Little Richard Wasn’t Conceited. He Was Underappreciated.


Alarm was central to the Little Richard experience. He wailed like a siren and screamed for his life. Every song was an emergency, every punched and pounded piano key an ecstatic dialing of 9-1-1.

Something was always on fire with him. His loins, his fingers, his tongue. All of this burning alarmed the country, woke it up, amused and inspired it. He was ridiculous, and he knew it: equal parts church, filth, lust, androgyny, comedy, passion. And eventually anger. You see, this man built rock ’n’ roll’s rambunctious wing, its anything-goes department. People looted.

And anybody who was around in the 1980s and 1990s got to hear him ring the alarm about how robbed he was. This was well after Little Richard’s inventions of the 1950s (the mischievous swagger, the zooming sense of rhythm, the joy grenades) had gone molecular by way of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, David Bowie and Prince, just to identify the biggest molecules. He’d emerged from some personal lows in the 1970s and could still recognize himself everywhere.

At the 1988 Grammys, someone had the idea to have him present best new artist with David Johansen. Johansen was the lead singer of the proto-glam-punkers New York Dolls, who were influential in their own right, and had reinvented himself as a louche lounge act named Buster Poindexter. His cover of the calypso song “Hot Hot Hot” had been all over MTV the previous summer. He approaches the microphone with Little Richard, who’s in a golden tuxedo, sunglasses and his legendary pile of hair. Before they start, he proceeds to take in Johansen’s sky-scraping pompadour.

“I used to wear my hair like that,” Little Richard says, to big laughter. “They take everything I get. They take it from me.” The laughter subsides, and you can feel the room begin to suspect that this isn’t a bit. Johansen wears one of those “help me” grins and tries to move things along. He even lets out a paltry, dismissive “woo” that merely permits Little Richard to take another bite: “He can’t get that though.”

When it’s time, Little Richard says, “And the best new artist is … me.” The audience cheers. “I have never received nothin’. You all ain’t never gave me no Grammy. And I been singing for years.”

He has moved away from the microphone, working the house like a megachurch preacher who’s found his groove. His right arm’s waving, his left remains on his hip, holding the winner’s card with Jody Watley’s name. “I am the architect of rock n roll!” he shouts. The audience is on its feet. “I am the originator.” But he goes on longer than that, maybe too long, cracking himself up along the way, letting out a proper “woo.” Half aggrieved king, half giddy queen. The winner really is me!

He was 55 that night. You’d have sworn, though, that Johansen was the elder. “Richard,” he calls out, like a testy father. What choice, though, did Little Richard have? Gathered that night was an industry coursing with his genes. He needed to exalt in the results of this paternity test. I am your daddy! If it was too much, it was also too true. This was Little Richard’s last act: self-historian. He had to tell it because no one else would — not Hollywood, not the Grammys. He was a living legend who taught a generation of kids how to appreciate him.

Little Richard shouted the guest rap on Living Colour’s “Elvis Is Dead,” a single from 1990 about the band’s ambivalence toward Presley’s legacy. Elvis was gone. But Little Richard hadn’t gone anywhere. He installed himself on the talk show circuit, where his “shut ups” and twanging, hard-soft pronouncements (“I give ’em two snaps and a broken wrist”; “never had it, can’t get it, don’t wanna know where to find it”) sounded too honest to settle entirely into schtick.

One night in 1990 Arsenio Hall donated most of his talk show to him. He tore through “Lucille” and “Tutti Frutti,” wondered how he’d only just received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, told rap’s many would-be censors that they were too old to get it, and spoke his famous nonmusical line: “I’m not conceited,” he told Hall. “I’m convinced.”

That kind of shamelessness is elemental now. It’s a pillar of hip-hop. It’s running the White House. But Little Richard’s self-regard is like no other’s, not even Kanye West’s. He could laugh at himself, maybe to keep from crying. He made it seem all about him. But no sensible person could assume he was bragging for himself alone. This was a country built upon robberies of all sorts. Here was this loud black man who, in his way, wouldn’t shut up about it. He became this emblem of taking justice into your hands when official channels fail, sounding alarms with gospel humor and some inadvertent rudeness (poor Jody Watley really had to wait).

For a few minutes, in 1986, the emblem was in full flower, right there in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” Paul Mazursky’s hit satire, with Richard Dreyfuss, Nick Nolte and Bette Midler. Little Richard plays the record producer who lives across the street from Dreyfuss and Midler, the Whitemans. Not even 20 minutes in, he pops out in a bathrobe, gold chain, his juiciest Jheri curl and foulest mood. The occasion is his neighbors’ false alarm, which unleashes at least one chopper and a flood of concerned cops.

“I know why I don’t get the protection that I’m supposed to get,” Little Richard says, “Because I’m black!” He’s not so much saying this as much as he is exclaiming it, performing it, braying it. He even throws in a “good God Almighty.” These are street preacher antics. “I spent $3.6 million for that pile of stucco you see over there!” When he runs off, exasperated, he’s still ranting: “I’m bringing in more brothers, more brothers,” then lets out a “woo.”

As you watch him go on, you notice that, for once, he isn’t laughing. He seems pained to have to make this known. His alarm was real.

Maybe part of the reason we tolerated Little Richard the way we did was because he actually took it easy on us. He seemed frozen in the era of his genius, living with abandon until he died. Was that an illusion brought on by that name? He was born one Richard Penniman and exited 87 years later, a Little. How seriously do we take our Littles? Do we believe in their rage? It’s likely that when Little Richard ranted about tragedy, we heard an adult child. We heard a gay comedian. We heard an aunt.

So, he was ridiculous — but only because this country is ridiculous. He knew that, too, and embodied it with gusto.


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