Sitting on a golden throne at his piano last night at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre, Little Richard began his set by telling the crowd he was in pain. “I got sick and I had surgery,” he said. “And the hip broke inside of me. And you know they’ve never been able to get that hip out of me yet? It’s been in me almost three years and it hurts day and night. I’m in pain 24 hours a day. I never let them cut nothing out of me.”
Despite his health problems, Little Richard proved during his hour-and-a-half set (one of only a handful he’s played in the last four years) that he’s still full of fire, still a master showman, his voice still loaded with deep gospel and raunchy power. Wearing a royal blue suit with rhinestones and a sparkly silver shirt, he began by running his fingers up and down the piano. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he asked with a grin, launching into a slow, soulful “Blueberry Hill,” growling over heavy saxophones. “You know I’ll be eighty years old this year?” he said afterward to applause. “I’m a Sagittarius. I just made 79!”
From the obscure set list to the stage banter, the night was full of spontaneous moments. “What was that song I sang on the bus today?” he asked the band early on, and began singing Big Mama Thornton’s “I Smell a Rat” as the band found their footing. “You can’t tell me where you been / whiskey running all down your chin / I smell a rat babe,” Richard sang repeatedly, sometimes a-capella, sometimes accompanied by just guitar. It lasted for more than six minutes. “Play it with that low-down funky bass from years ago!” Richard shouted to his band, adding excitedly, “Somebody should record that! That’s a hit record!”
He continued with a raucous take on 1970’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo.” During a twelve-bar jam, Richard’s guitarist bent down, appearing to urge him to sing, but he just kept pounding away. Later, Little Richard requested a band member’s son – who Richard said he’d known since he was a boy – to come onstage and give him a hug. “He’s a big one!” Richard said as the kid took the stage. “He’s a big one. You don’t find many big ones today!” The crowd roared. “You all got the wrong idea!” Richard added. Soon, the band’s guitarist appeared to whisper in Richard’s ear to tuck in his shirt. “Everyone’s talking about my stomach,” he said. “I got to lose weight. I ain’t ashamed of nothing. I been here a long time and I made up my mind!”
He played “Lucille,” his vintage squeal still intact, and paid tribute to Ray Charles with “I Got a Woman.” Asking for requests, he played “Jenny Jenny” for a moment, then switched to a fast, fiery “Keep a Knockin’.” He also announced that the crowd would be receiving a book important to him as staff handed out Finding Peace Within: A Book For People in Need, with work by Christian author E.G. White. “I know this is not Church,” the singer told the crowd somberly. “But get close to the Lord. The world is getting close to the end. Get close to the Lord.”
As the set wore on, Richard grew raspier and the band appeared to gesture for him to wrap up, but he kept going. There were few hits; he instead sang Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” and an extended, heartfelt “Goodnight Irene.” Late in the night, he did launch into “Tutti Frutti,” though he omitted most verses. “I thank you all for having me here,” Richard said before leaving the stage. “I am the architect of Rock and Roll.” Nobody could argue; they stood up and roared.