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gq-magazine.co.uk
Little Richard: The rock and roll legend on orgies, angel dust and alcohol
By Robert Chalmers

The problem with assessing the importance of the man Charles White calls “the quasar of rock'n'roll” is that his musical inventiveness and defiant flamboyance have influenced so many performers so strongly: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Liberace, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Prince, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, among many others.

In 1967, Elton John was playing piano for a group called Bluesology, who supported Richard in London on 11 December 1966. “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins and energy,” he said, “I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock'n'roll piano player.”

Richard is, without question, the boldest and most influential of the founding fathers of rock'n'roll; one of the few genuine originals in an industry populated by performers whose appetite for fame greatly exceeds their talent.

For all that, Little Richard’s life and career have been subject to nothing like the degree of scrutiny or celebration enjoyed by, say, Presley, Jerry Lee, or Richard’s most famous protégé, Hendrix.

The latest book on him, David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, published in 2009, is pretentious even by the competitive standards of music criticism, and does the singer little justice. The two seminal works on Richard remain the biography by Charles White, first published in 1984, and the programme it inspired: Bill Hinton’s superb South Bank Show, broadcast the following year. Hinton’s film bears comparison with any documentary on popular music. An indication of its quality is that it continues to sell in large numbers on DVD, pirated in America and sold through internet sites under the title: Little Richard Documentary.

Ask anybody under 35 to name his songs, and they might manage a handful of numbers, beginning with “Lucille” and “Tutti Frutti” - the latter of which added a new term, “A-wop-boppa-loo-bop a wop bam boom!”, to the language, ten syllables that encapsulate the impudent hysteria of rock'n'roll. It also provided the title for Nik Cohn’s seminal 1969 book on rock'n'roll, though Cohn’s text focuses on other performers. A-wop-boppa-loo-bop’s demented battle cry may have resonated on a primeval level with the souls of teenagers all over the world, but it proved too much for the Times Literary Supplement. (“This phrase,” it commented, “poses a grave problem of exegesis [critical explanation].”)

One of the odd things about Little Richard - and there are a few - is the way this performer, the most versatile rock'n'roll singer of his generation, has come to be regarded as the most limited in vocal range. Shortly before his death in 1995, I recorded a conversation with the British writer and musician Vivian Stanshall. “If you asked me what was the greatest vocal performance from that period,” Stanshall said, “I would choose a record by Little Richard. It’s a song called 'Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave’. It’s extraordinary - just magnificent,” Stanshall added. “That record invariably stops any other activity in a room - however large.” “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave” is a slow number in 6/8 time, written by one of Richard’s early mentors, Lloyd Price. It’s one of those rare recordings that seems to establish an instant connection to your spinal column. Like “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)”, Little Richard’s relatively unknown 1965 soul classic which prominently features Jimi Hendrix, the song has little in common with the famously histrionic style which has reduced Richard, in the minds of some, to mere caricature. The writer Peter Mayle annoyed many readers with his patronising attitude to French peasants in A Year In Provence, but the most demeaning line in that book is reserved for his description of the voice of Little Richard: “A great sweating squawk,” as Mayle called it, “from the jungle.”

When you talk to him, Richard - who likes to punctuate his Muhammad Ali-style rhyming banter with the occasional high-pitched “Woo-eee!” at moments of special interest - will occasionally sing a phrase in one of the many styles he has mastered. Listening to him is an education. From orthodox tenor, to gospel, to delta blues, to an elegant restraint reminiscent of Nat King Cole; Little Richard can sing anything.

Every black male star of his age and background - the singer was raised with the fearsome imagery of the Southern Baptist tradition - has struggled to reconcile the scriptural doctrine of his childhood with the temptations that come with fame. None has explored the opposing extremes of holy restraint and secular indulgence so comprehensively as Little Richard. His Bible, which was almost always by his side, doubled as his contacts book. “When I had all these orgies going on,” he said, “I would get up and go and pick up my Bible. Sometimes I had my Bible right by me.” [Read More]