Saturday, May 09, 2020

Remembering Little Richard, 1932–2020

Any rock frontman who ever teetered on the fence of sexuality, androgyny and homoeroticism unquestionably owes a debt of gratitude to Little Richard.

Pioneering rock 'n' roll legend Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard) died earlier today of bone cancer. He was 87.

Although I'm aware of and appreciate his contribution to music, what always intrigued me most about Little Richard were his conflicted views on his sexuality. It seems to me that this decades-long conflict lead to a life of contradictory extremes. I find it difficult to envision such a life affording opportunities for relational experiences through which a sense of wholeness is embodied; relational experiences, in other words, that are both affirmingly grounding and joyfully liberating. And I find the thought of anyone missing out on such experiences, such wholeness, to be really sad.

It's also understandable, given the times within Little Richard grew up and lived much of his adult life. British writer Martin Aston, for instance, writes the following about the music industry's gay closet of the 1930s through '60s in relation to Little Richard.

It’s said that the 20th century’s two most liberal decades were the 20s and the 70s; in between, McCarthyism unleashed a fresh era of homophobia, and the British establishment fought just as hard to discourage social tolerance and progress. If only Little Richard’s original lyric to “Tutti Frutti” – Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy – wasn’t censored by his producer, Britain would have enjoyed a top 30 ode to anal sex some 30 years before Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” Given it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that homosexuality – only for those aged over 21, and only in England and Wales – was decriminalised, and that the gay liberation movement didn’t get going until after the Stonewall riots of 1969, it’s not surprising that singers, actors or musicians didn’t want to advertise their same-sex feelings

Yet even if Little Richard himself could never accept, integrate, and live fully his “same-sex feelings,” it's clear that he became and remains a queer icon, one who influenced through both his music and stage persona a host of male artists, including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and Prince. As Gabe Echazaba puts it, "Little Richard paved the way for those who teeter on the edge of androgyny and homoeroticism."

Following is a compilation of tributes and reflections on Little Richard and his legacy, musical and otherwise.

An influential figure in popular music and culture for seven decades, Little Richard's most celebrated work dates from the mid-1950s, when his charismatic showmanship and dynamic music, characterized by frenetic piano playing, pounding back beat, and raspy shouted vocals, laid the foundation for rock and roll, leading him to be given the nickname “The Innovator, The Originator, and The Architect of Rock and Roll.” Little Richard's innovative emotive vocalizations and uptempo rhythmic music also played a key role in the formation of other popular music genres, including soul and funk, respectively. He influenced numerous singers and musicians across musical genres from rock to hip hop; his music helped shape rhythm and blues for generations to come.

After “Tutti Frutti” came a whole string of hits that would include “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Rip It Up,” all of which would get covered by future rock and rollers over and over again. Richard and his musical flamboyance and style became so quickly adored, that integrated audiences attended his shows during a time of segregation going strong in the U.S. He defied gender norms, sporting nail polish, makeup, and outlandish hairstyles and outfits while onstage. Makes you wonder where Bowie and Elton got their inspiration from, huh?

Following his initial success in the 50s, Richard performed on and off for decades, staying involved with occasionally recording new, gospel-oriented material, but not scoring anymore Top 10 hits. One of his last shows was actually in Pensacola back in 2013. That was the year he announced that he’d never perform again, nearly 65 years after “Tutti Frutti.”

– Josh Bradley
Excerpted from “Rock and Roll Pioneer,
and LGBT Icon, Little Richard Dead at 87

Creative Loafing
May 9, 2020

[“Tutti Frutti”'s] follow-up, “Long Tall Sally,” hit Number Six, becoming the highest-placing hit of his career. For just over a year, the musician released one relentless and arresting smash after another. From “Long Tall Sally” to “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” Little Richard’s hits – a glorious mix of boogie, gospel, and jump blues, produced by Robert “Bumps” Blackwell – sounded like he never stood still. With his trademark pompadour and makeup (which he once said he started wearing so that he would be less “threatening” while playing white clubs), he was instantly on the level of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other early rock icons, complete with rabid fans and mobbed concerts. “That’s what the kids in America were excited about,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “They don’t want the falsehood – they want the truth.”

. . . Little Richard’s stage persona – his pompadours, androgynous makeup, and glass-bead shirts – also set the standard for rock & roll showmanship; Prince, to cite one obvious example, owed a sizable debt to the musician. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Richard told Joan Rivers in 1989, before looking at the camera and addressing Prince. “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”

“If you love anything about the flamboyance of rock & roll, you have Little Richard to thank,” says the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, a longtime fan. “And where would rock & roll be without flamboyance? He was the first. To be able to be that uninhibited back then, you had to have a lot of not-give-a-fuck.”

– David Browne
Excerpted from “Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock
Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead at 87

Rolling Stone
May 9, 2020

[Little Richard] made waves. Whether the public realized it or not, he brought excitement, sexuality, colorfulness and panache to rock and roll like no one else had done before. Sure, Elvis Presley would instantly become a sex symbol and the subject of idolatry at around the same time as Richard’s arrival, but it was the Macon, Georgia native who’d truly be the one to add a sense of unadulterated joy and abandon to this new genre that was in its infancy. It was Little Richard who so coyly and so stealthily threw innuendos and double entendres into his lyrics and his exuberant stage shows.

To say that Richard Wayne Pennimen, the man who’d create his unabashed Little Richard stage persona, knocked down walls and broke open doors would be a gross understatement. The man bulldozed buildings each and every time he screamed, hollered, sang, crooned and cooed while bashing out the best boogie woogie piano work the public had ever witnessed. His courage and his sheer audacity were just as pivotal as the mountain of essential music he made throughout the 50s and beyond.

His influence was immeasurable. Any rock frontman who ever teetered on the fence of sexuality, androgyny and homoeroticism unquestionably owes a debt of gratitude to Little Richard. Countless interviews and quotations from the likes of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger reveal those artists’ reverence and gratefulness for Little Richard’s presence. The entire genre of glam rock, the extravagant and glittery movement that took over British airwaves in the early 70s, could not have existed if it weren’t for the style, the makeup, the swagger and the attitude Richard oozed. Who could resist songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Rip it Up,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and so many other bursts of blatant rock and roll vibrancy delivered by this irresistibly engaging dynamo?

While Richard was, at times, shrouded and veiled when talking about his sexuality, it only proved that he didn’t have to define the essence of what arguably made him the most compelling rock and roll performer of all time. He’d at times throughout his existence denounce homosexuality but, it didn’t matter; the color, gender and sexual lines he’d broken down and blurred since the first time he simultaneously zoomed up rock and R&B singles charts at the dawning of the birth of rock and roll had more impact than any words he’d utter in the press or in later interviews.

– Gabe Echazaba
Excerpted from “Little Richard Paved the Way for Those Who
Teeter on the Edge of Androgyny and Homoeroticism

Creative Loafing
May 9, 2020

Rock’n’roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him. The longstanding pissing contest over who can claim the title “King of Rock’n’Roll” – Elvis? Jerry Lee Lewis? – is a case in point. While his authorised biographer went celestial in choosing to style Richard “the Quasar of Rock,” perhaps we might do better to listen to the artist, introducing himself at the Club Matinee in Houston, Texas, in 1953: “Little Richard, King of the Blues . . . and the Queen, too!”

Might we hear in this brash boast an invitation to think in non-binary terms about Little Richard’s place in black musical history? At 20 Little Richard was already a showbiz veteran of half a decade, performing first as a turbaned mysterio and then as a drag queen named Princess LaVonne in the travelling shows that plied the southern black entertainment circuit of the late 1940s. Other queens and “freakish men” – as the black speech of the period named gender-non-conforming males – taught Little Richard the musical, performative and sexual ropes: performers like Esquerita, whose flamboyant persona and piano technique inspired Richard (the question of who wore the pompadour first will probably go for ever unanswered).

These transgressively queer performers of a bawdy, sped-up blues, and the black publics they performed it for, were overlooked by a generation of white male critics and collectors eager to fetishise the rural: Robert Johnson standing at a lonesome crossroads in the Mississippi Delta. As historian Marybeth Hamilton notes, rock’n’roll was thought by these critics to be “a factory product that diluted, even perverted, black performance traditions for sale to undiscerning consumers who, if anything, preferred the fake stuff to the real.”

– Tavia Nyong'o
Excerpted from “Too Black, Too Queer, Too Holy:
Why Little Richard Never Truly Got His Dues

The Guardian
May 12, 2020

We often think about the history of rock 'n' roll through the lens of white artists and record executives profiting from black culture, but it’s rare we recognize that the musicians being stolen from have often not only been black, but queer as well. Artists like Little Richard are often seen as separate from their sexuality and gender performance, even though those are the very things that informed their innovation.

Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin to name just a few – it would not be a stretch to say that mainstream culture as we know it is a black queer project, often appropriated by others but birthed by black queer people.

One of the primary ways we remember and memorialize our biggest stars is through onscreen dramatizations of their lives; often, these images play a huge part in the mythmaking of their personas. This format is also a common way to erase more complex facets of those figures. In the 2000 biopic Little Richard, there is no mention of his queerness, no attempt to connect his gender performance to his brilliant artistry. Likewise, in the 1991 biopic The Josephine Baker Story, there is no reference to Baker’s reported relationships with women.

Removing black queer identities from our recorded histories, including film, makes it seem as though iconoclasticism happens by chance. More accurately, creative people who lived or are living in the tension of both queerness and blackness have brought forward brilliant worlds that we all benefit from.

Not recognizing this leaves us with a series of horror stories, such as Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, popular black figures who were never able to live their fullest truths. It has also led generations of black queer children to believe people like them haven’t contributed anything to culture, when the opposite is true.

At times, Little Richard himself would attempt to distance himself from facets of his queer identity, publicly denouncing homosexuality and his natural urges. Such denial can be its own form of admitting queerness. Yet it matters that despite these pronouncements – and unlike Houston or Vandross – his performance and aesthetic always remained overtly queer and transgressive, as if it was a second skin he couldn’t wash off, no matter how much he attempted to reject it. In performance if not in his personal life, at least, he embraced what made him so special.

– Myles E. Johnson
Excerpted from “Little Richard's Queer Triumph
The New York Times
May 10, 2020

Related Off-site Links:
Obituary: Little Richard, a Flamboyant PioneerBBC News (May 9, 2020).
Little Richard: An Appreciation of the “Quasar of Rock 'n' Roll” – Bill Flanagan (CBS News, May 9, 2020).
Esquerita: The Other Originator of Rock 'n' Roll Camp – Iain Ellis (Pop Matters, July 31, 2008).
Pour on the Steam: Little Richard at Age 19 – Adam Weiner (Talkhouse, March 20, 2019).
Little Richard Changed Everything – Jack Hamilton (Slate, May 9, 2020).

UPDATES: Little Richard to Be Buried at Historically Black College – Kristin M. Hall (Associated Press via ABC News, May 15, 2020).
Little Richard Laid Plans for His Funeral Well in Advance – Elijah Baker (WHNT-19 News, May 20, 2020).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering Prince, “Fabulous Freak, Defiant Outsider, Dark Dandy” – 1958-2016
David Bowie: Queer Messiah

Images: Photographers unknown.

1 comment:

brian gerard said...

Thanks for this, Michael. A fitting tribute. Also a reminder that so much of what is popular has a queer genesis.