The first time I met Little Richard, I had just gotten back from his hometown (and Otis Redding’s, and, more or less, James Brown’s) of Macon, Georgia. It was 1984, and I was working on my book Sweet Soul Music (which wouldn’t be published for a couple of years), while Richard was promoting his own authorized biography, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock — which, if you haven’t read it already, you must. It’s a masterpiece of honest, and eloquent (self)-reporting.
Richard had been booked on a noon-time talk show in Boston, and they decided for no good reason – for no reason whatsoever – that they needed an “outside expert” to join him. But Richard didn’t need anybody to serve as his interpreter, and I didn’t. My grandmother said to me afterwards, “He didn’t let you get a word in edgewise.” Why should he have? I was just thrilled to be there.
We sat in the green room for maybe 45 minutes before we got our call. Because I had just returned from my trip to Macon, which was, of course, going to play a big role in my new book, I hesitantly threw out the names of some of the people I had met, like Hamp Swain, the “King Bee,” the DJ who MCed the talent shows at the Douglass Theater; Zenas Sears, an Atlanta star-maker (he got Richard his first recording contract, with RCA, in 1951); and Otis Redding’s brother, Rodger. I also threw in the names of such noted figures from Little Richard’s past as Fats Gonder, Gladys Williams, and Clint Brantley, his first manager, who in his time had also managed James Brown and Otis Redding, both of whom had started out their careers as Little Richard imitators.
These are not household names, though you will learn much more about them if you read Richard’s book. But Little Richard lit up like a Christmas tree at their mention — and not in any way you might imagine from his public appearances. There was none of the affect of the latter-day TV personality, no “shut ups,” no cleverly rhyming, non-stop encomiums to himself. Instead, there was the unfeigned enthusiasm of a committed creative artist, who was engaged, down-to-earth, and consumed with the need to talk about, and pay eloquent tribute to, these people who had genuinely inspired him. Richard had what appeared to be a photographic memory — but more to the point, he possessed an analytic perception of the world from which he had emerged that made every detail come to life, from his joining a family group called the Tiny Tots as a small child to his singing to attract a crowd for Dr. Nobilio, the Macon “town prophet.” “I was always singing,” he said without a trace of boastfulness or braggadocio.
The only other time I saw Richard like that — and he wasn’t quite like that — came in 2011, in New Orleans, when I interviewed him together with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino, in an oral history project for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Richard had not been in good health for quite some time, but his spirit was undiminished, and he was not about to play second fiddle to anyone. His recollections of Billy Wright, the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe had him sing for her backstage at the Macon City Auditorium (Clint Brantley was producing the show) and then presented him as her “find” to her audience, and his adventures going out with various medicine shows as a very young man were as compelling as ever — even as they were not infrequently interrupted by cheerful admonitions and self-proclamations. “You know,” he declared to his equally legendary associates, “I think it was God who brought us all to be together here.” To which Jerry Lee Lewis, an intensely religious man himself, demurred at what I think he took to be a too-casual appropriation of faith. “I don’t know about you,” he declared with a certain amount of amusement, “but I came here on a plane. And I think you came by bus!”
But it was Richard’s kindness to Fats Domino that stood out most that day. He had first met Fats at the Manhattan Club in Macon, at a time when Fats was already a big star and he was still washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station. Like everyone else in the room, he had never forgotten Fats’ graciousness or his musical greatness. By the time of this get-together in New Orleans, Fats was suffering from dementia — he was as sweet as ever, but he seemed to be feeling both isolated and depressed, and Richard (and it must be said, Jerry Lee, too) was determined to bring him out of it. Richard offered up memories of old times and sang snatches of Fats’ hits to him, as Fats softly joined in on a few lines and phrases. They exchanged recipes and reminiscences, and Richard promised they would cook up a big pot of red beans and rice (don’t hold me to the recipe) when this was all over. At this point there wasn’t the slightest trace of Little Richard the Innovator, the Originator, the Emancipator, or any of his other self-proclaimed titles. There was just the Little Richard that Fats Domino had first met nearly 60 years earlier, and Fats’ face was increasingly wreathed with smiles. If you were to have witnessed this scene, I think you would have been convinced that Little Richard was the person you would most want to have by your side if you were having a tough time in your life.
Sometimes — perhaps all too often — his flamboyance could overshadow his talent. But it should never be forgotten: Little Richard was a revolutionary artist. His music represented not just spontaneous flair and unbridled energy, but genius, too — and the determination to be heard, in his own terms. Listen to a soul ballad like “I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me”), recorded in the mid-1960s. Has anyone ever surpassed Richard in the ability to tease out a song or convey true depth of emotion? Pick up on a driving number like “He Got What He Wanted (But He Lost What He Had),” Richard’s own gospel composition from 1962, which I suppose might well underscore a theme. Or explore the subtlety of some of those beautifully articulated ballads in styles ranging from country to gospel to R&B (try “Why Don’t You Change Your Way of Living” or “It Is No Secret”), in which he reveals unexpected depths of sensitivity and a lower register that many listeners might never have suspected existed.
I don’t know anyone who could work a song better in live performance. I’ll never forget his headlining a soul show at the Donnelly Theatre in Boston in 1965, bringing the crowd to a riveting climax as he left the mic and crossed over to the lip of the stage, with an unknown Jimi Hendrix playing guitar behind him. For close to 10 minutes, Richard continued to sing, expound, and expand upon the classic 1950s “inspirational” number “Shake a Hand,” all without benefit of vocal amplification, as he and the audience entered into the kind of trance-like state that only James Brown and Solomon Burke (both of whom revered him) could equally inspire.
No one was more dynamic than Little Richard. When he was coaxed out of his show-biz retirement for the first time to tour England with Sam Cooke in 1962, at the end of the show, recalled Sam’s road manager, J.W. Alexander, “Richard came out with a damn chair in his mouth, and he pulled off his [religious] robe, and he literally slayed them.” He sang all of his hits, ran screaming up and down the aisle, and whatever peak Sam had been able to achieve, Richard was able to overcome with what J.W. called his “energizing approach.” Listen to Sam’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, recorded a few months later, and you’ll see the results of Richard’s lesson.
He never shook off his gospel influences — Mahalia Jackson, Professor Alex Bradford, Brother Joe May, Marion Williams most of all. (Don’t miss his — even more, Aretha’s, and Billy Preston’s, too — unforgettable tribute to Williams at the 1993 Kennedy Center Honors Awards.) He was not about to shake off those influences. They remained his inspiration to the end, perhaps the only ones who could match, and sometimes exceed, the unrestrained power of his voice.
But, of course, in the end we’ll always go back to his yowling, head-reared-back-and-beautiful entrance onto the world stage with “Tutti Frutti,” “Ready Teddy,” “Rip It Up,” “Long Tall Sally” — all presented against a brilliant gold-and-orange cover on his very first album, an unequaled proclamation of rock & roll, which announced, simply, Here’s Little Richard.
I don’t think anything could ever surpass the impact of that music the first time you heard it. Here is the memory of a white Macon teenager instantly entranced after hearing Hamp “King Bee” Swain play “Tutti Frutti” on the radio for the first time. “It was hot as hell,” said Phil Walden, future manager of Otis Redding, “and I saw Little Richard on the other side of the street twirling a parasol, and I said to my friend, ‘That’s Little Richard,’ and he crossed the street and walked right by me, and I was scared to even address him, I was in awe of him, but I said, ‘Tutti frutti.’ And he said, ‘Oh, rooty.’ God!”