“The fagot, the babe and the monster”: this was Little Richard’s particular way of the cross

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Let’s start with the penultimate chapter. June 2012, Howard Theater in Washington. Little Richard stops his concert in the middle and exclaims looking at the sky: «Jesus, please help me. I can barely breathe. It is awful”. The audience listens to him bewildered, as if the flame that lit the rock and roll wick 65 years ago had suddenly gone out, just when everyone present waits for a new flash on stage.

The worst omens are confirmed a year later. The singer announces his retirement in the magazine “Rolling Stone”: “I am finished, I feel that I do not feel like doing anything else. I have pain 24 hours a day, I am sick ». On a black and white photograph in which he appears apparently relaxed, the headline leaves no room for doubt: “Little Richard’s long goodbye.” He is 80 years old and everyone is really wondering how he can stay alive after all.

First chapter. Richard Wayne Penniman (Macon, 1932-Tennessee, 2020) is thrown out of the house for his effeminate gestures when he is only 14 years old. He is the third of 12 siblings from a very religious family. His father, a deacon who sees no sin in selling bootleg alcohol and running a nightclub of dubious reputation, cannot bear that his son is “a fagot, a babe, a monster,” as he is called in the neighborhood. It does not matter that little Richard has shown enough of his dedication to God and of his great talent in his church choir.

Second chapter. With no house to turn to, he starts selling “miracle drugs” with a certain Doctor Nubillo. He travels in a cart from town to town and becomes a great quack, singing to his clients the classic by Louis Jordan: “Caldonia Boogie.” It is the first song to be learned outside of gospel, which he had not been able to access before because his family considered it “devil music”. And so, far from strict parental vigilance, he begins to mold that eccentric character of screaming and cadezos with which he will revolutionize the culture of the 20th century.

Third chapter. Macon Auditorium, October 27, 1947. Richard works selling soft drinks at concerts by artists passing through town. Before going on stage, the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe surprises her to sing before her. Apparently someone has passed him a recording of his and is impressed. The promoter says that he is not crazy, but he ignores him. As soon as the curtain went up, the audience went wild with the Coca-Cola boy and Tharpe decided to pay him for his performance. What if you can live on it?

Fourth chapter. She performs her first performances under the pseudonym “Princess LaVonne” and begins to wear makeup and flashy clothes. Despite this, he managed to recover his relationship with his father in 1952, but that same year he was assassinated at the doors of his premises. He was only 40 years old and was killed by my best friend. My mother was alone with 12 children and needed help. It was very painful, but there was also a lot of love, the two feelings that I always wanted to express with my music, “he explained later.

Fifth chapter. In 1955, already without hope, he works at the Macon bus station, but decides to send one more model to Specialty Records. It takes six months for the response to arrive with an offer for a single recording session in a New Orleans studio. The first few shots are a mess, but in the lunch break he hums “Tutti Frutti”, with an impromptu lyrics that the producer, Robert Blackwell, seems unacceptable: “Good little asshole / If it doesn’t come in, don’t force it / you can grease it to make it easier ». The solution you find sure sounds familiar to you: “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom.” Or as we sing it here: “A wamba buluba balam bamboo.” And the theme sweeps!

Sixth chapter. Bob Dylan writes in his high school graduation yearbook a single wish: “Join the Little Richard gang.” He is obsessed with him, so much so that he sings “Jenny, Jenny” and “True Fine Mama” at his debut concert in 1956, during a contest at his school. The second song will also be one of his first studio recordings.

Seventh chapter. During a flight to Sydney on his first tour of Australia in 1957, Richard is in “shock” when he sees an alleged fireball in the sky. When he gets off the plane, he takes off the four diamond rings he is wearing ($ 8,000 each), throws them into the Hunter River and announces to his band that he is leaving music to study theology. The most earthly explanations of the pilots are not worth to him, that speak to him of a small explosion in one of the motors. Within a few weeks, he enrolled at the University of Alabama and disappeared for five years.

Eighth chapter. In 1962, he was arrested for spying on other men on the service of the Long Beach, California train station. He begins to play with his sexual ambiguity, calling himself “pansexual,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and “omnisexual,” in his interviews, and then denying it a thousand times. He then begins his addiction to cocaine, heroin, and PCP at the rate of $ 1,000 a day. In Charles White’s authorized biography, he states that he should have been called “Little Cocaine” at the time.

Ninth chapter. Wallasey, October 12, 1962. The Beatles’ first hit, “Love Me Do,” has just played on the radio for the first time. That night they present him in the Tower Ballroom opening for Little Richard. Paul McCartney and John Lennon are so nervous that they don’t even dare to ask him for a photo, but in the end they become courageous and end up pouncing on him like puppies. Paul didn’t take his eyes off me. He said to me: “Richard, you are my idol, let me touch you!” He wanted to learn my little cry and I taught him on the piano. During the concert I threw my shirt to the public and Paul went to find the best of his. Please take it! I would feel bad if you didn’t. Think about it … Little Richard with my shirt! I can’t believe it! ””, The “father of rock” recounted in his memoirs.

Tenth chapter. The Beatles’ publicist Andrew Loog Oldham recruited the Rolling Stones in May 1963 and the first thing he did was asked Keith Richards to remove the ‘s’ from his last name to be associated with Little Richard, who was going to accompany on their first tour. The first concert was in Watford: “I had heard so much about the public reaction that I thought they were exaggerating, but no. It brought everyone into a full frenzy. I couldn’t believe all that power on stage and in the audience, “recalled the guitarist.

Eleventh chapter. Los Angeles, 1977. Larry Williams – pimp, trafficker, and author of several rock classics in the late 1950s – furiously shows up at his old friend Little Richard’s house to demand a drug debt from him. A pistol is aimed at his head and he is about to blow his head off, but he gives up when he explains that he simply forgot about the “hang he was carrying.” That same year his brother Tony died, his nephew was accidentally shot and killed, and his two best friends were killed.

Chapter twelfth. In 1985, he crashed with his sports car against a West Hollywood telephone box. It takes months to recover and the gala of his admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is lost.

Last chapter. Little Richard dies of cancer at the age of 87 at his Tennessee home, accompanied by two of his brothers and their son. People wonder how he could stay alive, while the networks are filled with messages from the most influential musicians of the 20th century, who point to him as his main inspiration. «I just heard the news and I am very sad. He was my bright star, the light that guided me when I was a child. His spirit pushed me to do everything I did », writes Bob Dylan, who never shows his Nobel head for virtual lands … until now. .


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