And there appeared
a great wonder in heaven
Little Richard has always been attuned to signs. At the height of his fame, on tour in Australia in October 1957, he saw a big ball of fire in the sky above the stadium. This was his second vision of fire. On the flight over, the glow of the engines appeared to him as flames and he pictured yellow-haired angels holding the plane aloft.
The message, to Little Richard, was clear. He had to leave show business, quit singing the devil’s music, and get right with God.
“It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads,” he later told his biographer, Charles White. “It shook my mind. . . . I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’” And he did. He ditched the tour—leaving half a million dollars’ worth of canceled bookings, with multiple lawsuits to come. The change in plans kept him off a scheduled flight that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The Lord wasn’t messing around.
Little Richard quit rock & roll altogether, at least for a time. He enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study to become a minister. All to the despair of the money men at Specialty Records—owner Art Rupe said that Little Richard was so popular they could have recorded him blowing his nose and made a hit.
What Little Richard saw overhead in Australia was in fact Sputnik, the Russian satellite traveling 18,000 miles an hour in the night sky.
Picture Little Richard, far from home, drenched in sweat. “He made an impressive entry,” according to Australian newspaper the Age, “wearing a brilliant red coat over a canary yellow suit, topped off with a bright green turban. But he discarded all the trimmings until he was left with only pyjama pants and the turban.” Pounding on the piano and then dancing on top of it and then throwing his bedazzled clothes into the crowd. And Richard saw the bright yellow burn of the satellite, or probably the rocket casing trailing it, perhaps streaking past the vibrant Alpha and Beta Centauri stars of the Southern Cross.
A star who mistook a satellite for a ball of fire. And we might pause here to note that whether or not it was a message from God, something like a miracle was afoot. A freaky-deaky bisexual black man who grew up poor in the Jim Crow South in Macon, Georgia, singing a wild, sexy nonsense song that changed music forever, everywhere—even in a packed stadium halfway around the world, as shrieking Australian teenagers nearly started a riot, scuffling to touch the man’s discarded clothes. Fire in the heavens and fire on earth.
There are miracles everywhere if you know where to look. And know how to listen: A wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!
And the Word was made flesh,
and dwelt among us
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon in 1932, the third of twelve children. His daddy, Bud Penniman, was a church deacon and a bootlegger and a club owner. God, sin, and music. Bud met Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, at a Seventh-day Adventist holy meeting when she was thirteen. After a year of courtship, the couple married. Leva Mae meant to name her third child Ricardo, but there was a mistake on the birth certificate. “I never had sus enough to check it out and make ’em straighten it up right,” she said. And so he was Richard.
He was born with his right leg shorter than his left. His limp made him look like he was sashaying when he walked, and the kids called him faggot, sissy, freak, punk. He felt more like a girl than a boy, he said later, and used to imitate his mother putting powder on her face.
When he was a child, a lady in town put the “bad-mouth” on Richard, a curse that he would die at twenty-one. “I always believed that,” he told his biographer. “But it just made me wilder.”
Richard’s career as a traveling musician—and his life as a sexually adventurous, gender-bending wild man—started in his teenage years. He experimented with men in the gay underworld in Macon, guys named Madame Oop and Sis Henry and Bro Boy, as well as with older women.
At sixteen, Richard had a falling out with his father over his sexuality—Bud told him he was “half a son.” He left home to join a traveling medicine show literally selling snake oil; he would sing Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” the only tune he knew that wasn’t a church song. He joined up with various other traveling bands, sometimes performing in drag as Princess Lavonne. One group, B. Brown and His Orchestra, named him Little Richard.
After years on the chitlin’ circuit, Little Richard got a break with Specialty Records, which brought him to Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans in 1955, in the back of an appliance store on Rampart Street. And here, in the history of American music, by accident or fate, the contingencies aligned just so. “I created rock & roll, didn’t even know what I was doing,” Richard said.
In the studio, Specialty’s producer Bumps Blackwell found a wild-dressing, wild-talking man with his hair waved up half a foot. But Blackwell thought that the first tracks they recorded were too mild, too milquetoast, especially for a guy whose stage act was famously outlandish and untamed. “If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse it just doesn’t work out,” Blackwell later explained.
They went to take a break at the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street. Out of the studio, Little Richard immediately started hamming it up for the scattering of daytime drunks. “Boosters, rounders, pimps, whores was hanging around,” Blackwell said. “That’s all you gotta do is give Richard an audience.” He went to the piano and banged out a raunchy ode to sodomy that he used to play at the dodgier clubs on the circuit: “A wop bop a loo mop / A good goddamn / Tutti Frutti / Good booty / If it don’t fit / Don’t force it / You can grease it / Make it easy.”
And a good goddamn, thought Bumps Blackwell—now that is what I need to get on record. Blackwell brought in a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to write some family-friendly lyrics. “Good booty” became “aw rutti,” and then there was a girl named Sue and a gal named Daisy.
LaBostrie delivered the words with just fifteen minutes of studio time left, and that was all it took. This was the Little Richard they called “War Hawk” in church because of his hollering and screaming. This was the Little Richard who used to bang on tin cans and wail as a boy; one of his brothers remembered, “I thought he couldn’t sing, anyway, just a noise.” The Little Richard whose protégé, Jimi Hendrix, would later say that he wanted to do with his guitar what Richard did with his voice. This was the freak, the circus showman, the vamping diva, the Holy Ghost. He sounds breathless and fierce, a little unhinged. He sounds like the last man on earth singing the first song ever written.
The bubblegum lyrics don’t change the urgency of the song, barely contain the sex and fury and fun. Nonsense can deliver a perfectly coherent message depending on the way you say it. And, wooo, how he said it. Like a preacher speaking, lasciviously, in tongues.
You have turned my mourning
into dancing for me
Little Richard, now eighty-two years old, has reportedly been living the last several years in a penthouse suite at the Hilton hotel in downtown Nashville (the Hilton will neither confirm nor deny that they have a guest named Mr. Penniman). Most Nashvillians I’ve talked to have no idea, although a local country singer told me he once happened to spot Richard sitting in the passenger seat of his black stretch Cadillac Escalade, the window cracked. He shouted out Little Richard’s name and Richard rolled down the window to say, “God bless you,” and hand him a book of prayers.
Richard doesn’t get out on the town much. He has been confined to a wheelchair since hip surgery in 2009 that he says went awry. Here’s how he explained it last summer in a rare public appearance, at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon, where he was honored at a luncheon hosted by the National Museum of African American Music:
“I came to Nashville to see my sister. I bought a home for me and her here in the hills. And I went in for surgery on my hip. I was walking on my way in but I couldn’t walk out. The hip surgery was really bad for me. I haven’t walked since. I’m in pain twenty-four hours a day. I have never seen nothing like it.”
I knew someone who knew someone who had Little Richard’s cell phone number, and in June, I cold-called him. To my surprise, he picked up. He was kind but adamant about not doing an interview. He told me about his hip, about how much pain he was in. “People have been calling me from all over the world,” he said. “But I haven’t been doing any interviews, I’ve been refusing all of them. I’ll be eighty-three on December 5. The Lord has blessed me to still be alive.”
He told me about the event at the Wildhorse a week later and I decided to show up. He wouldn’t be performing or anything—I believe him when he says he won’t ever be performing again—but, well, I just wanted to see him. When he was a boy, people in Macon thought Richard was a healer. The Beatles, when they first met him, kept wanting to touch his hands. Think of the teenage fans who used to fight over his clothes. Or offer up their own: a Little Richard concert in Baltimore in 1956 is supposedly the first incident of female fans throwing their underwear onstage (“a shower of panties,” a bandmate remembered).
It was around eleven in the morning when the Escalade rolled past the honky-tonks on Broadway and turned down Second Avenue to the Wildhorse. Downtown Nashville in the morning is strange—the honky-tonks have opened for the early-bird tourists, cover bands playing Hank and Elvis and Jerry Lee. But the neon lights aren’t on yet, so the reds, pinks, and purples are dingy and dim.
Richard’s entourage, four men dressed in suits and Secret Service shades, made quick work, lifting Richard out of the passenger seat, into his wheelchair, and onto the red carpet. The whole operation looked like a kidnapping in reverse.
Little Richard wore a paisley jacket with a psychedelic floral pattern over a polka-dot button-up shirt, a pompadour hairpiece, rhinestone boots, and gold sunglasses, which he never removed. I can report to you, readers, that the self-proclaimed king and queen of rock & roll looked fabulous.
He also looked, of course, like an octogenarian, a little bit frail. He was in a surly mood when he arrived because the whole red carpet thing presented a problem. He did not want to be photographed in a wheelchair. “I really don’t want anyone seeing me like this,” he said.
By the time he received his award, he was in better spirits. He told stories about the old days in Nashville, playing gigs as a teenager at the New Era Club, sleeping at the YMCA because the white hotels wouldn’t let him in. He had his bodyguards hand out copies of a book, Finding Peace Within, to members of the audience. “Y’all keep me in your prayers,” he said.
After the Wildhorse, I talked to Richard a few more times briefly on the phone; he was always polite but wouldn’t budge on the topic of an interview. “I’ve been going through a lot of pain and stuff and it ain’t worth it to me,” he said.
The last time we spoke, he told me, “I’m really not interested in that kind of thing right now, baby. I’ve been real sick. I’m sick, I’m really trying to get well, baby.” He checked to make sure I had gotten the book he handed out and made me promise that I would read it.
Music fans are insatiable. The records are not enough. We are historians, anthropologists, archivists, psychologists. Little Richard is not just a legend but one of the last people alive among that first wave of rock & roll, the prime movers and shakers. So it is probably inevitable to treat Richard Penniman like a public treasure. If Richard is gracious, if he keeps thanking God simply that he is still alive, we are gracious, too. Every minute that he remains on this earth feels precious. Start the tape recorders, aim the cameras.
But there comes a day when what we want and need from our legends no longer jibes with what fragile human beings have to give. When bodies break down. In 1964, when folklorists found the legendary country blues singer Skip James, dying of stomach cancer in a charity hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, they begged him to play again. James supposedly answered, “I don’t know. Skippy tired.”
If Richard had granted an interview, what would I have asked? Not about the pain, which is probably all he can think about and all he wants to talk about. The old stories—Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium, Miss Ann and the Tick-Tock Club, the Beatles, the Stones, the gospel songs with Quincy Jones, the years preaching as an evangelist, Vegas, Pancake 31 makeup, the “wonderful orgies” (his words) and the threesome with Buddy Holly, angel dust and cocaine, a signifying satellite in outer space—he’s told those tales a million times, and maybe there’s nothing much more to tell. What is fresh and vital and constant is the pain.
Keep Little Richard in your prayers. Praise and thanksgiving. And intercession too. May he find comfort and ease. May he find a little more of that old rhythm, a little more of that wild light.
The book that Richard hands out is a collection of Bible verses, along with a modernized version of Ellen G. White’s Steps to Christ. White was a cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the nineteenth century after she had a series of more than a hundred visions, of Jesus and of yellow-haired angels.
The last line in the book: “And there is joy in heaven in the presence of God and the holy angels over one soul redeemed, a joy that is expressed in songs of holy triumph.”
And there shall be signs in the sun,
and in the moon, and in the stars
A different sort of troublemaker, Martin Luther, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1530, “Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”
Richard was often torn between his life as a Christian and his life as a rock & roll sinner. “I would get up off an orgy and go pick up my Bible,” he once explained. “Sometimes I would have the Bible right by me.”
During one spell as an evangelist, he preached that “this kind of music is demonic.” Certainly, if you watch videos of Little Richard performing, he looks something like possessed. But the spirit he found, the way we move to Little Richard songs, must be a holy thing. Beyond boogie: the ecstatic mode, to spite the devil.
At the Wildhorse in Nashville, Richard told the crowd: “I just want y’all also to know that Jesus is coming soon. I’m serious. He’s been talking to me and I just want you to know that and remember that something is fixing to happen in this old world. Get closer to God. All of you. Black people and white people. White people, you get closer too. He made you too. Everybody, get closer.”
Richard said something similar at a Recording Academy fund-raiser in Atlanta in 2013. “God talked to me the other night,” he told CeeLo Green, in what might end up being his last interview, and probably the last public appearance in which Little Richard was fully in character as himself. “He said He’s getting ready to come. The world’s getting ready to end . . . and He’s coming, wrapped in flames of fire with a rainbow around his throne.”
When someone in the audience laughed, Richard said: “When I talk to you about God, I’m not playing.”
And who am I to say that Little Richard is wrong? For all of us, actuarially speaking, sooner or later the end is nigh. So let us dance: black and white, man and woman, believer and heathen. And everything in between. Let us dance, all of us, while we are still able, while we still can.