Our premise, revisited: We are not even two months into 2016, and David Bowie is gone. So are Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson. So are Maurice White, Vanity and Otis Clay, as are Glenn Frey, Gary Loizzo and Dan Hicks.
Time, then — well past time, really — to appreciate four music greats who are still with us. These are my four. Yours may be different. We started with the eldest, Chuck Berry. We continue with …
The legend: Little Richard.
Still performing? Apparently not. My friend Jeff Giles reported in September 2013 that Little Richard had retired. He now lives in Nashville but doesn’t get out much, according to “Prayers For Richard,” a fine piece by David Ramsey in December’s Oxford American.
What we must acknowledge but won’t dwell on: All those folks who got down on Richard Penniman over his style, his sexuality, his sensuality and/or his spirituality. Basically everything that made him great.
Where I came in: Hm. Not really sure. Seems like I’ve known about Little Richard since forever, but I never bought one of his records until I picked up a Specialty Records greatest-hits compilation sometime in the ’80s. It might have been after his career was revived after his memorable film appearance in “Down And Out In Beverly Hills” in 1986. It’s still the only Little Richard record I own.
Don’t take my word for it: As a suburban London kid in the ’50s, David Bowie sent away for two pictures of Little Richard. He eventually received one, “dog-eared and torn and, adding insult to injury, sized at 6-by-8 instead of the expected whopper.” Years later, that old picture of Little Richard sat on Bowie’s piano “in the original Woolworths frame I bought for it over 4o years ago, a small piece of yellowed Sellotape holding its ripped edges together.”
My evening with Little Richard: I’ve had two, actually, and was thrilled to have them both. He twice played our local casino. The first time was at least a decade ago. I got one of the little prayer books his people handed out after that show, but I’m not sure I still have it. The second and last time was in May 2007. What I wrote then:
I’ve seen and heard so much music over the years, yet I can honestly say it’s exciting to see Little Richard, and to see him for a second time.
The man is 74, yet still pounding the piano, belting out rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and doing a little preaching. He was in fine form, feisty as always and in fine voice. He’s backed by a scorching 10-piece show band — three saxes, trumpet, two guitars, bass, two drummers and a second keyboard player.
Little Richard was looking pretty, even if a bout with sciatica forced him to walk onto the stage on crutches. He wore a lemon-colored suit, its jacket covered with rhinestones, and a lime-colored shirt.
Perhaps my favorite moment: His cover of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It).” No, no, no, it was the giddy, thrilled reaction of a Japanese woman, one of several attractive ladies invited up on stage to dance, as she scooted off stage after shaking Little Richard’s hand.
To be honest, words fail to convey the essence of Little Richard’s greatness.
So, we’ll heed Little Richard and do as he says … shut up!
Appreciate the greatness:
“Tutti Frutti,” 1955. A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom, indeed!
“Lucille,” 1957. My mom was Lucille. This song was not about my mom.
“Good Golly Miss Molly,” 1958. No less than the great Tom Jones calls this his favorite Saturday night record. “It’s tremendous,” he tells Mojo magazine in the March issue. “I thought he was a girl at first, covering Billy Haley and the Comets, but he did it first. The lyrics were more risque!” Sir Tom and Little Richard duetted on this one on his variety show in November 1969.
All by Little Richard, all from “Little Richard’s Grooviest 17 Original Hits,” 1968. My only Little Richard record. It’s out of print, but all these tunes are available digitally.