Belated, I know, but still. At the risk of making this post more about me than him (even though I’ll probably end up doing just that regardless) I’ll lead off with a snippet from the text conversation on Richard’s passing I had with my band’s former manager:
That last refers to a pic he included in the message, in which I am conspicuous only by my absence. Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.
Those three December nights remain among the most memorable of my entire life. We did three (3) shows opening for Little Richard at a legendary music hall called Tramps, on 20th Street in Manhattan. The above-mentioned Terry Dunne was the owner of that fine establishment, a big, bluff, Irish-to-the-bone man with some truly alarming IRA connections: bone thugs who would show up in NYC periodically when over here for a fundraising or arms-procuring jaunt, to the vague terror of one and all.
But it was the last night of that momentous three-night stand when Richard made the above-mentioned declaration, to the deep chagrin of a long, long line of autograph seekers—and to the spluttering rage of one Terry Dunne, who had a huge stack of Richard LPs he was hoping to get signed, a stack that ended up sitting untouched and forlorn by those famous hands on Dunne’s lonely office desk.
Almost didn’t get paid? Hell, we almost didn’t make it out alive. Mike, our manager, later told us that Terry was absolutely fuming when he went in to collect our fee that night—a handsome enough one by the usual NYC standard, as was always the case for us at Tramps. There was Terry’s big stack of LPs, unsigned. And there was Terry, screaming himself purple over how Richard had breezily dismissed one and all to spend thirty or forty of his precious green-room moments with us alone before announcing, “Y’all, I gots to GO! My legs, my legs are hurting! The legs is the first things to go!” and strolling right out surrounded by his entourage with nary a backwards glance at anybody.
Terry, poor guy, issued a few dire threats regarding things he really ought to hire somebody to do to us, then coughing up like a prince in the end. I stayed friends with Terry throughout the rest of my years in New York, even playing a few gigs with my local side-band at a little bar he opened up down on 1st and 1st, right off Houston Street. But the Belmont Playboys were pretty much persona non grata at Tramps after that.
Little Richard Penniman was known as The Architect of rock and roll, which was certainly accurate. There really was nobody quite like him; his piano playing was simultaneously frenzied yet virtuosic, and his singing was simply otherworldly, a revelation. He could growl, he could scream, he could croon, he could wail, every note of it pitch-perfect and bursting with a passion that was big as mountains and as moving as a desert sunset. He was less a performer than a force of nature, way larger than life both onstage and off. The truly astonishing thing isn’t how very good he was; given that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, it’s that he lived as long as he did. When your peers are icons like Elvis, the Killer, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, and others, and you still stand out so sharply…well, that says one hell of a lot.
His band back then, the Upsetters, were every ounce equal to their Herculean task too; quite simply, they were probably the single best rock and roll backing band there ever was. Hey, when you can hire and then fire Jimi Fargin’ Hendrix, ferrchrissakes, none but a fool could consider you anything less than the creme de la creme:
Hendrix was an off-and-on member of Richard’s backup band, the Upsetters between late 1964–January 1965 until June–July 1965. So far, Hendrix biographers have identified only two songs he recorded with Richard, but are uncertain about the dates: “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)”, a two-part single released by Vee-Jay Records in November 1965, and “Dancing All Around the World”. Neither song appears on this album, although they are included on the West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (2010).
In July 1965, Hendrix played guitar during a WLAC-TV television appearance by Upsetters backup singers Buddy & Stacy. They performed the Junior Walker hit “Shotgun”, which was broadcast on Night Train, a Nashville, Tennessee, music variety show. Soon thereafter, Hendrix moved to New York City, where he sent a postcard to his father:
He [Little Richard] didn’t pay us for five and a half weeks, and you can’t live on promises when you’re on the road, so I had to cut that mess loose.
Richard’s brother, Robert Penniman, later claimed that Hendrix was fired because “he was always late for the bus and flirting with all the girls and stuff like that.”
Whatever the true story might be, the Upsetters were definitely the real deal all right, which this classic among classics demonstrates nicely.
One of the best tenor sax solos EVER, I think. Note ye well, though: the Upsetters could swing out, they could do jazzy, and they could turn on a dime and just rock the roof off the joint without seeming to break a sweat. But even so, it’s Richard you somehow can’t wrest your gaze from. That, too, says one hell of a lot.
And when we played with him at Tramps, the man STILL had every last bit of it. His band would take the stage without Richard first each night, spending about twenty or thirty minutes getting the SRO crowd good and warmed up. Richard would climb the long staircase up from the green-room dungeon near the last of the warmup set, waiting quietly and calmly in the wings behind the stage-right curtain to be brought onstage to a mad roar from the now-pumped crowd.
Which just happened to be where I was standing that last night, completely enraptured by his band and oblivious to the most august personage standing right beside me.
Little Richard really wasn’t particularly little at all, I realized when I turned to find him close by. He had a big head, big eyes, big hair, big hands, and a robust overall physique, even at the ripe old age of 60. Abruptly, I found myself in the immediate presence of true, honest-to-God greatness after not interacting with him at all on the previous nights. I struggled to come up with a few words to express my gratitude for the sublime honor of allowing us to share the bill with him for three nights.
And then came the moment I will never for one second forget. Richard stepped closer in, warmly grasped my hand in both of his, and then positively gushed with praise. Exact quote, as burned into my increasingly feeble brain for all time:
Oh, I just LOVE what you did with my friend Gene Vincent’s song! That Be Bop A Lula! You have SUCH a wonderful voice, so powerful! Thank you, thank you so much for that!!
Whereupon I immediately fell to my knees and kissed The Architect’s hand. I mean, come on, man! What the hell else was I going to do?
It might help you to better appreciate the impact if you recite the above words using your most flamboyant, gay-ass Little Richard voice, I dunno. Not that Richard was really gay, of course. No, Little Richard, elemental force of nature that he always was and will always remain, was parsecs beyond being tritely categorized as merely “gay” or “straight.” Richard was what one might call sexually omnivorous. To wit:
Beautiful, eccentric, fast, flashy, honest, intelligent, lascivious, rough, spiritual, trashy, wild, witty, the singer, pianist, saxophonist and raconteur Richard Wayne Penniman performing as the frightening and thrilling Little Richard is a musician’s musician and a pervert’s pervert. Little Richard, who tried out some of his songs in front of audiences before recording them, an entertainer who challenged cultural barriers with his talent, and who for a time would live in Los Angeles in Sugar Hill near boxer Joe Louis, another Georgia boy from Macon, was a concert performer admired by fellow entertainers James Brown, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Prince—and Richard’s gospel singing was admired by Quincy Jones and Mahalia Jackson. Like many African-American artists, Richard Penniman would feel himself torn between the sensual and the spiritual.
Money and sex as well as the salvation of souls were, with music, among Little Richard’s lasting interests: they offered ecstasy, power, and transcendence. Little Richard had a girlfriend named Angel who was a devilish sex vixen who became the practicing bisexual man’s friend, lover, and tool, as much of a freak as he was: “I loved Angel because she was pretty and the fellers enjoyed having sex with her. She could draw a lot of handsome guys to me” (thus the libertine is quoted in 1984’s oral history of Little Richard’s life and career, The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White, originally published by Harmony Books in 1984, then Da Capo Press in 1994, and republished by Omnibus Press, 2003; page 73). When the performer Buddy Holly walked into a backstage dressing room in which Little Richard and Angel were engaging in sex, Holly quickly joined them. Following new religious devotion, Richard Penniman for a time would be married to a woman, Ernestine Campbell, who was satisfied with their married and sexual life but not with his renewal of show business obligations, leading her to seek a divorce.
I have that book around here someplace, and in its recounting of the Holly tale, Richard waxed rhapsodic about the size of Holly’s, umm, courting tackle, going on and on about how much fun it was to share out his then-girlfriend backstage before being walked in on by a stagehand anxious as to why Holly wasn’t onstage at the moment, like he was supposed to be. More from the same link:
“Homosexuality is contagious. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s contagious…The gay thing really came from me being with a guy called Bro Boy, who was a grocery boy. Bro Boy really laid me into that—he and Hester. It started with them and it growed.”
—Little Richard, page 11
“There was this lady by the name of Fanny. I used to drive her around so I could watch people having sex with her. She’d be in the back of the car, the lights on, her legs open, and no panties on. I’d take her around so that the fellers could have sex with her. She didn’t do it for money. She did it because I wanted her to do it. She wasn’t very old. I used to enjoy seeing that.”
—Little Richard, page 41
“We were breaking through the racial barrier. The white kids had to hide my records ’cos they daren’t let their parents know they had them in the house. We decided that my image should be crazy and way-out so that the adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England an in the next as the pope.”
—Little Richard, page 66
“All I wanted was to have sex with the most beautiful women and get high…I used to like to watch girls be with girls, you know? I thought that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
—Little Richard, page 178
“A habit like mine cost a lot of money. I was smoking marijuana and angel dust and I was mixing heroin with coke.”
—Little Richard, page 186
Those quotes make it plain that Richard was simply too supersized a character to ever be constrained within definitions meant to apply to mere mortals. His appetites—sexual and otherwise—could never have been anything short of voracious. How could they? I repeat: the really remarkable thing is that he lived so long.
His talent, too, was high, wide, and deep, as oversized and uncontainable as his personality. He could play, he could sing, he could write, he could perform; the man was a bona-fide colossus. He was the living incarnation of everything anyone ever meant when they used the word “fabulous,” and I am profoundly grateful to Whomever for the all-too-brief moments I shared with him. I’ll close this out with a photo from the green-room dungeon at Tramps on that last December night, along with a bit of audio I’ll never get tired of.
From right we have our manager, guitarist/vocalist Chipps, Little Richard, and our drummer Mark. Visible in the background are a couple of Richard’s bandmates.
If there’s a rock and roll heaven, Little Richard Penniman just took charge of the band, making it wilder, more out-of-control, and just plain better than it ever was before. Fare thee well, Richard; may your lion’s heart and unquenchable spirit be forever at peace.