The raw and unrestrained rock ‘n’ roll legend has died.
All hail Little Richard, who died today, aged 87. Out of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, only Jerry Lee Lewis came close to him in matching the sense of subversive danger, out of control performance and blistering intensity that made the music of the mid-Fifties so completely explosive. It couldn’t last, either as a fast and furious genre or for the people performing it, but my God, I can only imagine the impact it must have had on kids at the time.
Little Richard – born Richard Penniman – had been knocking around the music industry for a few years, performing uninspired gospel and pop tunes, before breaking out in 1956 as rock ‘n’ roll’s most outrageous and dangerous act – a sexually ambiguous black man who wore make-up, had extravagant pompadours and clothing, and belted out fast and furious, often near-nonsensical songs like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Lucille, Good Golly Miss Molly and The Girl Can’t Help It – songs where he effectively attacked the piano while his vocals were a combination of yelps and guttural, raspy shouting – polite, this wasn’t. There’s something utterly primal about these songs, and his performances of this time – if rock ‘n’ roll was the sound of pent-up sexuality exploding, Little Richard seemed to be the man most likely to have sparked the gunpowder. This is the very best of the era, a raw and savage sound that would not return to rock music for over a decade, and his flamboyance, his unashamed sexuality and ambiguity – at times, admittedly like a rock ‘n’ roll Liberace – made him seem far more decadent than any of his contemporaries could ever be, acting as a template for Prince in later years. Little Richard was glam rock before glam rock existed.
Of course, it couldn’t last, but despite what you might think, it wasn’t a morally uptight and racially segregated America that did for Little Richard in the end (though both those things were problems he had to deal with). No, he effectively torpedoed his own career with a dose of religion, eventually seeing him ordained as a Minister. He would make comebacks into the world of the Devil’s music from time to time, without much commercial success – he had, by this time, been overtaken by the acts who grew up on his music. The oldies circuit paid the bills, but didn’t offer much credibility – this was long before the idea of a rock legacy act and the chance to avoid having to become a parody of your former self. That said, he was still able to cut it with modern rock stars well into the 1970s and was obviously adored by all the acts who had become much bigger than he ever was.
Little Richard’s sexuality has been as much discussed as his music, and no one – not even the man himself – seems to have a definitive answer. Depending on the state of his religious fervour, he would either denounce homosexuality as sinful and unnatural or embrace it – notably though, even when attacking the gay lifestyle, he didn’t quite deny being gay himself. He once described himself as ‘omnisexual’, attracted to both men and women, but it does seem that throughout his life, he struggled with his own sexuality in the face of disapproval from his religion.
But should we condemn a tormented man for not being open or honest about something that, at times at least, seemed to cause him pain? Of course not. And certainly, Little Richard’s sexuality fed his best performances and gave him an edginess in the 1950s that you can still feel today. While Elvis was quickly commodified into being a harmless middle of the road family entertainer, Little Richard never quite soiled his musical legacy in the same way – while we might wonder what he could have gone on to if religion hadn’t got a hold of him, his presence as a flash of musical lightning remains pure and untouched. Seen today, when rock and pop music is neutered and slickly packaged, he still seems startling and outrageous, and his songs feel as fresh and belting as the day they were recorded. And dammit, who else could’ve provided a theme tune that perfectly matches the splendour of Jayne Mansfield?