Waiting for the man

It’s 3 p.m. on Thursday and nobody’s called back yet.


There was so much I wanted to ask him, too, and that’s not me being snotty or smart-assed. I wanted to ask him about rock ’n’ roll and gospel, and how he bounced back and forth between God and the devil’s music all those years.

I wanted to ask how touring on those early rock and R&B bills compared to touring on the traveling revival circuit, which he did for a time in the late 1950s.

I wanted to ask him about his hometown, Macon, Ga. — also the birthplace of James Brown, Lucille Hegamin, and the Georgia Mass Choir, and headquarters of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1984.

I wanted to ask about that occasion when he was presenting at the Grammys, and when it came time to announce the winner for Best New Artist, he shouted, “The winner is… ME! Y’all never gave me nothin’! I am the originator!” (The Recording Academy finally gave Richard a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and when they presented it to him prior to the prime-time broadcast, didn’t he raise hell!)

And I wanted to ask whether he ever felt like slapping Pat Boone for that execrable cover of “Tutti Frutti.”

It’s 3:12 p.m. I keep leaving messages.

As a voice recorder-carrying member of the second generation of rock journalists, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not supposed to admit to a fondness for Little Richard. I think I’m supposed to lump him in with Tommy Roe, Connie Francis, Lou Christie, Chubby Checker, Little Anthony and whoever’s still alive from the Diamonds and the Crystals — all those early acts who slogged it out on the oldies performance circuit through the ’80s and ’90s, in front of audiences for whom the phrase “let your backbone slip” had become much more than an idle metaphor.

Well, at the risk of losing my Equity card, let me say that I stand second to no one in my admiration for the man who wrote “Bama Lama Bama Loo.” Sure, even in the early days Little Richard was about 50 percent bluster and bombast. But that was part of his charm, all that endless blather about “I created rock ‘n’ roll” and “I am the innovator, the emancipator,” that he laid down in a widely quoted Pop Art Times interview. Still, bizarre as it sounds, in context he was something of a sui generis figure, alongside Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the whole host of “Birth of Rock and Roll” talents whose legacies are now entombed in that ghastly glass mausoleum in Cleveland.

Personally, I always thought of Little Richard as a spirit more kindred to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins than to Elvis, or even to Jerry Lee, who took a lot of his at-piano antics from Richard’s playbook. Like Hawkins, Richard Penniman took the raw sound of blues and R&B and extrapolated a vivid stage persona from it. But where Hawkins was all dirty sex and nasty palaver, Little Richard’s rawness was hidden — barely — under his “prettiness” and vulpine sense of style. Richard endured a lot of digs at his supposedly effeminate mannerisms, but what he really was, onstage, was the freakiest sort of ladies’ man. (The line runs, uninterrupted, from “Long Tall Sally” to Rick James’ “Superfreak” to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”)

And no solo performer’s live show was better suited to television. Elvis’ appearance on Ed Sullivan was mostly a wind-up to his breathlessly-awaited pelvic twitch; and if you turned the sound down, poor Buddy Holly always looked like he was playing for the high school talent showcase. Little Richard, on the other hand, stood there and bounced and hammered out “Long Tall Sally” with pompadour a-flapping, eyes a-rolling, and his voice wrapped around that high B like he’d never let go of it.

I was looking forward to hearing that voice, the one Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam heard from backstage, while they were presenting Little Richard with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, at the Roseland Ballroom. In the middle of Lewis and Jam’s introduction, Little Richard started riffing and playing the dozens on them from the wings, after which he swanned onstage and commanded the mike for nearly 15 minutes.

And I was looking forward to bracing him on the 2004 Concert of Colors, to be held this week at Chene Park, the ostensible occasion for this interview. In part I wanted to ask because the festival places Little Richard in the company of performers with a fair amount of artistic currency (like Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, and the Gore Gore Girls). But mostly I wanted to talk about the recent uprising of young garage bands and back-to-the-roots rock outfits like the Von Bondies and the Little Killers, which seem to draw, both musically and stylistically, from the finger-shredding I-IV-V roundhouse slaps of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis rather than from the Beatles and the Stones. I wonder what the Originator, the Innovator, the Emancipator thinks about so many new acts drawing from the well.

I wonder, too, how it feels for him to be sharing a bill with Gino Washington, another pretty R&B shouter from rock’s golden era, a Motown native who snagged two local hits in the early 1960s with “Out of This World” and the finger-poppin’ “Gino is a Coward.” Both men saw promising careers interrupted — Washington’s by a stint in the military, Richard’s by a religious call and later, a second time, by a struggle with drugs and booze — and both came of age at a time when non-jazz record labels were casting about, bewildered, for a way to market black music to white audiences nationwide.

And that’s what I wanted to ask him about, most of all. Not the historical details of that phenomenon, which have been gone over pretty thoroughly — that between Paramount and Vocalion’s “race records” and early rock ’n’ roll labels finding a workable business model, there was a span of about two decades where black R&B and white rockabilly performers were cutting sides that whip the ass off any dozen cred-heavy indie-rock albums released last week alone.

No, I wanted to ask him about all the flap and ballyhoo concerning the rock ’n’ roll revival we’re currently in the midst of, according to Rolling Stone, the wave ridden by the garage bands that is, in essence, a return to rock’s R&B influences. I wanted to ask whether he felt like they’d still never given him nothin’, even after that Lifetime Achievement Award.

But I also wanted to ask whether imitation — the sincerest sort of flattery, after all — was a more fulfilling accolade than an industry honor, which (like so many still unhonored originators and innovators) he certainly deserved. I wanted to know whether, despite his unquestioned egomania, he felt like he was speaking for a community of still-unsung performers when he declared himself Best New Artist at that Grammy ceremony.

And I wanted to know what he listened to when he was all by himself.

Like me.

At 4:15 p.m., I was spinning “The Girl Can’t Help It” off the 1991 compilation The Georgia Peach, and waiting for the phone to ring.

Well, hell. Like somebody once said: I don’t know what he’s sayin’, but it sure sounds good.

A wop bam boom.


Little Richard appears Sunday, July 18, on the Concert of Colors main stage at Chene Park (2600 Atwater, Detroit) with Los Lobos, Mercan Dede, Ex-Centric Sound System and Lee Boys with Calvin Cooke. For more information call 313-842-7010, or go to concertofcolors.com.


Read more:
Concert of Colors highlights.
Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]

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