Little Richard is the ‘Ghengis Khan’ of Rock ‘n Roll.
Stay with me here; I can explain.
In 2003, a groundbreaking study revealed that a significant percentage of men in the world – 1 in 200 – has genetic ties to Ghengis Khan. The Mongol conqueror was reputed to have fathered hundreds of children, and his genetic fingerprints seem to turn up everywhere hundreds of years after he passed from the earth.
So it is with Little Richard. The fingerprints of the “Architect of Rock ‘n Roll” are evident everywhere. If you’ve heard Sir Paul McCartney wail, you’re hearing the echoes of Little Richard’s “wooooo.”
If you’ve seen Mick Jagger strut across the stage, you’ve caught a glimpse of Little Richard’s swagger.
Even that eyeliner sported by Elvis Presley can likely be traced back to Little Richard.
And so it is with the generations that have been influenced by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the King. Whether they know it or not, they are following in the footsteps of Little Richard and carrying his spirit forward.
And how could generations not be influenced by Little Richard? In an era dominated by smooth harmonies, gentle harmonies and carefully slicked back hair, Little Richard unleashed a hurricane of sight and sound. He tore into his piano with gusto, pounding it with both hands and occasionally his feet. His hair was often swept into an impossibly high pompadour, his face caked with pancake makeup and his eyes popping with eyeliner. I can’t recall a single ballad crooned by Little Richard. Everything was sung in a full-throated holler that always seemed on the very verge of going completely out of control, punctuated by signature trills just at the moment when words and notes could not contain them.
It takes moxie to create the sound and spirit of an entire musical movement, and Little Richard – who died this week at the age of 87 — had it.
Moxie imitates and is imitated.
Little Richard was discovered while working at a Sister Rosetta Tharpe concert in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. Tharpe heard him belting out her tunes while he was working. She was so impressed she invited him to open for him. That jump-started his musical career, and he was soon a favorite on the “Chitlin Circuit” that wound its way around clubs across the South. Other performers also influenced his style, including Esquerita who introduced him to makeup and the pompadour hairstyle.
But Little Richard undoubtedly took in all those influences, added his own spin, and turned everything up to a 10. His performances eventually took him to Germany, where he connected with four lads from Liverpool, England. The Beatles opened for him for a time. They watched his pre-show ritual, which included using steam to prep his voice, and he taught them his free-wheeling vocal style.
Back in the States, Elvis Presley went on to cover four of Little Richard’s songs. Perhaps more surprisingly, Pat Boone also covered Tutti Frutti with great success.
My takeaway is that all of life and art are lived somehow in community, and we’re all borrowing and trading and building on ideas from one another. Each of us stands on the shoulders of those who came before. The difference for those who followed Little Richard is that they stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Moxie is underappreciated.
Like many performers of color of his time, Little Richard did not get nearly the recognition or compensation for his work that he might have if he had been a white performer. In fact, white performers such as Elvis, the Beatles, and Pat Boone were more readily accepted for presenting and performing music originated by artists of color like Little Richard.
In addition to being an artist of color, Little Richard was also a flamboyant figure who’s presentation ranged from androgynous to effeminate. His performances shattered barriers with audiences, but likely created barriers, too, in a culture that was decades away from accepting anything outside binary gender norms. Even his own performances – the song “Tutti Frutti” – does not mean what you think – were sanitized for general audiences once Little Richard emerged from the club circuit.
Little Richard wasn’t honored with a Grammy for his work until he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, despite his considerable contributions to the development of Rock ‘n Roll. I suspect he was overlooked because more conservative institutions just simply didn’t know what to do with him. He was, however in 1986, among the first inductees into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and you can view his inductee ceremony here:
Moxie knows its own worth.
Don’t think for a moment that Little Richard let the Grammy snub pass. He was invited to present the Grammy for Best New Artist at the 1988 Grammys.
He took to the stage and presented the award to himself no less than three times, much to the delight of the crowd. He declared himself the “Architect of Rock ‘n Roll” and proclaimed his influence over the artists in the room. It’s tough to gauge the interaction.
Was Little Richard joking around, or was he serious? Perhaps both. There’s a tension in the scene, and it feels as if Little Richard could fly into a rage or burst into laughter at any moment.
Little Richard might have been forced to watch others borrow from his songbook, his performance style and his appearance to launch their own careers to greater accolades and success, but he wasn’t about to stay quiet about it.
The world might not have grasped his worth, but he was always sure of it.
Little Richard’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Richard