Before There Was a Michael, There Had to Be A...little Richard
Little Richard Penniman and Michael Jackson were born 750 miles and 26 years apart. One suffered the pain of physical deformity and an outrageous vision that could not be contained in conventional sound or behavior. The other possessed physical charms that bordered on beauty, as well as a discipline and a clarity of purpose that brought him acclaim in early childhood.
And yet these two lives are woven together by a thread of music spun through time. Little Richard was the new direction; Michael Jackson is where it led.
Their people, a struggling minority, were torn between wanting to belong and needing to be unique, and the friction created a musical earthquake. The first innovation, back in the ’20s, had been the emergence of jazz, then rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul.
Each new black music form was so infectious the white majority adopted it, then placed one of its own on the throne. Paul Whiteman became jazz king, Benny Goodman swing king, Elvis Presley and the Beatles and Mick Jagger the holy trinity of rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard, the hero of these rock kings, would be arrested because of how he looked and have his songs re-recorded by white singers who grew rich from the royalties.
Two decades passed. Little Richard became a gospel singer under evangelists’ tents and Michael Jackson became a phenomenon: the first black musician to be king of his era.
Little Richard remembers a day when Michael Jackson, walking the streets in disguise, recognized the ’50s idol and hugged him. After all, there could not have been a Michael Jackson if there had not been a Little Richard.
On the evening of August 10, Michael Jackson was appearing before 45,000 people in Knoxville, Tenn. Little Richard Penniman, 51, was appearing on the Praise the Lord TV talk show in the same city before a studio audience of 75.
Richard: “I was a drug addict, and He changed me.”
Richard: “I was into homosexuality, and He changed me.”
Host: “Oh, my God!”
Richard: “I was into rock ‘n’ roll, and He changed me.”
Host: “Praise Jesus!”
Richard: “I miss some of the things, I miss some of the money. The day before yesterday, my old manager offered me $100,000 to tour in West Germany with Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. He says I can sing about God. But when Chuck Berry be done with Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode, there’ll be no room for God. When Fats be done with Blueberry Hill, there’ll be no mountain for Jesus.”
Host: “Richard, that’s beautiful.”
Richard: “And if Chuck or Fats tore the house down, something would rise in me. I’d have to play Tutti Frutti and steal the show. There’s something still in me, so the Lord has told me to run and hide.”
Host: “If we go back, it’s like a dog returning to eat his vomit.”
Richard: “I don’t wanna go back!”
Host: “You’re not gonna go back!”
In the mid-’70s, for the second time in his career, Little Richard quit rock to preach the word of God. As a performer, he would spend some nights reading from the Bible and some joining in orgies. Once, while a 40-piece orchestra waited in a recording studio to cut a gospel album, he was netted in a police raid on homosexuals and voyeurs in a bus station rest room. All his life he has swayed between the sacred and the profane; in his finest moments as a performer he fused the two and the crowd experienced a unity not entirely unlike religion.
The private war tormented him and made him an artist. When he sees Jackson run his fingers over his shoulder and down the length of his arm during a slow song, grinding his hips with a contained but smoking sensuality, he senses that in a quieter but equally powerful way the spiritual and the physical are staging a tug-of-war within the 26-year-old Jehovah’s Witness.
“It’s something that’s put in the black man; I don’t know where he would be if not for his belief in the Lord,” says Little Richard. “There was always a force inside me saying ‘Go!’ and a force inside saying ‘Stop!’ I would love it while I was onstage—what people get in sex, I got there. I wanted to set up my kitchen, bed and bathroom onstage and live there.
“But when the show was over I would feel depressed. Churches felt my music was from hell. It will hit Michael too. He’s a religious guy. His conviction will become too strong to sing rock ‘n’ roll.”
Both singers came up in big, religious families that loved to sing together. In Little Richard’s section of Macon, Ga. everyone ate meat loaf because no one had teeth, and lyrics such as “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child could leap like brushfire from kitchen window to kitchen window until the whole street was harmonizing. His family formed the Penniman Singers and competed in gospel-singing battles with other groups.
But something inside Richard was thumping to get out, and by the mid-’50s he was dancing on piano tops and belting out songs that would help change a generation: Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Jenny Jenny, Lucille and Slippin’ and Slidin’. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger sat at stageside during his England concerts, in awe, and he sat at a piano in Hamburg, Germany going, “Ooooh! Ooooh!” until young Paul got it just right.
Whites flocked to his concerts the way they would in more massive numbers to Michael Jackson’s in 1984. In some Little Richard concerts, it would be whites only in the orchestra and blacks only in the balconies, but then the frenzy of his music would wrench everyone out of his seat and cause spontaneous integration. White teens spun his records when their parents weren’t home and hid them when they returned.
Both artists tapped something deep inside mainstream America. Was it just coincidence that to achieve this crossover, both had blurred their sexuality? “If I was dressed looking like a girl, the white man figured I wouldn’t touch his girl,” says Richard. “They were still nervous about my band, though.”
He fined his musicians $75 if he saw them walk out of a club with a white girl. He let his hair reach for the sky, curled it and crusted it with lye. He painted his eyebrows, caked his face with Pancake 31 makeup, studded his outfits with sequins and little mirrors. He mesmerized audiences into forgetting that his right leg was shorter than the left. Still, in the ’50s, there was no way to forget he was black. Promoters paid him after concerts with guns on the table; police in El Paso harassed him for long hair. There were no Sunset Boulevard billboards or Pepsi ads for Richard Penniman.
White record companies even swiped the songs right off his lips; Pat Boone remade Richard’s hits so white radio stations would play them. In exasperation, he sang Long Tall Sally at break-tongue speed so that Boone would be calling for oxygen by the time Uncle John duckedbackinthealley.
Little Richard made only half a penny per record sold, compared with the three-to-five-cent cut white stars were getting, and made nothing in royalties when his hits were used by other singers and in movies. His contract with Specialty Records was typical of the kind that black rockers were stuck with in those days; to protest meant to be labeled a smart-ass nigger, not to mention an unemployed singer. “I was a dumb black kid and my mama had 12 kids and my daddy was dead,” says Little Richard. “I wanted to help them, so I took whatever was offered. Rock ‘n’ roll was an exit for me.”
Unlike Jackson, he needed chaos in his concert, he needed to splash the smooth smug sea America was sailing. He shoved his musicians in mid-riff off 15-foot stages into the crowd. He pounded pianos so hard he snapped 80-gauge piano strings. He hurled so many items of his clothing into the audience he once finished a show in a bathrobe. Jackson would win the masses by confirming traditional values; Little Richard ransacked them.
He took oxygen between sets in Denver to keep revving it faster, and when his life lagged behind his music, he took cocaine and heroin. Then, in 1975, his brother Tony died. Richard had promised to lend him a few hundred dollars, but had postponed his visit to participate in a cocaine-and-sex party. The death sent him reeling back toward God.
Today he lives comfortably, but not lavishly, as a bachelor in a lavender and black house in Riverside, Calif. He makes appearances to preach and sing, sometimes for whatever the collection plate will bear, sometimes for a few thousand dollars. He still sweats just sitting still in an air-conditioned room but he swears he will never rock ‘n’ roll again.
When he looks at Michael Jackson, he sees what might have been. “I feel happy for him, but I feel cheated,” he says. “I want the money that should be mine, to use it for God.”
But when he listens to Michael Jackson, he realizes they each received 50-50 shares of something else. “We both didn’t know who to trust. People screamed when they saw us, but some of them are the same ones who will cut your throat. I know what he feels after a concert. You come back from singing for 20,000 people and sit in a big empty hotel suite with four security guards and someone has to stand outside the bathroom so you can use the toilet. Michael tells me I shouldn’t walk on the streets. ‘Somebody can kill you, Richard,’ he says.”
There is talk of a movie to follow The Life and Times of Little Richard (Harmony Books, $15.95), the book that was recently published. Eddie Murphy and Prince have been discussed for the role, but he wants Michael Jackson to play Little Richard.