these young people are gonna do with this world, and they’re mad because they can’t do what they used to do and they can’t dance because they’ve got arthritis and rheumatism, they can’t jump up in the air. It’s jealousy against the young race, and it’s not fair because even the Bible said that the young would be weaker but wiser.
So I think we have to give them a chance and show them the way and make sure we know the way before we show them. Kids are leaving home because they can’t talk to their mothers, they’d rather talk to a friend; young fellas can’t talk to their fathers, because their parents think they’re crazy. But they’re not crazy, they’re just wise and they’ve got more nerve to do what they wanted to do and couldn’t do. They’re the real folk that the phonies don’t want the world to know they’re real.
How did you feel when you came back into music after eight years?
I was at a loss. I thought, “Oh God, these people don’t know me.” I went to England and I felt good because the Beatles brought me to England, I gave them their first tour before they made a record. I carried them to Hamburg, Germany to the Star Club, I was the star of the show, and by the way they used to order a lot of steaks and I had to pay for them because they didn’t have the money. I gave Mick Jagger his first tour with the Rolling Stones. I also put another man into show business, I saw him the other day on the Mike Douglas show, and was very disheartened because he never mentioned my name; you know, I put James Brown in show business and he never mentioned my name. I put Joe Tex in the business, I put Jimi Hendrix in the business—he played in my band for two years before he made a record, I put Don Covay in the business, Otis Redding was in the business because of me, Billy Preston met the Beatles through me—it was in Time magazine last week. You know all these people, I put them in it, and they never mention what you’ve done, not that you want the credit, but when I hear James Brown lyin’, giving credit to other people. I put him in the business, I’m the one who put him in, and he never mentioned my name.
One difference between the rock audiences today and in the Fifties is drugs…
Well, people have been smoking grass for years, it’s been growing for years. I think that when they talk about the Indians smoking the peace pipe, I believe when the Indians came over the hill that they was high. I believe that pipe the Indians were smoking was full of Acapulco Gold mixed with a little hashish. I believe it very firmly, and they had to be high the way they were runnin’, they couldn’t have gotten the strength no other way. So what I think about the thing today is I go with the Bible, which says let every man be persuaded by his own opinions. I don’t condemn the young people for what they’re doing, the same as I don’t condemn the old person for taking an aspirin when he has a headache.
The same as if someone asks me, “Little Richard, have you ever seen God? How do you know there is a God?” I say, “Did you ever have a pain?” They say, “Yes,” and I say “Did you see it?” I don’t condemn anyone, there are a lot of drugs and things I don’t know anything about it, but I don’t condemn it, I want to know why, I think we should know why they’re doing it, they could be disheartened, it could be the only way they know out. Who am I to say—I’m not a criteria—that this man is evil because he smokes marijuana. I smoke Kool cigarettes and I believe that marijuana is not as harmful as the Kool cigarettes. I’m not down on the man because he smokes marijuana; to me he’s just as great as President Nixon or Lady Bird or Mrs. Eisenhower or Mr. Eisenhower.
What groups do you like to go and see?
I love the Rolling Stones, I think that the Rolling Stones are fantastic, the Beatles are some of the greatest song writers even been—how can you speak against success—I didn’t dig the Dave Clark Five, I thought it was bunch of crap, I didn’t dig Herman and the Hermits. But the Rolling Stones just shook my mind, the Cream I think they’re fantastic, Blood Sweat and Tears I think are out of sight, I like the Young Rascals—I think they’re beautiful. I like true soul.
What do you think about the resurgence of blues?
The reason that people like B. B. King are coming through now is, you see, a long time ago music like that was considered race music. As you know, Muddy Waters has never gotten the recognition he should’ve gotten, Howlin’ Wolf has never gotten the recognition, the Rolling Stones used to sit and talk to me and they were saying, “These people are great, how come you never hear them?” And I think that people like Janis Joplin have made it possible for these people to come through. By them doing it, it makes kids want to see the originators.
Like, see, when Elvis came out a lot of black groups would say, “Elvis cannot do so and so and so, shoo shoo shoo [huffs and grumbles]. And I’d say, “Shut up, shut up.” Let me tell you this—when I came out they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations, I was the first to get played on the Top 40 stations—but it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand? And people like Janis Joplin and B. B. King, I’m glad to see what’s happening to them, because they’re true people, and rhythm and blues is the type of music that can’t nobody teach you, you have to be dedicated. So it proves that she is dedicated. It proves that B. B. King is dedicated. A lot of the music I see today is trash, it’s a lot of banging and the kids are not really doin’ it, but a lot of the people are doin’ it.
Why are people suddenly getting back to the Fifties’ sound?
The reason is music works in a cycle. Where else can it go? It’s just this is a tall building but it has a foundation; if you take the foundation out the top is gonna fall. This music is the true foundation of the music, what they’re doing today all stems from this. So the kids are going back to it, they heard their mothers talking and they want to get a chance to see what their mothers really enjoyed, and they’re gonna enjoy what their mothers didn’t get a chance to enjoy.
Where do you think it’s all going?
I think that rock and roll is getting ready to shake the world again. That rock and roll, with them wild names and that thing that makes you dance yourself to glory, I think that’s what’s getting ready to happen to the music. I think all this “Whoooo” [does a Little Richard yell] and all this is going to come back again. You know, the Beatles had that when they came out, [sings] “When I was just 17, you know what I mean,” a thing. Look at “Roll Over Beethoven”—[sings] “gonna mail it to my local DJ”—it’s a thing. All this is coming back again. In fact, it never left. ‘Cause people like Joe Marcello, the Beatles love this today, and their new record is nothing but old rock and roll.
What else are you doing this year?
Well, I want to play for all the people that the people call “hippies” that I call “the real people,” and I’m gonna record for what they call “the underground” that I call “realism,” and I’m getting to go into the studio. You know, when I record I don’t write nothin’, I make ’em up the studio. But I’m getting ready to record, and I’m doing the Ed Sullivan Show and a CBS special—a whole tour of just me. [At this point someone comes in to fix the air conditioner.] I’d appreciate it if you’d fix that thing. I’d do the same for you when you’re in Macon, Georgia. When I get too hot my beauty melts.
What do you think of the Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally”?
You know, I taught Paul the guitar part. Oh God, I used to meet them every day, John used to order all them steaks and when he didn’t have the money I’d have to pay for them. But when I went back to England, they treated me real beautiful though. You know they came and stayed at my home in California. They’re really beautiful people. They just made me a very big offer to come with Apple Records.
Are you going to take it?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it, but another company has offered me a million dollars. I have about 7 million dollars’ worth of offers from record companies right now. So I haven’t made up my mind which one I’m going with. It’s not the money but I want to be with someone who really digs me and what I’m doing and I know that the Beatles, they do. And the concentration on my promotion.
Is it difficult to find the kinds of people to produce you and promote you?
One of the big problems with record companies is they all try and make me be a rhythm and blues artist, and I’m not. I love rhythm and blues but I’m not an attraction that has to be played on WWRL. You understand some of the stations, that’s all they cater to, and I want to be heard on the underground and Top 40, because that’s where I am, and I want them to hear me. So you have to be careful what company you go with, because if the real people don’t hear you, you don’t get a real hit.
What was the first live show you did after coming out of the ministry?
London. At the Savoy theater, which is the Beatles’ theater. Fantastic. The Beatles were there, Princess Margaret, the Dave Clark Five, Tommy Jones, everybody, and we was having a ball.
Were you nervous at all?
I don’t get nervous. You know, I’d be so glad when they introduced me I could hardly wait to get out there. I’d get mad because I had to come off. I just love it; That’s all I live for, to make people happy, I feel like I could just die! It’s a good feeling.
If you couldn’t sing or perform tomorrow, what would you do?
Just put me in my casket and let me go if I couldn’t do my thing. That’s my thing. Some people got two things, but I only got one and that’s it.
How did you get into giving away your clothes at the end of the show?
Well you see, so many people there admiring what you have on. I would have thrown that glass shirt in the audience last night but it would’ve cut, so that’s the reason I didn’t throw it. It’s real glass. It’s a shirt that weighs ten pounds so if I’d have threw it in the audience the kids would’ve cut themselves up. So I thought about that, I said oh God, I would have a heart attack if that ever happened, so that’s the reason I didn’t.
But everywhere I play I give my outfits away. I’m sure it’s over half a million dollars in clothes I’ve given away to my fans, but I don’t care because without them, you’re not a star. I threw away a mink coat on the first show last night, a beautiful mink coat. But I tell you, I don’t mind doing that, because without the people you’re not a star. And so why can’t you give them something back what they’ve given you? They really bought it. It’s just like someone bought you a loaf of bread, and you can’t give them a slice? When you got to buy something cheap to give them, you’re gonna give them some burnt bread when they’ve given you good bread? It’s like a lady said to me, “Why don’t you buy something cheap to throw away,” and I said, “No, I’m gonna give them just what I like, and if it’s not something I like, I’m not gonna throw it out there, I want it to be something that I like.” I had to go out and buy two pairs of shoes today because I threw my shoes in the audience.
How many shows have you done in the last few years?
I’ve been off one week in the past eight months. I just played Las Vegas where I broke all records, Reno, Nevada where I broke Sammy Davis Jr.’s record. Every show was a sellout.
You’ve played several different kinds of audiences.
Isn’t that wonderful to know that you can just fit? Like some people say if it don’t fit, don’t force it; I fit. And when I come off that stage, I’m a pool of water, a pool of water. But I have to give all of me. I just can’t entertain, oh God, I just have to give it all. Oh Lord, I lose everything but the hair; that stays on my head.
Did you have a green neon light in your hair once?
No, but that’s a good idea. Next time you see me I will have it. I’ll have that neon all over, with no writing on it either, oh Lord. Keep that in your mind, the green neon light; I can get a green suit and green shoes and have it neoned to death. Just make sure that it don’t shock me. I got an electric suit; well, I really don’t need an electric suit, I’m the living flame myself.
Who was your hero when you were growing up in Macon, Georgia?
Well, I came from a family where my people didn’t like rhythm and blues. Bing Crosby—”Pennies From Heaven”—Ella Fitzgerald, was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but I didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.
Don’t you play the piano any more?
The reason I don’t play that one was it was out of tune, and when I played I put the band out of tune. In Vegas I played the piano on every number. I stand and play with my toes, you should see me with my toes, you’ve never seen toes like Little Richard’s. The livin’ toe, yes, Lord. Shut up.
Are you conscious of being very vocal when you perform or is it intuitive?
The beautiful thing is I just like to say it, and the way I say it they know I don’t mean no harm—shut up, I’d rather do it myself. I just love to talk to the young people; I don’t like to talk to all those old people. They’re old and I’m young and out of place.
Do you get much chance to talk to young people?
Yes, everywhere I go I talk to the young people. In fact, in my personal help, I don’t have nothing but young people. My whole staff is young. I don’t want no old people; I want young ideas so if I don’t think right, they can help me. All those old people thinking about engines, things that happened back in 1900. My Lord, we weren’t even making records then.
What do you think is bugging young people?
Realism. They’re not gonna accept no “who shot John,” “who came and got Jimmy,” Minnie Pearl. They’re not gonna accept nothing less than realism. And they tell their mothers and fathers what they think, if they get put outdoors they’re still gonna talk. And they’re tired of the old people pouring their thoughts and minds on them. And this thing about a young man of 18 going in the army but he still can’t vote, if he’s old enough to fight he’s old enough to vote, but they don’t want them to vote because they’ll put a young man in office.
In your stage act you’re not taking off your clothes. What do you think about nudity in films and in the theater?
Personally, I don’t see nothin’ wrong with it. You must remember the Bible tells us Adam and Eve didn’t wear clothes, the first people. When you go to the museum you see naked people. Little kids five years old see that. I don’t know what all the fussin’ is about. Everybody knows people make love. They had to make love for you and I to be sittin’ here today. Old people try to make sex sound so bad and all but it’s beautiful. Wonderful thing, thank God for sex!
What do you feel about the war?
I’ve always had a personal feeling we should send older men to the service. I think we’re somewhere we shouldn’t be.
Where is the Okeh Club where the live album was recorded?
It’s not a club, it’s a studio, Columbia studio in Hollywood on Sunset. It was an audience that was invited, it was in the paper. There were about 900 people there, you couldn’t get in it was so crowded.
Rock has always been related to religion by its roots, what connection do you see in your life between them?
Between my type of music and religion? I believe my music is the healin’ music. Just like Oral Roberts says he’s a divine healer, I believe my music can make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf and dumb hear and talk, because it inspires and uplifts people. I’ve had old women tell me I made them feel they were 19 years old. It uplifts the soul, you see everybody’s movin’, they’re happy, it regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder splatter, the knees freeze.
What did you feel about doing the Monkees’ show?
I hated that, they didn’t give me no time. They was really trying to rebuild the Monkees and they had artists like me and Fats and Jerry Lee Lewis to build them up. We knew what they were doin’ but we just went on and did the show.
What are you going to do for your special for CBS?
A whole hour of just me. I think I’m going to do it from Caesar’s Palace. I’m gonna do it on one of them slots in the evenin’ where there’s a whole teenage audience. We’ll use different cuts from the movies I made. Girl Can’t Help It, Don’t Knock the Rock, Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll. They’re gonna fly me to London, have me talkin’ to the Beatles, playin’ the piano, playin’ with Elvis; all the people I have inspired. Tom Jones, a thing with me and Jimi Hendrix playing. I got one girl I’m gonna have on my special, she’s never had a chance, I’m gonna have Brenda Lee on my special.
Are you producing any groups yourself?
I have three groups that I am gettin’ ready to record and then there’s my management company. I have a group called the Living Flames we’re gonna record. [Q] If you are into playing for the underground, how come you don’t play at the Fillmore, places like that? [A] I been offered a Fillmore, but they haven’t come up to the money yet. If they can get up to Jimi Hendrix they can sure reach mine. I really prefer doin’ the festivals. I’m gonna do a 15-day tour with Jimi, and Fats, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent goin’ all over. It’s all comin’ back. You know the reason why I know it’s all comin’ back is that you know Elvis is managed by a very smart man, Col. Parker and he wanted Elvis to appear at The International Hotel in Vegas so that people could see this. You know what Elvis’ special did to the country.
What do you think of Larry Williams as a producer?
I think he’s the worst producer in the world. I don’t like him as a producer because he wanted me to copy Motown, and I’m no Motown artist. He wants me to do all that electronics and stuff; I want the natural real thing, the real people want the real thing. He’s a very bad producer, very bad. In fact, he’s one of the worst I’ve seen.
How many cover versions are there of “Tutti Frutti”?
Oh my Lord. There was Elvis and Pat Boone, and both of them sold more copies than I did. Pat Boone didn’t sell as many “Long Tall Sally”s because he couldn’t get his mouth around the words. I rehearsed that line, you know “ducked back in the alley” with Bumps [Bumps Blackwell has been Little Richard’s manager for twenty years] for hours until we got it like a drum beat, you know, da-da-da-da-da-da.
How did the album ‘Little Richard’s Greatest Hits’ sell?
It didn’t sell at all because it was put out on Okeh, which was an R & B label. See, originally it was meant to come out Epic, and it would have done a lot better because I’m not primarily a black artist. None of the R&B stations would play it on account of the martyrs and jocks in the South who couldn’t forgive me for giving up the ministry.
Is there anything you want to say to all your fans?
All right everybody, let your hair down. If you have a wig take your wig off and get down with it. I just think that everybody needs to get down with it, today. All the real people are down with it, but it’s the squares that ain’t gettin’ nowhere. Just get down with it. This record has a whole lot of feeling in it [Little Richard “live” album], but the new one I got coming is outasite. I got one called “Miss Lucy.” “Miss Lucy where is your daughter?” It’s outasite. I want to tell all the kids, if they haven’t seen me to get the chance to see me. When you see the name, come, because it’s an experience. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but they got to see the Little Richard Experience. The 20-year experience and I’m still 24.
I’ve heard you sing a couple of Hank Williams numbers at your concerts, like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” you really add another dimension to country, not just that tiny, whiney sound you’re always hearing.
Yeah well you see I put a little something of myself into it, I don’t just do the country sound, I make it mine, you understand, I sing it with an R&B rhythm and it makes it into something else.
It’s really great to hear you coming out with something new, I mean like new songs.
I always knew I could do it before, but I wanted to show the world and my fans that I was there. It’s there and it’s stronger than it’s ever been, not decreasin’ but increasin’ in power and knowledge you know because I’m not guessin’, I know. I see a lot of groups around I know are not going to stay, because they’re not original. You could say that when the Beatles first came out they were singing me and Chuck Berry but they went on and developed their own thing, which means that they are each a talent themselves, They found themselves immediately, do you understand me? They went on which proves that they are a livin’ talent, they’re not copying, they have it.
Some of the tracks on the album are like the old rock and roll, I mean ’55 and ’56, but yet it doesn’t sound like a revival?
It’s different from that, isn’t it? The stuff that’s out today is something else. A lot of people are trying to do ’56. They came up pretty close, but this is really the authentic ’56 rock and roll. You know, from the piano on down to the saxophone, the only difference is today they have better electronics and studios to bring out the sound. But it’s the same thing I was doin’ back then, the same power, you can’t duplicate the sound because it is the only thing, and it was then, and it still is today. I’m glad that the teenagers didn’t forget me, they kept the name alive and I’m grateful to them. I just wanted to put something out that would blow their minds, not to hate, not to kill, but to do their will [laughs].
What would you say you did differently than on the old albums, like the bass line is a little heavier.
Yeah, the bass riffs are more predominant, the guitar you’ll notice is more out front, more than they were in the past. The voices is just riding on the rhythm, it’s a force and a funk, and it’s clean, it’s not gutty-gut but it’s clean. It’s wonderful. I had a dream, you know . . . that I was number one in the country, and I dreamed I had a record that was unusual and everyone was talking about it, I dreamed about thousands of beautiful people were at my concerts, thousands . . . it was unbelievable.
I’m sure it’ll all happen.
It’s happenin’ now. I dreamed I got on all the television shows, and I got ’em. I think that them that wait shall get [laughs]. If they don’t get, they didn’t wait.
What did people say when you told them your dream?
They didn’t believe me. When I was a little boy I dreamed I was going to be a star, everybody in my home town laughed and made fun, they said, I was washin’ dishes at that bus station, they said this cat is never gonna be no star, he’s gonna wash dishes, like it remind me when “Tutti Frutti” came out, Wop-bop-a-lu-bop- a- lop-bam-boom—it was a new sound, when I played it for people at my house at first they didn’t dig it, when it came out it was a smash.
And “Freedom Blues”?
It got a different start off, it’s catchy, the little thing is catchy, and the message is universal. It’s not like “black people you gotta be free!” I didn’t say that. Everybody, everybody got to be free. . . .
Let’s get rid of that ole man hate
And bring our fellow man up to date
It may seem very hard to do
But open your mind, let love come through,
Hear me callin’, hear my plea,
Everybody, everybody’s gotta be free!
La la da dadada dan da
You understand me? Everybody! Let’s get rid of these freedom blues.
I saw you on a talk show last week with Margaret Mead and you were saying something about . . .
About marihuana [laughs]. Yeah, she reminds me of my Aunt Lulu back in Macon, Georgia. She used to swing! And she used to get high! They used to slip grass in her pipe, and they would fill the pipe full of grass, put tobacco on top. She’d puff away. She didn’t know what was happenin’, she be just laughin’. My momma’d say, “what’s wrong with Aunt Lulu?” She’d be swinging high. She would swing up, she was a little lady, she didn’t have teeth; she’d swing almost over the rim. And I said to Miss Mead, “You remind me of my Aunt Lulu,” and then I told her to shut up! [laughs]. That’s where I got the idea for “Good Golly Miss Molly,” somethin’ she used to say when she got high swinging up there. Everything I sung was really something that happened around my home town; I was born in the slums, you see my daddy sold whiskey, bootleg whiskey, white lightnin’!
Wasn’t he a preacher, too?
No, his father was a minister, and I have two uncles besides that are ministers. And my daddy, he would sell this whiskey and there used to be a man comin’ around singin’, beatin’ a washboard, you ever seen a washboard? In those days they didn’t call ’em washboards, they called them rub-boards. And the man’d come around singin’:
You shall be free
In the mornin’
You shall be free
And he’d beat the thing, you know. I’d follow him around, goin’, Bam-a-lam-bam/You shall be free. Then the vegetable man would come by. He would draw the people out and he would sing [sings in a high gospel voice]:
And a barrel of beans
Grocer man comin’ with a cart of greens,
And people would all come to the door, and the man would be ridin’ down the street with a horse, a wagon, and singin’ and everybody would come to the door, and he’d just keep singin’
And a barrel of beans
Grocer man comin’ with cart of greens
It was really somethin’. Everybody be singin’. We would be washin’ in the back yard, just singin’ and we sound like a big choir, and we never practiced: it was a big choir like fifty voices all over the neighborhood, and that’s what I came from, Otis Redding came from it and James, he came from there too.
Can you tell me the story that’s behind “Long Tall Sally”?
Yeah . . . it was a lady who used to drink quite a bit, she always like pretend she had a cold when she came to our house. She would call up and she would say “Oh Miss Penniman I got this awful cough here!” She’d put sugar in her whiskey, and they called it a toddy, so she toddied all day, and when she’d get drunk, she would get up and “Can’t make it, this cold is killing me, Mrs. Penniman,” and oh, God, I came out of all that. That was a bad vibration, but a good vibration, too, because if I hadn’t been through that, I would never have become Little Richard.
What about Long Tall Sally?
I was losing that, thank you for bringing me back. Sally used to come back with all of this whiskey, and she’d get drunk, and she was tall and ugly, man, that was an ugly woman. She was so ugly that people used to turn their heads, she didn’t have but two teeth and they were on each side of her tongue, and she was cockeyed.
So we used to say, “Long Tall Sally, she’s built for speed,” and her old man they called John. In Georgia, when you’re raised around a lot of people, you call them your uncle and your aunt, so we used to call this cat Uncle John, but he was really married to Mary, which was a big, fat lady, who used to sit on the porch and eat watermelon all the time, she was a sight to see, too. We used to call her Short Fat Fanny. This cat would be out there, and they’d get to fighting on Saturday. All the black people got paid off on Friday, and you’d know when Friday came, because of whiskey and fights and joyful times, too, and she and he started a good fight.
So when he’d see her coming, he’d duck back in this little alley. I just thought of my whole experience. All my songs are really experiences, like “Miss Ann”—Ann Johnson. I’d never sung like this before, I was singing ballads, and when I started singing like this it was hard at first, boy, I used to get hoarse, because I was singing so hard, but now I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s really given me an experience and courage to go on. Very few people get two chances, I think it’s a chosen bunch that paid their dues right, and I’m glad that I’m one of the ones that was selected, and I’m grateful to everyone everywhere, all races, creeds and colors, thank you, thank you, thank you, ooh, ooh, thank you.
Who produced these tapes [for the new album on Warner Brothers]?
I did, I produced the whole thing and arranged the whole thing. The producer wanted to produce me, and I’m going to give him a chance, but I also want to assist him, because I don’t want to miss, and don’t nobody know Richard like Richard, because I am Richard. I don’t need nobody to produce me, in fact I could teach them some things about producing, you know I’ve been doing this thing since I was seven years old.
What was a recording session like in the Fifties?
The studio was about the size of this room, about 15 by 10 feet, air coming from everywhere; in the wintertime we froze, if he was playing saxophone he was a froze saxophone player. And I would sit there, man, and play, and me and the band would get together and jam and pick out riffs, and I’d hum ideas to them, pick them out on the piano, and we never missed, because I always came out with something different, because I like to create like the “Freedom Blues”; it’s a message I want the whole world to hear. I want the black power, the red power, the white power, the brown power, the green power to listen because this is what we need—get rid of those freedom blues. “It may seem very hard to do, just open your mind, let love come through.” You hear me call, and you hear my plea, everybody, every man, I don’t care where he’s from, I don’t care if he’s rich, poor, black or white, whatever race, that man wants to be free, let him do his thing.
Where was the studio?
New Orleans. Cosmo Studio. I cut all of my hits there. Fats and I were using the same recording band at this time, but we got two different sounds. Bumps Blackwell produced them, he wrote some of the songs with me, not really arranged them, just copied what I was doin’ on the piano, that’s all the people in the band do, they copy what I’d be doin’, when you hear them, you’re really hearing me, because what they’ve done, I’ve showed them. Besides I have a thing I want to hear that makes me work—I have to hear the guitars, I must hear the guitars, and then I can get my feel. I’d rather the bass and everything is off, let me hear the guitars!
On the early things did you start off with the piano because of the church thing?
Yeah, well, if you notice, on “Spreadin’ Natta,” I start off on the piano. The name of it is “Spreadin’ Natta,” Spreadin’ Natta, a girl. Spreadin’ Natta, what’s the matta? A girl gave me some of the words to this song, a lady named Mabel. She wrote “Heebie Jeebies.” She brought me some words and I added on to them. She had some words that I didn’t like, like she brought one song called “The Wine Drinking Rooster,” and I never saw a rooster drink wine, so I couldn’t get the song together, because that would be a drunk rooster, and I’d hate to meet him.
What about “Ready Teddy”?
I didn’t write “Ready Teddy.” They brought me the words and I made up the melody, and at the time I didn’t have sense enough to claim so much money, because I really made them hits. But now I’ve learned, you know you pay a whole lot of big dues, and I’ve paid almost two million dollars worth of dues, but I still didn’t cheat nobody. I was cheated, but I didn’t cheat nobody, so I let that man sleep at night at his house and let his conscience be his guide while he’s resting. I didn’t get the money, but I still have the freedom.
What about “Slippin’ and Slidin'”?
A fellow in my band, Lee Diamond, gave me some of the words and I changed them around. Another cat put “Slippin’ and Slidin'” out before I did, Eddie Bow, and it was a hit by him in New Orleans, and they put mine out the following week, and it killed him, because he didn’t have the rhythm, you see, he didn’t have that thing I have.
Who played in the band you and Fats used?
Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer. Red Tyler died the other day, and Lee Allen died the other day. Lee Allen took all the solos on tenor sax, Red Tyler played the baritone sax, and Earl Palmer, he’s a big drummer here in L.A., he played on all the sessions.
“Lucille, won’t you do your sister’s will,” it was another kind of song, so I put it in this rhythm. “Lucille” reminds me of the song “Spreadin’ Natta,” it’s got that raunchy thing. And the song just tore the country down, everywhere you turned, and all the kids loved it, because they could do the dance. But really, I didn’t know what inspired me to write “Lucille,” I could tell you a lie, but I gotta be truthful—I don’t know what inspired me to write it, it may have been the rhythm.
Is it true that you had a throne and a carpet in the Fifties?
Yes, I used all that, but I got out of that, it was almost like a Pope, and if I wasn’t doing it, the Pope ain’t Catholic. I had the guards and everything. Pouche was one of my guards. They dressed like Queen Elizabeth’s guards. And when we went to restaurants, we’d have a flag with my picture on it, and we’d spread out the carpet, and it was a big attraction, people used to come from everywhere to see it. And I had the nerve to do it. I used to sit up on that throne, I liked it, too, I used to feel so good sittin’ up there, I didn’t want to come down, when it was time to come down. I used to sit up there and drink a cup of coffee. I used to have a ball on the throne, I can say I have sat on the throne.
Why did you give up singing in the Fifties?
It was at the time they sent the satellite up, and I was in Sydney, Australia, on a tour with Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and it was a fantastic, monstrous tour. And I had a dream, and I saw some terrible things in this dream. And then I was on the airplane, and I just prayed, I felt like I was holding the