The Columbusing of Black excellence by white opportunists has long been prevalent in popular culture — never more so than in the realm of music, where everything from Elvis’ hip-shaking to Miley’s twerking have been erroneously attributed. For decades, Black music was ghettoized, pushed into the shadows. It didn’t matter that they were the pioneers of emerging sounds like rock and roll and pop. Radio stations refused to give airtime to Black artists, while even the early years of MTV were alarmingly white. In their stead, white mimicry was elevated to the top of the charts. As Sun Records boss Sam Phillips reportedly said prior to inking Elvis, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
And before Elvis, of course, there was Little Richard. With his frenetic, uptempo style, raucous live performances and excited vocals, the pride of Macon, Georgia, paved the roads of rock and roll, only to have a procession of white imitators drive dump trucks of cash over it. The “Architect of Rock and Roll” never really got his due. He was screwed out of his music royalties, shut out of the Grammys. He hasn’t received the Hollywood-biopic treatment like a number of his contemporaries. But a new documentary hopes to correct the record. Little Richard: I Am Everything, which made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival prior to a CNN broadcast and HBO Max release later this year, traces the musical maestro’s journey from his early days in Macon as the maligned (and physically deformed) gay son of a minister and bootlegger to his “Tutti Frutti” breakthrough and complicated later years as an evangelical preacher who renounced his homosexuality.
A CNN and Rolling Stone Films (yes, this Rolling Stone) co-production, and directed by Lisa Cortés, Little Richard: I Am Everything features a number of talking heads singing the trailblazing musician’s praises, from Paul McCartney to Mick Jagger.
But really, it is nothing short of astonishing that Little Richard, a gay Black man in the 1950s, was able to reach the lofty heights he did. Nothing could stop him. Not being branded a “sissy” and “faggot” by those in his hometown. Not getting kicked out of the house by his father as a teen due to his sexuality. And not the police beating him with blackjacks for “singing n***** music to white kids.” He found refuge in the underground clubs of the day, performing in drag as “Princess Lavonne.” And his first big hit, “Tutti Frutti,” was supposed to be a celebration of anal sex (its original lyrics were “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it’s tight, it’s all right…”).
“He was gay, but I didn’t really know that then. I knew something was different. He just became part of my identity,” offers filmmaker John Waters. “And Little Richard’s mustache I wear, to this day, for over fifty years, in a twisted tribute to him.”
The most fascinating — and infuriating — portions of the doc cover the exploitation of Little Richard by white artists and the music industry at large. When “Tutti Frutti” exploded, white music producers convinced Pat Boone and Elvis to launch cover versions in order to capitalize on its success. Both charted higher than Little Richard’s. To keep the vultures off his scent, Little Richard made his follow-up hit “Long Tall Sally” so fast that Boone couldn’t possibly cover it effectively.
“I was very disgusted because I was just coming on the scene and all the white girls were screaming over me, and the system didn’t like it,” Little Richard lamented. “I was not supposed to be the hero for their kids.”
He later said of the Elvis craze, “When I came along, Elvis wasn’t even out! Elvis had never written a song in his life! He was white. I was Black.”
Elvis wasn’t the only popular white artist to borrow heavily, or outright steal, from Little Richard. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein introduced the band to Little Richard in their earliest days, before they’d even written a song together. And it was Little Richard who first took the Beatles to the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany — the very place where the group would hone their craft and transform into a top-notch rock and roll act.
In Little Richard: I Am Everything, we see an old clip of the Beatles’ de facto leader, Paul McCartney, discuss how watching Little Richard perform was like going to rock school, and that their earliest songs were them doing their best impersonation of the man who called himself “The Bronze Liberace.”
“All my screaming numbers were to do with him,” said McCartney.
One of The Rolling Stones’ first tours was opening for Little Richard in ’63, and in the film lead singer Mick Jagger cops to being inspired by witnessing his infectious live act.
“We were basically a cover band — we hadn’t written much. I would be by the side of the stage every night to watch him. English bands, they were very static,” explains Jagger. “Watching Richard, you thought, you don’t have to stand there! Use the whole stage. Richard would work that audience. Get them up out of their seats swaying, shouting, waving their arms, calling and responding stuff. Thirty dates. I saw Little Richard thirty times!”
Nile Rodgers recalls David Bowie approaching him prior to the recording of Let’s Dance, and, clenching a Little Richard album, saying he wanted to do something similar to it, which left Rodgers feeling a bit conflicted.
The record labels were even worse. At the height of his fame, Little Richard said he was making half a cent per record sold. Later on, since Little Richard left Specialty Records 18 months into a three-year contract — owing in part to his mistreatment — the label went after him, and ultimately made him forego all future royalties. In other words: Little Richard never received a penny from then on out for his songs and recordings.
“I looked around and didn’t have any money,” said Little Richard. “Those record companies paid me nothing, you know? Nobody had paid me a dime. All those hits.”
In desperate need of money to care for his mother and sisters, Little Richard ended up picketing on Hollywood Boulevard over his lost wages.
“Famous Little Richard trying to get that famous money that he made so many years ago that he’s never seen,” he said. “I saw all my friends on the hill and I was still in the valley, and it bothered me.”
His frustrations came to a head at the 1988 Grammy Awards. While presenting Best New Artist with the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, the legendary musician pointed at Johansen’s pompadour hairdo — a carbon copy of how he wore it in his ‘50s heyday — and remarked, “I used to wear my hair like that. They take everything I get — they take it from me.”
“I have never received nothing,” he continued. “Y’all ain’t never gave me no Grammy and I been singing for years. I am the architect of rock and roll and they never gave me nothing. And I am the originator!”
Little Richard passed away in 2020 at the age of 87 following complications from bone cancer. Though he’ll never truly receive the credit or respect he’s owed, Little Richard: I Am Everything marks a step in the right direction.