Little Richard (1932-2020)

Words by Andy Maltz

There have been so many eloquent remembrances of Little Richard in the past couple of days since his passing that I am hesitant to attempt one, knowing that my words will inevitably fall short. The basic details of his life–his youth, struggle for recognition, conflicts between his religious beliefs and his lifestyle, and the ultimate fame and indulgence–are like the ubiquitous hit records, out there for all of us to see and hear. I would strongly recommend The Life And Times Of Little Richard by Charles White to anyone who is even slightly curious. 

At some point Richard started using the word quasar to describe himself, and that might be where the conversation should end. The sheer weight of his contribution can’t be calculated. How do you measure countless chain reactions, the effects of which are still being absorbed 65 years after “Tutti Frutti”? Awopbobaloobop might be a good candidate for the name of the number that results when we add one to infinity.

A few years ago on a sunny spring day in New Orleans, I found myself in a small theater with about 50 or so like minded music-obsessed nerds (there’s no polite way to put it). We were watching the rarest of rare rock-n-roll and rhythm & blues films that had been recently discovered by archivist Joseph Lauro. Instead of enjoying the sun and the sights of the Crescent City like good tourists, we were all tucked away in the dark ooohing and ahhhing over long forgotten film clips of musical heroes both famous and obscure. Sometime in the middle of the program, up popped an unearthed screen test that Little Richard made in 1956, just as he was taking off in terms of fame. There he was, colors subdued, almost sepia tone, lip synching to an early hit. You would think that a bunch of hardcore music snobs chose to turn up their collective nose at the prospect of having to sit through a mimed performance of a well-known hit by a famous artist.

You would be wrong.

The magnetism and charisma projected off the screen were palpable to everyone in the theater. At the end of the clip, a spontaneous standing ovation erupted. Almost as if to assure each other that yes, we all just experienced a magical moment where we felt the energy and vital spark of something that is so real and yet so rare. A genuine burst of an emotion that can be as close to something called love as one might be lucky enough to experience in this crazy life. We all saw it, and felt it, and reacted to it in a way that let us know we weren’t imagining it. Think what it was like to have actually been there when all hell was breaking loose.

Little Richard’s spirit, his strength, his persona, were set free at a perfect intersection in time where resistance had worn down just enough, the avenues were open and wide, and the undiluted message could come through loud and clear. He had, somehow, summoned and redirected all of the forces that had previously been used to stifle the joy he felt. Like a prism, he bent energy into something at once unrecognizable and also primordially familiar. In retrospect it all seems inevitable, but it wasn’t. If we think about a world where it didn’t happen, we start to feel the sadness creep up. A world where Little Richard never existed would be a much bleaker place to live. Improbably and against unimaginable odds, that’s happily not the case.

Little Richard Top Ten (no order)
1) True Fine Mama
2) Directly From My Heart
3) Lucille
4) Long Tall Sally
5) I’m In Love Again (as the Upsetters)
6) Ooh My Soul
7) Keep A Knockin’
8) Miss Ann
9) The Girl Can’t Help It
10) Cherry Red
I can also unreservedly recommend The Specialty Sessions box set, which includes demos, alternates and session chatter that is often hilarious and at times, quite revealing. There’s tons of live footage on youtube, much of it from the 60s/early 70s where you will find Richard in peak form. Do yourself a favor and jump down that rabbit hole asap!

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