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  • Jim Bessman

Little Richard--An appreciation


Little Richard performs "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti" in "Don't Knock the Rock"

The word icon has become overused to the point of banality, especially in the entertainment world. But it still has meaning when applied to Little Richard, who died Saturday (May 9) at 87.

In look, voice, performance and personality, LR was iconic indeed—along with Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

As Tim Weiner wrote in his New York Times’ “Flamboyant Wild Man of Rock ’n’ Roll” obit, Richard delved “deeply into the wellsprings of gospel music and the blues, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before--something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous.”

In life and in death, all hailed the beloved Richard for his place at the pinnacle of the rock ’n’ roll pantheon.

“We all owned ‘Tutti Frutti,’” said Peter and Gordon’s British Invasion luminary Peter Asher at his gig at New York’s Cutting Room last December, then declared that Pat Boone’s antiseptic No. 12 cover of 1956, in surpassing Richard’s definitively raucous No. 21 original, was America’s “most godawful and embarrassing mistake.”

Also singling out “Tutti Frutti,” Robert Kenison, who as Troy Charmell was a member of the legendary 1970s Midwest rock ‘n’ roll show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners--who performed numerous Little Richard classics.

“If you want to know why rock ’n’ roll succeeded, put on ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Pat Boone!” says Kenison. “It ain’t rock ’n’ roll until you listen to Little Richard. He was a force of nature, and influenced everyone.”

As Kenison notes, “Everybody did Little Richard songs. You had to play Little Richard—I don’t think there would be rock ’n’ roll without Little Richard and the stuff he did on piano. I remember as a kid trying to figure out what he was doing: the left hand, a boogie-woogie thing, but the right hand, a splattering of notes that sounded great but I couldn’t really figure out what it was—just that incredible rhythm, and just that voice. He could sing and scream at the same time—which is hard to do! McCartney could do it on [Richard’s 1956 hit] ‘Long Tall Sally.’”

Richard, in fact, was Paul McCartney’s boyhood idol, and “Long Tall Sally” was the first song he performed in public. And he was hardly alone.

“God bless Little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes,” fellow Beatle Ringo Starr tweeted yesterday. Tweeted Keith Richards, “So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock ’n’ Roll!”

Richards’ Rolling Stones partner Mick Jagger, also via Twitter, said Richard was “the biggest inspiration of my early teens, and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid ’50s. When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learned from him how to entertain and involve the audience, and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music.”

In his Twitter posts, Bob Dylan called Richard “my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do. I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot. He was always generous, kind and humble.”

Likewise, Elton John tweeted, “Without a doubt--musically, vocally and visually--he was my biggest influence. Seeing him live in my teens was the most exciting event in my life at that point. Goosebumps, electricity and joy came from every pore. His records still sound fresh and the opening few seconds of ‘Tutti Frutti’ are the most explosive in music history.”

Little Richard

Little Richard and Lou Christie in London (Courtesy of Lou Christie)

Rock ’n’ roll legend Lou Christie shares similar sentiments.

“I sat up in the balcony, just a 13-year-old kid watching the rock ’n’ roll shows at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, and when I saw him I knew that that’s what I was going to do!” says Christie.

“We did a lot of shows together, and for Richard, it was always a presentation: tight pants, eye makeup, the big hair. I thought it was fabulous, crazy rock ’n’ roll, and next morning at the airport he’d still be made up! He told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!’ He saw me out of his limo 10 years ago on Sunset Boulevard and pulled over and hollered at me, then gave me a bible in which he inscribed, ‘God loves you. Take care of yourself.’”

Music publicity veteran Bob Merlis worked with Richard, and put him on the cover of his book (co-written with Davin Seay) Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America 1930-1975.

“He was like a god—somebody from another galaxy, whose affect was not of this earth but otherworldly in every way,” says Merlis. “I guess it was because his talent was transcendent: There was nothing like him—ever.”

Richard, adds Merlis, “was ground zero for so much of rock ’n roll. He gave everything a pulsating inevitability. His left [piano] hand in ‘Lucille’ tells you everything: It was the entire rhythm section—almost the basis of hard rock.”

Echoing Christie, Merlis remembers working at the music business trade magazine Record World and interviewing Richard at a rock ’n roll package show.

“I waited for him, and when he came out I realized he still had on body makeup—and that everything about him was show business!” says Merlis. “He was not embarrassed to go absolutely wild, and was shameless--and that’s a positive.”

Later, when Merlis ran Warner Bros. Records publicity in Los Angeles (Richard was signed to the label in the mid-’80s), Richard related to him his “policy of wearing a shirt on stage that he knew the people in that town couldn’t buy there. In other words, he always had an awareness of show business and wanted to look sensational—and make a spectacle of himself. When they were giving him a bronze plaque on the RockWalk in front of the Guitar Center in Hollywood, and he saw that it didn’t call him ‘The Originator,’ he said he’d leave, so they said they’d change it—and they did! He needed his props.”

Elvis Presley may have been the king of rock ‘’n’ roll, adds Merlis in seconding Kenison, “but I’m sorry: There’s no rock ’n’ roll without Richard. He is The Originator. There’s no one comparable. There was jump blues and rockabilly, but it all came together with this guy—and nobody was more transcendent: He was a flamboyant gay character—when it wasn’t acceptable—and pushed the envelope musically, visually and sexually, on so many levels.”

Drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, who joined the celebrated blues band Rick Estrin & The Nightcats last year after 17 years with Richard, recalls that even after the first five years “I didn’t really know what I was doing—and I didn’t want to mess it up: He had two bass players, two guitars, horns, a B-3 [organ] player—a lot of musicians, and it was so loud! I’d played in big bands before, but to drive that band—the first couple years my forearms were cramped! I realized I can’t hit hard enough to battle this massive sound during 75-to-90-minute shows where he might do just one ballad.”

But “it was the gr