The Emancipator of Soul and the King of Rock & Roll

For many years, I have spent some time and space at this point in the Zappadan holiday space celebrating and acknowledging the birthday of one Richard Wayne Penniman, due to his significant influence on Zappa and to rock and roll generally, and of course, his contribution of one of Zappa’s finest sonic achievements, the performance of the Penniman-penned “Directly From My Heart” from the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh, featuring the astonishing Sugarcane Harris on fiddle and lead vocal.

Here’s an early recording of the tune by its tunesmith:

It was 2013 when I came across a vital book, David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which argues convincingly that while many casual music fans may relegate Little Richard to the novelty act bin, Little Richard was, indeed, one of the most earth-shaking forces in rock. And, Kirby is absolutely right. Before him, everybody crooned. After him, more and more they wanted to howl. Little Richard led the way; he taught everyone else what sort of energy to bring to the party. He was the Architect.

And every year I write this here, and every year, I’d fantasize that there would be a comment from the man himself. This year I don’t even have that. Because this is the first year we observe Dec. 5 without him here to make the planet prettier. Yes, Little Richard stopped refusing to die in May 2020. He was 87.

I think Guardian writer Tavia Nyong’o gets it just right when pondering Little Richard’s legacy: “Rock’n’roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him.”

Of this he was well aware. The linked article above offers a bit of video that cracks me up: Richard at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Watch him state the obvious. Watch the audience’s reaction. Every human in that building gave up the standing O to Little Richard taking his well-deserved credit. Because sometimes the truth just rings out.

Take solace, though: Little Richard was bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, not to mention four Grammy Hall of Fame recognitions for “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and the album Here’s Little Richard.

In the July 2020 Rolling Stone tribute, they let Richard have the last word, as quoted from his 1971 album, King of Rock and Roll. I’ma swipe the quote and do the same here:

“We got everybody here tonight. We got black folk. We got white folk. We got red folk. We got brown folk. We got yellow folk. We got real folk. We got love folk. I want you all to know that I’m here tonight, and I’ve been talking about love for a long time. Because, honey, I’m the man that started it all. The Emancipator of Soul and the King of Rock & Roll, from Macon, Georgia. I want you to know that I’m here to be offered tonight in the fullness. That the beauty is still on duty. Let it all hang out with the beautiful Little Richard from down in Macon, Georgia. I want you all to know that I am the Georgia Peach. Let all the womenfolk say ‘Whoooooo!’ Let all the men say ‘Ugh! Oooh, my soul.’ A man walked up to me yesterday and said, ‘Little Richard, don’t you know that James Brown can beat you dancing?’ I said, ‘Beat me dancing? But have you ever thought about that he don’t look like me?’ Shut up! I am the star. And don’t you ever forget it.”

I won’t.

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