He was the last of a Rock “N” Roll triumvirate
By Frederick H. Lowe
Little Richard, one of the three founding fathers of Rock ‘N’ Roll, died recently, but the music he helped create continues to rock on.
Little Richard’s death follows that of Ike Turner, who arguably recorded the first Rock ‘N’ Roll record, “Rocket 88” in 1951 about the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, the original muscle car, and the fastest automobile on the road at the time.
“Rocket 88” rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard’s R&B charts and many hits followed. Turner died on December 21, 2007.
Little Richard’s death also follows that of Chuck Berry, who died March 28, 2017. Berry, a St. Louis native, recorded a string of hits, including Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958).
Little Richard, whose birth name was Richard Wayne Penniman, died May 9, 2020 of cancer. He was 87. He was born in Macon, Georgia on December 5, 1932, the third of 12 children, born to Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Penniman. His father was a bootlegger and a preacher.
It wasn’t until the British Invasion of1963 led by the Beatles, that many of us blacks slowly began to realize that Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard were idolized around the world, though not so much in America where their music was rarely played on TV or the big radio stations.
Pat O’Day, general manager of KJR Seattle, Channel 95, was typical of the men who controlled the music business. O’Day told me he refused to play their records because he claimed black music scared 13-year-old white girls.
It wasn’t just whites who didn’t like music by some black artists. Older blacks often called James Brown “James Monkey” because his dancing and singing embarrassed some members of our race.
That all began to change with the Beatles when they were asked about their favorite American recording artists.
The “Fab Four” with their “mop-top” haircuts, did not hesitate to name Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Little Richard as their greatest influences.
This became a point of pride at Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington. Herman Clark, one of my classmates, stood up and announced to one class that the Beatles’ favorite recording artists were all Negroes, the accepted word at the time among blacks as well as whites.
Little Richard added more to the story, telling reporters that he gave the Beatles money so they could eat. They later became zillionaires, but when they started out, they were poor, Little Richard said. They hung out in Little Richard’s dressing room in Hamburg, Germany.
Little Richard’s songs included “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti”, “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Lucille.” Although these records topped the charts, Little Richard never won a Grammy.
Little Richard, who wore his hair in a pompadour and dressed in a suit, would stand, not sit, at the piano, pounding out Rock N Roll as his feet moved swiftly across the floor and his fingers skillfully tapped the piano’s keyboard. When he stood his body pulsated and sweated as he poured all of his energy into each musical number.
Little Richard not only wore a pompadour. He also wore eyelashes, makeup, and occasionally lipstick. He also grew a pencil-thin mustache.
This was more than my 15-year-old mind could accept or even understand. Older blacks called him a “he she,” meaning he was part man and part woman or a homosexual. Years later, he would acknowledge he was sexually attracted to men.
Even Little Richard’s band members were afraid to pick up their checks from him if he was wearing makeup.
Frank Bennett, one of my close childhood friends, and I were watching Little Richard on television. Frank’s mother walked into the room and asked us, “who is that woman?”
A couple of months ago, I read about Little Richard. He had a back operation and was confined to a wheelchair because he no longer could walk or stand.