Openly gay, but also by turn, conflicted and self-loathing, the magnificent musical genius known to the world as Little Richard died yesterday aged 87. Richard Penniman, born into a poor family of 12 in Georgia later went on to become the ‘architect’ of Rock and Roll and to inspire generations of singers. He described himself as the ‘King and Queen’ of Rock and Roll.
As Little Richard told his biographer, he was born different.
F****t, sissy, freak
“My mother had all these kids, and I was the only one born deformed. My right leg is shorter than the left. The kids didn’t realize I was crippled. They thought I was trying to twist and walk feminine. The kids would call me f****t, sissy, freak…
“The boys would want to fight me because I didn’t like to be with them. I wanted to play with the girls. See, I felt like a girl. I used to play house with my cousins, and I’d say, ‘I’m the mamma,’ and they’d say, ‘Hey, Richard, you was the mamma yesterday.'”
At the age of 15, Little Richard’s father threw him out of the house. The church deacon disapproved of his son wearing his mother’s makeup and clothes.
Already an established singer after beginning in churches as a child, young Richard supported himself by working in travelling medicine shows, minstrel, vaudeville and even drag shows. In drag, he performed as Princess LaVonne.
Richard understood that he was not straight from an early age.
“I just felt that I wanted to be a girl more than a boy.
“My first homosexual experience was with a friend of my family’s who the local gay people called Madame Oop. Madame Oop lived in our neighborhood. He worked on the railroad. He used to come around with another gay guy called Sis Henry. Well, when everybody was getting off work, Madame Oop would catch them, and he would use his mouth on them, and he would pay them sometimes. I didn’t like it. I just stared at him. But I needed him cuz I would get money from him.”
Little Richard gradually developed his trademark style by taking bits and pieces from artists he admired. An openly gay singer named Esquerita taught the young entertainer to play piano. He also inspired Little Richard to adopt louder clothing and makeup for his stage appearances.
Esquerita unfortunately never found the success his voice deserved and ended up washing car windshields for tips. He died of complications brought on by AIDS in 1986.
The up and coming singer left his home town of Macon Georgia after ending up in jail on charges of lewd behaviour. The police caught Richard Penniman in a car watching another couple in the car having sex. Little Richard had discovered the joys of voyeurism.
Before that rude case of coitus interruptus, he frequently drove a lady named Fanny around Macon and found men willing to enjoy sex with her for the price of allowing him to watch.
Little Richard found mainstream success when his manager heard him singing a risque song about gay sex.
“Tutti Frutti, good booty,
If it don’t fit,
Don’t force it,
You can grease it,
Make it easy.”
After a rewrite to sanitise the lyrics for public consumption, Little Richard released Tutti Frutti in November 1955 and enjoyed immediate world-wide success.
The King and Queen of Rock and Roll
Despite his flamboyant dress and makeup, female audiences loved the ‘King and Queen’ of Rock and Roll. At a June 1956 concert in Baltimore, women began throwing their underwear at him onstage. That later, of course, became a staple at concerts by the likes of Tom Jones but it all started with Little Richard.
Little Richard enjoyed hit after hit. However, many white Americans only bought the records of white singers. Artists like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Everly Brothers, therefore, recorded covers of Little Richard’s hits. He received a pittance, if anything, from their recordings while they became millionaires. Nevertheless, Little Richard became a huge success artistically and financially.
While still openly gay, he claimed to not indulge himself. He restricted himself to voyeurism, sometimes paying his band members to have sex with women while he watched.
“I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. I would pay a guy who had a big penis to come and have sex with these ladies so I could watch them. It was a big thrill to me. If the girls didn’t think they could take it, I would watch him make them take it. As I was watching, I would masturbate while someone was eating my titties. They should have called me ‘Richard the Watcher.’ My whole gay activities were really into masturbation. I used to do it six or seven times a day. In fact, everybody used to tell me that I should get a trophy for it, I did it so much. I got to be a professional jack-offer. I would do it just to be doing something, seven, eight times a day.”
When he met a nude model and stripper named Angel, all his wet dreams came true. The spectacularly attractive woman wanted to marry him. But while he loved her, he didn’t want to marry her.
“I loved Angel because she was pretty, and the fellers enjoyed having sex with her. She could draw a lot of handsome guys for me. She was some girl.”
In 1962 while touring Australia, Little Richard found God. The ‘King and Queen’ of Rock and Roll abandoned his realm for born again Christianity. Little Richard returned to secular music five years later but for the rest of his life, the conflict between his sexual desires and his religious beliefs troubled him.
In 1984, Little Richard denounced being homosexual or transgender as sinful.
“I didn’t know that homosexuality was wrong until I read it in the Bible. God never intended for me to go with anybody but a woman. God said, ‘Little Richard, you’re a man.’ I said, “I’m a woman.’ God said, ‘You lie.'”
However by 1995 when he gave an interview to Penthouse he seems to have discovered middle ground.
“I’ve been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate.”
In 2012, he told GQ he was ‘omnisexual.
“We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smorgasbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for.”
The dancer certainly excited the horn section.
One last video before we finish.
When Little Richard performed ‘Lucille’ at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, some complained too much attention was paid to Big Jay, a dancer who performed with him. Perhaps Big Jay might better be described as an exotic dancer. We leave you to decide if his large and commanding presence was too distracting. It certainly seemed to excite the horn section.
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