When the young Richard Penniman unleashed “Tutti Frutti” on an innocent America in the fall of 1955, the big Top 40 hits were Georgia Gibbs singing “Dance with Me, Henry,” The McGuire Sisters doing “Sincerely,” and a fellow named Bill Hayes and his rendition of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
Into this void came Little Richard, who could have borrowed a line from Al Jolson, at the dawning of talking pictures: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Instead, Richard pounded away at a piano and hollered those immortal lyrics, “A-wop-bop-aloobop-alop-bam-boom.”
Parents and clergy found such language terrifying, and pronounced the end of the civilized world as they knew it. A generation of teens just beginning to flex their buying power (one 45 RPM record at a time) found it hilarious, found it liberating and found it a great secret language with which to taunt all grown-ups.
As the late local TV disc jockey Buddy Deane once said, “I’d start to play something by Patti Page or Eddie Fisher, and the kids are going, ‘No, we want Little Richard.’”
Richard left us over the weekend, at 87, from bone cancer, and left earth in a state of ongoing shock. We never quite got over his music, or his outrageousness.
He was a commanding general among the shock troops storming the beaches of prim, polite pop music in the post-war years. Think Chuck Berry, think Fats Domino, think Bo Diddley. At the same time the public schools were first integrating, these folks were integrating the radio airwaves as never before.
Little Richard brought a comic, sexual, unapologetic black rhythm-and-blues aura. He brought a gay sensibility, though it was still too early to talk about it much. He brought “Tutti Frutti” and “Lucille,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally.”
He brought them to the whole planet, including to Baltimore.
John Waters once wrote about picking up “Lucille” at a local five-and-dime (“The first time I shoplifted,” Waters said proudly) and took it to his grandmother’s house, where the whole family had gathered for dinner.
“I made a beeline to her out-of-date hi-fi,” Waters wrote, “and let it roll. ‘Lucille! You won’t do your sister’s will!’ came blaring through the house like a pack of rabid dogs.
“It was as if a Martian had landed. My grandmother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, beyond comprehension. The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white, middle-class family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr. Spock hadn’t warned them about this.”
I interviewed Little Richard one time, back in the early ‘70s. He’d come to town as part of an Oldies revival concert, which was tied to the release of a documentary film about the ‘50s, “Let the Good Times Roll” (which you can view in its entirety on YouTube — it’s a hoot).
I brought an old neighborhood pal, Barry Director, to the interview since Barry was a fan, like me. Little Richard wore about 14 pounds of makeup and had hair (I guess it was all his) piled up like some fancy cascading pastry.
He glanced in a mirror and said to himself, “A man can’t look no better than that.”
Then he talked about his Baltimore history. He’d played the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue back in his early heyday. The cops had to be called in. A dozen or so hysterical girls were climbing onto the stage. Others were threatening to jump from the balcony.
Then, things started floating up in Richard’s direction on stage: women’s panties, first one pair, and then a whole flock.
“Ladies’ drawers,” Richard called them, laughing aloud at the memory.
He was flattered, but ambivalent. Back then, he hadn’t made any big pronouncements about his sexuality, but certain gestures signaled he was about as straight as Liberace.
In fact, in mid-interview, Little Richard leaned over and asked if I’d like to come back to his hotel room “and drink some peach wine.”
“Uh, maybe another time,” I muttered, as though Little Richard would perhaps be back in Baltimore some time soon.
Anyway, the interview ended abruptly when my friend Barry, wishing to participate in the discussion, told Richard that he loved his recording of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Big mistake. Barry knew better. He’d simply panicked in his closeness to rock ‘n’ roll greatness. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was, of course, a Lloyd Price number.
Little Richard leveled Barry with a killer stare. “I am the father of rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, and then marched himself straight out of the room, and was not seen again.
Well, we’ve seen his likes since. As Rolling Stone once pointed out, a few generations of pop singers “pledged their unholy inspiration to Little Richard,” from Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger to Elton John and Prince.
Maybe Little Richard was the father of rock ‘n’ roll, and maybe he wasn’t. He was certainly one of its fathers.
And at his passing, generations of his children bid farewell.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).