This story, originally titled “Tooty, Fruity,” was published in the July 19/Aug 2 1984 issue of Rolling Stone
Richard Penniman was a dishwasher who would be king — or queen, depending on his mood. Born in 1932, the third of Charles and Leva Mae Penman’s 12 children, raised in less than regal circumstances in the black neighborhoods of Macon, Georgia, he was compelled to invent his particular brand of majesty. This was Little Richard, “Handsomest Man in Rock & Roll.”
His image was an immaculate conception, a fantasy born of years in traveling medicine shows, drag queen revues, churches and clubs. He was clean — knife-sharp pleats, six-inch glazed and sculpted pompadour, pencil mustache, smooth matte Pancake 31, no-flake mascara. but in Fifties America, this made for a terrible mess. He was black and gay, talented and loud, and worse — much worse — absolutely sure of himself. Even as a slightly crippled child, he was what he is — a confident freak.
In the offhand manner that had produced Elvis’ “That’s All Right” from between-take noodling in a Memphis studio, Richard’s first session for Specialty Records, cut in New Orleans in 1955, mined a hit from a lewd bit of nonsense the artiste liked to fool with during breaks. It started with him talking in tongues.
A WOP BOP ALU BOP A WOP BAM BOOM!
His wailing, octave-mauling voice was set off against his own berserk piano (he played so hard, he snapped 80-gauge piano strings) and a cross fire of guitars, drums and horns. The nasty lyrics (“Tutti-frutti, good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it/You can grease it, make it easy”) were sanitized for teen protection. In late 1955, “Tutti-Frutti” was a certified, original, unregenerate rock & roll hit. It was followed with a straight run of classics like “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Rip It Up,” “Ooh! My Soul,” “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” Richard marauded with Alan Freed’s rock-package shock troops, tossing off his clothes, mule-kicking the piano, trading top billing with Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jetty Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. In this wide, choppy wake, two decades of white rockers pledged their unholy inspiration to Little Richard; they included Elvis, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Mitch Ryder and the Everly Brothers.
Little Richard’s musical legacy is nonpareil — but just as important was his audacious success at being his bad, weird self. Nearly 30 years before Joan Rivers talked to Boy George on The Tonight Show like he was one of the girls, Little Richard bent gender, upset segregationist fault lines and founded a tradition of rock dadaists devoted to the art of self-creation. But unlike the studied incarnations of Bowies, Boys and Elton Johns, Richard never seemed to think about it. He went with the inspiration of the moment, be it divine or hormonal, and caromed like a shiny, cracked pinball between God, sex and rock & roll.
He’s a preacher now, and is startling the world with the revelation that rock & roll is the devil’s music. His forthcoming biography, written in collaboration with his longtime producer and manager, Robert “bumps” Blackwell, and English deejay Charles White (a.k.a. Dr. Rock) is, like his life, bizarre, disjointed and outrageous. Exhibitionist and voyeur, sinner and speechifying penitent — hear him now. And if you can’t believe it, don’t force it. — GERRI HIRSHEY
Richard Wayne Penniman on his formative years:
My mother had all these kids, and I was the only one born deformed. My right leg is shorter than the left The kids didn’t realize I was crippled. They thought I was trying to twist and walk feminine. The kids would call me faggot, sissy, freak. I said to Mother, “Why is it that one of my legs is shorter than the other?” She answered, “Shut up, boy. You go and get the dishes washed and don’t worry about it.” But I wanted to hear someone talk about it. I wanted some explanation, I had this great big head and little body, and I had one big eye and one little eye. But God gave me a strong mind and a strong will. I’ve always had a fierce determination to excel. I had so many friends at school. Didn’t trust none of ’em, though. All the kids would call me Big Head. The boys would want to fight me because I didn’t like to be with them. I wanted to play with the girls. See, I felt like a girl. I used to play house with my cousins, and I’d say, “I’m the mamma,” and they’d say, “Hey, Richard, you was the mamma yesterday.”
I always loved Mother more than Daddy. I idolized her. Every movement. I used to just love it when she put powder on her face. I used to watch her, and later I’d sneak up into her bedroom and just sit there, putting rose water and stuff on myself. I’d imitate the things she said and the way she said them. She’d say, “Ooh, it’s so hot.” Then I would go outside and sit with my friends and say, “Ooh, it’s so hot.” I just felt that I wanted to be a girl more than a boy.
My first homosexual experience was with a friend of my family’s who the local gay people called Madame Oop. Madame Oop lived in our neighborhood. He worked on the railroad. He used to come around with another gay guy called Sis Henry. Well, when everybody was getting off work, Madame Oop would catch them, and he would use his mouth on them, and he would pay them sometimes. I didn’t like it. I just stared at him. But I needed him cuz I would get money from him. My ma and dad would nor have approved.
I wanted to be a preacher. I wanted to be like Brother Joe May, the singing evangelist, who they called the Thunderbolt of the West. I have always been basically a religious person. Of all the churches, I used to like going to the Pentecostal Church, because of the music.
We used to have a group called the Tiny Tots Quartet — all of us, the whole family. We used to go around and sing in all the churches and in contests with other family groups in what they called the Battle of the Gospels. I could always sing loud, and I kept changing the key upward.
I used to hang around the traveling shows that came through the town — I’d get up and sing with them. I remember Doctor Nobilio, the Macon town prophet. He wore a turban and a red and yellow cape, and he carried a black stick. I’d sing to attract the people, and then he’d prophesy.
When I started getting into trouble at home, I left and joined up with Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. I didn’t tell anybody I was going. I just went. Dr. Hudson was out of Macon, and he used to sell snake oil. He would go into towns, have all the black people come around and tell them that the snake oil was good for everything. But he was lying. Snake oil! I was helping him lie. He had a stage out in the open and a feller by the name of James would play piano. I would sing, “Cal’donia, Cal’donia, what makes your big head so hard?”
The next trawling show Richard joined sold more than snake oil:
Sugarfoot Sam was a minstrel show. That was the first time I performed in a dress. One of the girls was missing one night, and they put me in a red evening gown. I was the biggest mess you ever saw. They called me Princess Lavonne. I didn’t know how to walk in women’s shoes, so they had to stand me at the mike and open the curtains. There I was with this red dress on, one long leg and one short one, one long arm and one little arm. They were laughing and saying, “Look at this here.” I looked like the freak of the year.
Weekends, in Atlanta, I used to sing at the theater with all of the entertainers who’d come into town — B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon and many others. And that’s when I first met Billy Wright. Billy was an entertainer who wore very loud-colored clothing, and he wore his hair curled. I thought he was the most fantastic entertainer I had ever seen.
Playing locally with his band, the Upsetters, Richard soon began tasting sweet notoriety. His ambition was reaching the outrageous heights of his peacock pompadour:
Little Richard and the Upsetters got a tremendous name. Fats Domino would come to the Manhattan Club in Macon, and I would go out to see him. He was a star then, but he was singing blues. Chuck Berry was a star, too, but they were blues singers. They were all afraid of me, cuz they had heard people talking about me, saying, “Have you been to Macon? Have you seen this guy Little Richard? Y’know, he’s terrible. Have you heard him play the piano?”
Lloyd Price came to Macon, and I met him. He was a big star, and he had a black and gold Cadillac. I wanted one just like that. There weren’t that many Cadillacs about. The only place that had one was the funeral home, and you had to die to ride! So I talked to Lloyd, and he told me to send a tape to Art Rupe at Specialty Records in Los Angeles. I went to a radio station in Macon, WBML, and recorded some blues. That was in February 1955. I sent it off to the address Lloyd had given me and just carried on playing with my band. Weeks and weeks went by, and I never heard from Specialty. Then I got into trouble with the law and had to stop appearing in Macon.
There was this lady by the name of Fanny. I used to drive her around so I could watch people having sex with her. She didn’t do it for money. She did it because I wanted her to do it. Well, I got put in jail for it. Lewd conduct, they called it. Then my mother got a lawyer by the name of Lawyer Jacob. He told the court, “This nigger’s goin’ to get out of town.” So they let me go. I couldn’t go back and play there no more because of that. We just stayed on the road.
Then, 10 months after I’d sent my tape, Specialty sent for me. We had been playing in Fayetteville, Tennessee. I got the call early in the morning, “Meet us in New Orleans.”
Producer-manager Robert “Bumps” Blackwell would have a long and volatile relationship with Richard after unearthing him as a scout for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records.
As he recalls, “Art Rupe instructed me in the late winter of 1954 or early spring of 1955 to find someone to compete with Ray Charles. I began to search and was auditioning artists. One day, a reel of tape, wrapped in a piece of paper looking as though someone had eaten off it, came across my desk. The tape was from Little Richard. In spite of the poor quality, I could tell by the tone of his voice and all those church turns that he was a gospel singer who could sing the blues. When I got to New Orleans, Cosimo Matassa, the distributor, called and said, ‘Hey, man, this boy’s down here waiting for you.’ When I walked in, there’s this cat in a loud shirt, with hair waved up six inches above his head. He was talking wild, thinking up stuff just to be different, you know? But in the studio that day, be was very inhibited. If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse, it just doesn’t work out. So I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Jesus: You know what it’s like when you don’t know what to do? It’s le’s take a break. Let’s go to lunch.’
“So, here we go over to the Dew Drop Inn, and, of course, Richard’s like any other ham. We walk into the place, and, you know, the girls and the boys are there, and he’s got an audience. There’s a piano, and that’s his crutch. He hits that piano and starts to sing, ‘Awop bop aloo-bop a-good goddamn. Tutti-Frutti, good booty….’ I said, ‘Wow! That’s what I want from you, Richard. That’s a hit!”‘
“Tutti-Frutti” got played on both black and white stations and sold more than half a million copies. Richard was a star. But success wasn’t all that sweet:
I had signed a very bad deal with Specialty. If you wanted to record, you signed on their terms or you didn’t record. I got half a cent for every record sold. Who ever heard of cutting a penny in half !
It didn’t matter how many records you sold if you were black. The publishing rights were sold to the record label before the record was released. “Tutti-Frutti” was sold to Specialty for 50 dollars. Most performers were young, inexperienced and uneducated. We were exploited, abused, misused and just plain ripped off by record labels and management as they quickly became aware of the money to be made in the early era of rock & The people who got recorded were the ones who didn’t know or care too much about the money angle of it And when one came along who showed signs of knowledge of the business, he was called a smart nigger who knew too much for his own good. That is why many of the old acts were never heard from after their first one or two recordings. So we knew that to make money, we had to go on the road, and it had to be with the best show in the U.S.
Richard took America by storm. During a show at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, the crowd was so charged that people had to be restrained from jumping of the balcony. The show was stopped twice while police restrained a dozen hysterical girls who were climbing onstage, trying to rip souvenirs from a wild-eyed, swear-soaked Little Richard. Suddenly, something flew through the air and landed on the drummer’s hi-hat — a pair of panties. Within seconds, the air was filled with king undergarments:
It was quite a show. Barnum and Bailey, you name it! There was never any problem getting girls. At the end of the show, they’d either come round to the dressing room or the hotel, and we’d sort them out — which ones we wanted. But it got difficult to have sex parties after a time, because we were so popular. People couldn’t get to you. I wasn’t used to that It made me feel so important. So big.I felt unusual, you know, like I was a special person I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. They should have called me Richard the Watcher.
Then I met Angel. We were in Savannah I saw this beautiful young girl with this fantastic body, 50-inch bust and 18-inch waist. It’s true that nothing grows in the shade!
A few weeks later, she turned up at a concert in Wilmington, Delaware. She had decided to come with me. When we left for Washington that night, she traveled with us in my car. We checked into the Hotel Dunbar and shared a room. She was a wonderful lover. She changed her name to Lee Angel and worked as a nude model, a dancer and a stripper.
I loved Angel and Angel loved me, but in different ways. Marriage was a dream of hers, but I never wanted to marry her. I loved Angel because she was pretty, and the fellers enjoyed having sex with her. She could draw a lot of handsome guys for me. She was some girl.
Buddy Holly was along on marry of the Fifties package tours. According to Richard, they shared more than top billing:
Buddy and I were real good friends. He was a nice guy, and he used to idolize my music. He’d go out and do my songs before I came on. On one of our tours, he invited me to his home in Lubbock, Texas, for dinner. When his daddy saw who his son had brought home, he wouldn’t let me in. But Buddy told his daddy, “If you don’t let Richard in, I’ll never come back to this house again.” So they let me in, but they weren’t too happy. I’ll bet they washed them dishes I ate off of about 20 times after we’d gone.
Buddy liked Angel. He was a wild boy for the women. One time, we were playing at the Paramount, and Buddy came into my dressing room. He was having sex with Angel 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!
By 1957, the long road trips had begun to take their toll on Richard. He was feeling abused by promoters and record companies. He was tired of being a star. It was during a tour of Australia that he realized the evil of his ways:
On our fifth date of the two-week tour, we left Melbourne for Sydney, and 40,000 people came to see me at the municipal outdoor arena. That night, Russia sent off that very first Sputnik. It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads. It really shook my mind I got up from the piano and said, “This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.”
There were 10 days of the tour left to run, but I would not work anymore. I demanded passage back to the States for the total entourage, 10 days early. The incredible thing is that the plane we were originally scheduled to return on crashed into the Pacific Ocean. That’s when I felt that God really had inspired me to do the things I did at the time.
Back home, Richard handed his mother the keys to his Cadillac and set off to toil in the fields of the Lord:
Me and Joe Lutcher [a bandleader turned evangelist] got a team together called the Little Richard Evangelistic Team. We started traveling across the country, and we helped many people through the ministry. I served at the tent meetings, doing all the menial tasks like ushering, tightening the ropes, showing slides and collecting questions from the audience. I shared in the ordinance of humility by washing the feet of other members before taking communion. My life changed completely.
I felt unusual, like I was a special person. I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. They should have called me Richard the Watcher.
At Oakwood; a theological institution in Huntsville, Alabama, the elders were soon discomfited by the strange behavior of their star pupil:
The elders didn’t like me taking my yellow Cadillac on the campus. They didn’t like the way the kids swarmed round me, asking me to sing my rock & roll hits. I didn’t like school any better than I did when I was a boy in Macon. I was taking Biblical courses, and I was taking English an’ all, but English was so hard for me, I had to let it go.
I thought that everyone who went to Oakwood would be an angel. Then I learned that there were some devils there, too.
They had discovered that I was a homosexual, and I resented the discovery. I had worked with a young guy in another city, and I had him show himself to me. I didn’t touch him, but he went back and told his father, who was a deacon of the church. The church had a board meeting to let me now that it was wrong. I was so mad. At the time, I thought they were being hypocritical. But really, to be truthful, they weren’t. I was. I was supposed to have been living a different life, and I wasn’t.
The manager of a young group from Liverpool, England,s oon got the idea of promoting his protegés with the kind of hysterical publicity only Richard could generate. The manager was Brian Epstein, the group, the Beatles.
Thus Little Richard, rock weirdo, was resurrected, and be crossed the ocean for a triumphant English tow:
When I first saw the Beatles, I didn’t think they’d make it. Then Brian Epstein booked me to play at the Cavern with them. A couple of weeks later, he had me headlining a big concert at a theater in Liverpool. They were a support band, with the Swingin’ Blue Jeans. Cilia Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Brian Epstein said to me, ‘Richard, I’ll give you 50 percent of the Beatles.” I couldn’t accept, cuz I never thought they would make it. Brian said, “Take the master [of the Beatles songs] back to America with you and give it to the record company for me.” I didn’t do that, but I did call up some people for them. I phoned Art Rupe. and I also got in touch with Vee Jay, but I didn’t take a piece of them.
So then I was booked for a tour of clubs in Hamburg. and I took the Beatles with me. We spent two months in Hamburg. John, Paul, George and Ringo. They would stay in my room every night. They hadn’t any money, so I paid for their food. I used to buy steaks for John.
Paul would come in, sit down and just look at me. Like. he’d say, “Oh, Richard! You’re my idol. Just let me touch you.” He wanted to learn my little holler, so we sat at the piano going “Ooooh! Ooooh!” till he got it.
I developed an especially close relationship with Paul, but me and John couldn’t make it. John had a nasty personality. He was different from Paul and George; they were sweet. George and Paul had humble-type personalities. You know, submissive. John and Ringo had strange personalities, both of them. John would do his no-mariners [fart], jump over and aunt-fanny all over the room, and I didn’t like it. It would bother me. I didn’t want to hear that stuff, y’know.
As the Beatles climbed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, Richard’s next record, ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo,’ foundered and sank at Number 85 on the ‘Billboard ‘charts:
When ‘Bama Lama’ flopped, it was devastating to me. So I just got me a band together and went on the road. I went all over the country touring, one-night stands. I played in some dumps. I played some snake holes, some rat holes and some pigpens. Oh, my God!
You see, I had been out of the public’s eye in America for so long that they had forgotten me. It was like starting all over again, like when I was just a teenage boy. There were all these English groups, the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and they just overshadowed my thing. But I was determined to make it.
Richard, rock chameleon, decided another image change was in order; he scared up some cash and had himself crowned king — complete with robe, scepter and a throne borne by groaning lackeys:
The King returned to his rightful throne, to push everybody off that can’t hold his own. When I retired from show business, millions of my fans were stunned. They wept and they moaned and they groaned because the King had left his subjects. Now, I was back, and I was a tornado, fast and round, faster than sound. I put $16,000 into my new act, which was very, very glamorous and elaborate, 17 musicians, singers, dancers and comedians. The Little Richard Show. My voice was the most exciting voice in the world. It was a sassy voice, and I gave a message and it was sassy. Then I would get very sweet and lovable, and it fit my beautiful personality. I was not in harmony with the church at that time. My music made your liver quiver, your bladder splatter, your knees freeze — and your big toe shoot right up in your boot.
Little Richard’s road show included a guitarist first known as Maurice James, later known as…
I first met Jimi Hendrix in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was stranded with no money. He had been working as guitarist with a feller called Gorgeous George, a black guy who sported curly hair and wore these fabulous clothes, which he made himself. Jimi was staying in this small hotel, and he came by to see us. He had watched me work and just loved the way I wore these headbands around my hair and how wild I dressed. He wanted to come with me, so my manager rang Mr. Hendrix in Seattle to see if it was OK for him to join us. Al Hendrix told Henry, “Jimi just idolizes Richard. He would eat 10 yards of shit to join his band.” So he came with me. He was playing like B.B. King, blues. He started rocking, though, and he was a good guy. He began to dress like me, and he even grew a little mustache like mine.
While Hendrix headed off to rock festivals, Richard went to Las Vegas. They wanted him for two weeks at the Aladdin Hotel:
The big Vegas hotels had refused to book me before. The star that was to open at this time was ill, so they decided they wanted me. I had no time at all for preparation. I said, “I’ve gotta be gorgeous.” So I had this red jacket made, and it had inch-square mirrors sewn all over it. I made ’em put out all the lights except two little baby spots. With those spots jiggling above me, there was light sparkling all over the place, bouncing off the mirrors. Man, they loved it! It was 15 minutes before I could do my first number. They loved the jacket almost as much as they loved the show. For the second show, there was a line all the way through the casino. People couldn’t even get to the gaming tables for the line. They had originally planned on two shows a night, but we wound up doing three because there was no way to accommodate all those people.
Tucked magisterially away in pricey clubs, Richard remained perched on his throne. Soon, be began to suffer nosebleeds — but it wasn’t from the height:
I was getting deeper and deeper into drugs. All I wanted was to have sex with beautiful women and get high. I spent thousands and thousands of dollars getting high. I missed a lot of engagements. I got behind financially. I got behind in my life. I only weighed about 115 pounds. All I was interested in was getting high. I’d be riding all over the city of Los Angeles looking for cocaine. I just had to be froze. They shoulda called me Little Cocaine, was sniffing so much of the stuff. My nose got big enough to back a diesel truck in, unload it and drive it right out again. Every rime I blew my nose, there was flesh and blood on my handkerchief, where it had eaten out my membranes.
A habit like mine cost a lot of money. I was smoking marijuana and angel dust, and I was mixing heroin with coke. I felt funny when I didn’t have anything. It was costing me around $1,000 a day — and there was always trouble with the dealers. I became very nasty, which I never used to be. Cocaine made me paranoid. It made me think evil. The drugs brought me to realize what homosexuality had made me. When I felt that, I wanted to hurt. I wanted to kill. I wanted to fight those boys who didn’t want to do what I wanted them to do. Then I starred to get so demanding that the cats working for me were getting me drunk so they could be free.
When his brother Tony died of a heart attack, Richard returned to the arms of the Lord:
Tony’s death was the saddest moment of my life. But it was also one of the happiest. I knew after Tony died that I was going to come out of show business. I felt that it would be a joy to come out Tony’s death was a door that I didn’t want to be opened, but it was opened. And I walked through it. To come out of show business and take my stand on God’s side.
I had heard God speaking to me to go out and tell the people of the Goodness and how He had snatched me from the Burning. I wanted people to know that the only rock they needed was the Rock, Christ Jesus. The only roll they needed was the Roll of Glory, to have their names on the Roll of Heaven. That’s the only rock & roll they need.
Richard Penniman, penitent and preacher, now sings from the pulpit:
I want to say, “Hello out there. I’m so glad to be with you today. My name is Little Richard. I’m the rock & roll singer that you’ve heard about through the years. I was making $10,000 for one hour. Just jumping up in the air with all of the makeup and the eyelashes on. With all of the mirrored suits and the sequins and the stones, going all over the place. I had forgotten all about God. Going from town to town, country to country, not knowing that I was directed and commanded by another power. The power of darkness. The power that you’ve heard so much about. The power that a lot of people don’t believe exists. The power of the Devil.”
I gave up rock & roll for the rock of ages. I cut off my crown of hair for a crown of life. I didn’t know that homosexuality was wrong, until I read it in the Bible. God never intended for me to go with anybody but a woman. God said, “Little Richard, you’re a man.” I said, “I’m a woman.” God said, “You lie.” He said, “I made you a man. When your mamma brought you home, she brought a boy. If you hadda been a girl, she would have named you Martha. You are a boy.”
Jesus saved Little Richard, a homosexual all my life. Jesus took me. And when I went back home, my curls was gone. I didn’t have no more curls. My eyelashes was gone. I didn’t have no makeup on. God changed me round. He gave me a new walk. In heaven, my name is still Richard Penniman. I may call myself Marie down here, but in Glory I’m still a man.
From ‘The Life and Times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock,’ by Charles White, published in October 1984 by Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. 1984 by Richard Wayne Penniman, Charles White and Robert A. Blackwell