Little Richard was a howling weirdo.
That’s what made him so great.
The man born Richard Penniman in Georgia in 1932 may have been the wildest of the early rock ’n’ roll wild men.
That’s saying something because those guys – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis – didn’t so much burn the candle at both ends as turn a blowtorch loose on the middle. They set fires that have yet to be put out.
To a man, they all were haunted by demons. Music was both their refuge and their release, the place they could go to let it all – every joy, every fear, every horror, every hope – out. They were rockers.
Little Richard was all that – and maybe even more.
His early performances now are the stuff of legend. He’d arrive on stage, hair lacquered into place, and dive into a show that mated elements of Pentecostal revivals and pagan orgies, pounding on his piano so hard that each note sounded like a bomb exploding, his singing a series of syncopated shrieks. When he ended, his hair a sweat-soaked mess, both he and the audience seemed to have made it to the other side of something, delivered at last.
No other entertainer ever introduced himself to a national audience with quite the power and propulsion of the first line of Little Richard’s first big hit, “Tutti Frutti”:
A WOP BHOP A LULOP A WHOP BAM BOOM!
The sheer joyous liberation of that bit of rock ’n’ roll gibberish may never be topped. It’s impossible to say those sounds and not smile.
There’s vigorous debate about the origins of rock ’n’ roll – about who invented and who appropriated, about who revolutionized American culture and who simply stole songs and ideas.
Little Richard is at the heart of many of those arguments. Several of his early songs were “covered” by Pat Boone, whose versions would have to be spiced up quite a bit just to be called bland. Boone’s versions competed with Little Richard’s on the charts and Little Richard often was railroaded out of his fair share of the royalties.
But the debt to the strange man from Georgia was larger than questions of personal finances. He opened a door that legions – the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Prince, to name just a few – walked through.
While the questions about rock’s roots and founders is important, the fundamental truth of the moment and the movement matters more. All across the land, there were young people – male and female, white and black, straight and gay – looking to be liberated, running away from binding restraints and running toward some sense of unregimented release.
Little Richard was in the vanguard. Like all the other early rockers, he showed us we could dance while we wrestled with our demons.
That’s certainly what he did.
He never had a hit after the late 1950s. He bounced back and forth through the years, renouncing rock for religion so he could work as a revivalist preacher, then religion for rock, rock for religion and so on through the decades. At times, he embraced what he called his “omnisexuality” – acknowledging he was attracted to and had been involved with both men and women – and at times he denounced homosexuality as a sin.
He did cameos in movies and TV shows. Officiated at celebrity weddings and funerals. Battled alcohol and drugs. Beat the keys off a series of pianos performing concerts on the oldies circuit.
Always, he was Little Richard, his hair an architectural masterpiece that invited demolition, a flamboyant figure who moved through life with the brakes off.
A howling weirdo to the end.
Little Richard died the other day. He was 87.
Since his passing, many tributes have flowed forth. Many of them are good, but none are quite as eloquent as the epitaph Little Richard wrote for himself all those years ago:
A WOP BHOP A LULOP A WHOP BAM BOOM!