Little Richard Burst Into the “Then-Macho World of Rock” and “Changed it Forever”

If Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe was the God­moth­er of Rock and Roll, then Lit­tle Richard, who passed away Sat­ur­day at the age of 87 from bone can­cer, deserves to be its God­fa­ther. This is no emp­ty hon­orif­ic, despite the fact that Tharpe was already tour­ing the coun­try as a teenage gospel prodi­gy in 1932 when Richard Pen­ni­man was born in Macon Geor­gia, and “oth­er musi­cians,” includ­ing Chuck Berry, Fats Domi­no, Bo Did­dley, and Elvis Pres­ley, “had already been min­ing a sim­i­lar vein by the time [Lit­tle Richard] record­ed his first hit, ‘Tut­ti Frutti’—a rau­cous song about sex, its lyrics cleaned up but its mean­ing hard to miss,” writes Tim Wein­er in a New York Times obit­u­ary.

Lit­tle Richard “raised the ener­gy lev­el sev­er­al notch­es and cre­at­ed some­thing not quite like any music that had been heard before—something new, thrilling and more than a lit­tle dan­ger­ous.” Tak­ing his lessons from Tharpe, he brought the dynamism of the gospel he was raised to sing and the pro­fane rhythms of the blues into a high-volt­age syn­the­sis. Lit­tle Richard’s rep­u­ta­tion needs no bur­nish­ing. He has nev­er been neglect­ed by his­to­ri­ans of rock and roll. Nonethe­less, it is star­tling to rec­og­nize, as gui­tar great Ver­non Reid wrote in a Twit­ter trib­ute: “No Jimi, No Bea­t­les No Bowie, No Bolan. NO GLAM, No Fred­die, No Prince, No Elton, No Pre­ston No Sly, No Ste­vie, WITHOUT Lit­tle Richard!”

Lit­tle Richard’s life sto­ry mir­rors his ear­ly hero Roset­ta Tharpe’s in sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant ways. Not only were they two of the most wide­ly influ­en­tial stars to emerge from the black church and onto sec­u­lar stages, but they were also the music’s first stars to live open­ly gay lives, for a time, before suc­cumb­ing to church and social pres­sures and return­ing to the clos­et. For Tharpe, that meant end­ing a long rela­tion­ship with her roman­tic and tour­ing part­ner Marie Knight and agree­ing “to par­tic­i­pate in a spec­ta­cle of a wed­ding endorsed and encour­aged by the record label for prof­it,” writes Lyn­nee Denise, “in front a pay­ing crowd of 25,000 pay­ing guests.”

Lit­tle Richard famous­ly walked away from his explo­sive career in 1957 to mar­ry, adopt a son, and become a mis­sion­ary. The mar­riage, and re-con­ver­sion, didn’t last. After four years, he was divorced fol­low­ing an arrest for “approach­ing men in a restroom,” notes France 24. “Richard—resentful that rock ‘n’ roll was tak­ing off with­out him—soon returned to music with a tri­umphant tour of Eng­land.” (See him in a fierce per­for­mance in France above from 1966.) Then he went back to the church and nev­er left. “By the late 1980s he had man­aged to merge his reli­gious life and his stage per­sona, tour­ing as a preach­er and offi­ci­at­ing at flashy celebri­ty wed­dings.”

He became some­thing of a car­i­ca­ture of him­self in lat­er years, appear­ing as a high-camp fig­ure in TV and film. Through­out his life, Richard iden­ti­fied open­ly as gay or bisex­u­al, recount­ing sto­ries of orgies and telling Pent­house in 1995, “I’ve been gay my whole life.” He also preached against LGTBTQ peo­ple, call­ing same-sex attrac­tion “unnat­ur­al.” The L.A. Times’ Richard Cromelin under­states the case in writ­ing, “he var­i­ous­ly mod­i­fied his sto­ry and renounced and/or denied his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty.” Depend­ing on how one saw it, he was either divine­ly “healed” of his life­long sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, or he was trag­i­cal­ly beset by ingrained reli­gious self-hatred.

Maybe none of this should mat­ter much in assess­ing Lit­tle Richard’s musi­cal lega­cy, except for the fact that his sud­den appear­ance as a gay artist in the “then-macho world of rock,” as France 24 puts it, changed that world irrev­o­ca­bly. Lit­tle Richard’s flam­boy­ance and teas­ing ambiva­lence became a hall­mark of pop cul­ture; his per­sona informed the stage career of near­ly every queer and sex­u­al­ly ambigu­ous super­star to fol­low. As a “sex­u­al­ly flu­id black man com­ing from the US south,” he gave black artists per­mis­sion to exper­i­ment with iden­ti­ty and defy rigid stereo­types imposed by a lega­cy of slav­ery. There’s also no get­ting around the fact that “Tut­ti Frut­ti,” the song that “intox­i­cat­ed legions of teenage fans eager to break loose from but­toned-up mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca,” was orig­i­nal­ly a song about anal sex. You can read those excised lyrics at Bill­board. They involve the phras­es “good booty” and “grease it.”

Like one of his most tal­ent­ed of his many off­spring, Prince, Lit­tle Richard some­how found a life­long home in a reli­gion that reject­ed his sex­u­al desire. This has been dif­fi­cult for many of his fans to under­stand. Per­haps he was enact­ing this com­pli­cat­ed, lib­er­at­ing, like­ly tor­tu­ous strug­gle to rec­on­cile the irrec­on­cil­able while onstage scream­ing bloody mur­der and gen­er­al­ly tear­ing the roof off the place. In what­ev­er way Lit­tle Richard ulti­mate­ly came to terms with his pres­ence in music he claimed to have invent­ed (despite Sis­ter Roset­ta), and yet also called “demon­ic,” it’s unde­ni­able that the past six­ty years or so of pop cul­ture would nev­er have hap­pened with­out him.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

The Woman Who Invent­ed Rock n’ Roll: An Intro­duc­tion to Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe

New Web Project Immor­tal­izes the Over­looked Women Who Helped Cre­ate Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Chuck Berry Takes Kei­th Richards to School, Shows Him How to Rock (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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