Trivia time ya bastids: What medical oddity did Little Richard and Frank Zappa share?
Tell you in a minute…
I believe my music is the healin’ music. Just like Oral Roberts says he’s a divine healer, I believe my music can make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf and dumb hear and talk, because it inspires and uplifts people. I’ve had old women tell me I made them feel they were nineteen years old. It uplifts the soul, you see everybody’s movin’, they’re happy, it regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, the knees freeze. (Little Richard, The Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 93, in 1970.)
In September 2013, Little Richard announced his retirement. Plagued by sciatica and a bad hip, Little Richard announced he was through performing, this following a concert in June 2012 he could not finish. It wasn’t the first time the man has announced his retirement—he retired shortly after his career began. But considering that this announcement came at age 80, it’s a fair guess, I think, that he means it this time. Little Richard’s provenance includes one of the most stellar performers to have ever graced a stage: Ladies and gentlemen, please witness Sister Rosetta Tharpe:
From our perspective, Sister Rosetta may seem here like an entertainer on the margins, but once upon a time in America, Sister Rosetta was a star. So known was she that they recorded her third wedding and released it as a record album. I am not making this up.
PBS did a Masters episode on her in 2012. They refer to her as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” It’s accurate, except that they get the lineage wrong; they keep talking about how Elvis “channeled” Sister Rosetta. Bullocks. In this story, we don’t give a rat’s ass about Elvis, not so long as Sister Rosetta was responsible for offering Richard Wayne Penniman his first paid gig.
He details it to biographer Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard, how he as a teen working at the local auditorium in Macon selling Cokes started singing “Strange Things Happening Every Day” while Sister Rosetta was in earshot.
She came over and talked to me. She asked me if I wanted to come up on stage that night and sing a song with her. During the show, in front of everybody, she invited me up to sing. Everybody applauded and cheered and it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Sister Rosetta gave me a handful of money after the show, about thirty-five or forty dollars, and I’d never had so much money in my life before. (The Life And Times Of Little Richard, Charles White, p. 17)
If Sister Rosetta rubbed off on anyone, she rubbed off on Little Richard.
Richard Wayne Penniman was supposed to have been named “Ricardo,” but there was some bureaucratic SNAFU, so his name became “Richard.” Good, I guess. “Little Ricardo” just would not have been right.
He was born with a “deformity” that would haunt him well into his teens; he was teased for it by his brothers and downright tortured over it by his father: One of his legs was shorter than the other.
Frank Zappa lived with that same condition for the rest of his life after recovering from being shoved into the orchestra pit at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1971.
It’s no Jesus on a slice of toast. But it is kind of fascinatin’.
Every year during Zappadan, I recognize Little Richard on his birthday. He’s 81 today. Happy birthday, maestro.
Recognizing Little Richard during Zappadan is warranted of course because Little Richard is the originator of my favorite Mothers recording of all time, “Directly From My Heart” on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, featuring the vocal and fiddle stylings of Don “Sugarcane” Harris. The song was written and originally recorded by Little Richard (on The Fabulous Little Richard, released 17 months after he left Specialty Records).
Otis Redding called “Directly from My Heart to You” “the personification of soul.” I like that, but the only modifier that comes to my mind is “sublime.” I am close to naming it as my favorite musical effort ever.
I usually gloss over Little Richard in this piece, I usually am like yeah, happy birthday and thanks for the song, and now here’s Fenton Robinson doing it. I don’t want to do that today.
I want to beseech you to take Little Richard seriously.
Because I don’t think we really do.
By way of example: A waspy couple enters a Las Vegas wedding chapel and are going through the menu of which celebrity impersonator they’re going to have marry them. Liberace, they vote, or Little Richard. The establishment’s procurer indicates that the Liberace impersonator is ill and not available. They settle for Little Richard and are led into the ceremony room.
And it’s actually Little Richard. And they’re like wow, he’s really a good impersonator. The husband eventually cops that it actually is Little Richard. And she just can’t believe it.
It happened on “The Young and the Restless” in 2008.
The real Little Richard working in a Vegas marriage chapel? Really? It just seems that the man has been a bit relegated to the status of eccentric character and isn’t remembered so much as the guy who, is called by many the “architect of rock and roll.”
Author David Kirby describes this problem adroitly in the introduction to his book, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (which also clued me in to the soap opera appearance).
You’d think a book with a title like William E. Studwell and D.F. Lonergan’s The Classic Rock and Roll Reader: Rock Music from Its Beginnings to the Mid-1970s would give ample or at least adequate attention to the creator of rock ‘n’ roll or, at the very least, toss him and his music a paragraph or two. But no: “Tutti Frutti” is not listed under “Pioneering Rock Songs” or “Megastars and Megagroups” or even “Best Songs That Never Make Number 1.” Instead, the song that changed music forever is in the “Novelty Songs” chapter along with Sammy Davis Jr.’s silly “The Candy Man” as well as “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” “The Purple People Eater,” and others by Petula Clark, the Fifth Dimension and the David Seville who was responsible for the Alvin and the Chipmunk Records. Can you imagine? The rock howler of Macon on the same plane as three musical rodents. (Kirby, page 6)
Omissions like this are puzzling, considering the long reach of testimonials from people we most routinely revere in rock. Check it (from the Wiki article):
- Jimi Hendrix said “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
- Ike Turner said Tina’s early singing was based on Little Richard.
- “Long Tall Sally” was the first song Paul McCartney performed in public
- John Lennon said when he first heard “Long Tall Sally,” he was so impressed that he “couldn’t speak.”
- Mick Jagger called Little Richard “the originator and my first idol.”
- Keith Richards said the first time he heard “Tutti Frutti,” “it was if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to Technicolor.”
- David Bowie described his first time hearing “Tutti Frutti” as if he had “heard God.”
- Patti Smith: “When I was a little girl, Santa Claus didn’t turn me on. Easter Bunny didn’t turn me on. God turned me on. Little Richard turned me on.”
Lou Reed, regarding “Long Tall Sally,” said: “I don’t know why and I don’t care, but I wanted to go to wherever that sound was and make a life.” Later in the interview, he’s asked if he still likes rock and roll. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “It’s not an ephemeral thing. I can listen to Little Richard forever.” It’s mere speculation, but it seems to me that Reed’s use of the “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold” line in “Satellite of Love” is a fairly not-subtle nod to “Slippin’ and Slidin’.”
One final testimonial from Mr. Otis Redding:
“If it had’t been for Little Richard I would not be here,” he admitted in 1965. “I entered the music business because of Richard—he is my inspiration. I used to sing like Little Richard, his rock’n’roll stuff, you know. Richard has soul, too. My present music has a lot of him in it. He did a number way back called Directly From My Heart To You, which was the personification of soul, and he had one out—I heard it in LA a lot—called I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me. Yes, sir. Little Richard has done a lot for me and my soul brothers in the music business.” (Otis Redding: Try a Little Tenderness by Geoff Brown, page 10)
For your further consideration:
The United States was introduced to Elvis Presley in 1956. His eponymous debut contained one song penned by Richard Wayne Penniman: “Tutti Frutti.” On his quick follow-up, “Elvis,” also released in 1956, Elvis covered “Long Tall Sally,” also written by Little Richard. He also covered “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up,” originally performed by Little Richard (though he does not claim a writing credit).
Four hits that helped launch Elvis Presley out of the gate were Little Richard songs.
Bill Haley, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and we cannot leave out the indefatigable Pat Boone, all of them covered Little Richard songs (Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists who Revolutionized Rhythm, Bob Gulla, page 27). Much of the grist for Frank Zappa’s earliest gigs were Little Richard covers, as a matter of fact (Zappa: A Biography, Barry Miles, page 28).
The ones we revere most routinely, the ones most frequently rotated in our playlists, they revere Little Richard. That line gets drawn in so many ways to Little Richard because his was the voice that changed everything. Think of any of your favorite rock performers. Robert Plant. Eddie Vedder. Dave Grohl. Any Beatle. Any of them, all of them, reside in a tree that lists Little Richard at its tippy-top. And that’s easy to forget because when you’re looking back, it’s easy to assume that things have always been a certain way.
But that just isn’t so. “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!” created a whole new universe.
That’s right. I said it: In rock and roll, Little Richard is the Big Bang.
Enjoy your retirement, Bronze Liberace. We appreciate you.
I should note, having poo-pooed Elvis Presley earlier in this article, that Little Richard expressed his deep appreciation for Elvis and other white artists who recorded his material:
Like, see, when Elvis came out, a lot of black groups would say, ‘Elvis cannot do so and so and so, shoo shoo shoo’ [huffs and grumbles]. And I’d say, ‘Shut up, shut up.’ Let me tell you this—when I came out they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations, I was the first to get played on the Top 40 stations—but it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent, to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand? (The Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 92)
I just wanted to be careful not to misrepresent the man’s attitude. He thinks Elvis was just fine.
I almost forgot: Here’s Fenton Robinson doing “Directly From My Heart.”
In 2000, NBC aired a miniseries about Little Richard, based on the book Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard. It’s not completely horrible. And it can be viewed on YouTube.
One of the best moments in the film is when, on the tour bus, a bandmate complains about having to wear makeup and implies (inadvertently, I think) that his boss is a “sissy.” Little Richard responds:
Now, sneaking in the back doors so the white folks don’t see us till we’re on stage, eating in a parking lot of some restaurant that I wouldn’t even pay to eat at the counter at, now *that* bothers me. Being called a sissy? You look-a here! Them white kids, they’re dancing to *our* music! Okay, they may have Pat Boone on their record player in case their parents walk in, but they got *my* record underneath their pillow. You know which show we’re playing here? You know how many colors have played here? None! You know why? ‘Cause they can’t! I am the first! I am the only! So if you wanna call me a sissy, go ahead! Knock yourself out, boy! But you make sure you call me a rich sissy. And you do as I do, you all gonna be rich sissies, too. Now, where my eyeliner?
I don’t know how much of this is writer’s embellishment or if he actually took down a bandmate like this.
Nor do I care. It’s fabulous.
The title of this entry is from the liner notes for “Wowie Zowie” on Freak Out. In case you were wondering.