Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Big Life of Little Richard'

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'The Big Life of Little Richard.'
Mark Ribowsky's 'The Big Life of Little Richard.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In his new biography The Big Life of Little Richard (buy now), Mark Ribowsky calls it "the most famous opening to a song in rock history." Ten syllables, a sung drum fill: a-wop-bop-a-lu-bop, a wop-bam-bop!

In a sense, all of Little Richard's career and legacy boil down to that scat, an electric incantation that it's praise enough to say the rest of "Tutti Frutti" makes good on. That record changed the course of popular music, and while Little Richard would record dozens of worthy follow-ups, "Tutti Frutti" would forever encapsulate, even define his searing contribution to the history of rock and roll.

In Ribowsky's account, the man born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia circa 1932 always expected he'd be a star — he just never guessed that song would make his legend. A high-octane gag number, Richard used it to delight his audiences at gay bars and on the Chitlin' Circuit: in its original version, it was absolutely unmistakably about gay sex. That was the hit?

Absolutely, said Specialty Records A&R man "Bumps" Blackwell, who'd urged label owner Art Rupe to sign Richard without having seen him play live. After a disappointing session in New Orleans with the label's session pros — the band heard on Fats Domino's '50s hits — Blackwell went to see Richard's astonishingly energetic show and masterminded the transformation of "Tutti Frutti" into the song we know today, with young songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie steering the suggestive vibe in a heterosexual, while still clearly sexual, direction.

The path to that legendary session takes up the first quarter of Ribowsky's concise 222-page book. The rest is about, essentially, Richard grappling with the instant legacy he'd suddenly created.

Ribowksy makes a strong case for Richard's profound influence, not that music historians needed convincing: Little Richard was a member of the inaugural class in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. The author aptly describes him as a member of rock and roll's Mount Rushmore; you can debate what four faces might be on that mountain, but Richard and Chuck Berry are the two non-negotiables.

The author spends extended passages describing Richard's relationships with the giants of the next generation. The Beatles opened for Richard first in the U.K. and then in Germany; a photo in the book shows the Fab Four clustering around Richard and reaching toward him as though to touch the hem of the garment. Mick Jagger studied Richard just as closely, and James Brown copped his moniker ("the hardest-working man in show business") when the future Godfather stepped in for a series of gigs Richard didn't make. Jimi Hendrix spent a tumultuous period in Richard's mid-1960s band; the quiet young man would emulate Richard's flamboyant style when Hendrix's historic solo career took flight.

If there are two words anyone might use to describe Little Richard, they'd be flamboyant style. Ribowsky describes how the performer, given his stage name as a teenager by a bandleader whose singer he temporarily replaced, was unapologetically himself from a very young age. The preening, charismatic, gender-bending boy was never going to fit in, so he never even tried: the makeup, the glamorous wardrobe, and the high pompadour came early.

His queer affect also allowed Richard to slide among worlds: mixed clubs, Black clubs, white clubs, gay clubs. He wasn't the only artist to intuit that in entertainment, being ostentatiously gay would work in settings where being more restrained wouldn't; Liberace is another star of the era who comes to mind. It was Little Richard, though, who fused his energy with the exploding genre of rock and roll. As Ribowsky notes, Little Richard didn't invent rock and roll, but with "Tutti Frutti" he helped set its foundational template: sexy, fun, flamboyant, and blissfully silly while being performed with frenzied focus.

While there was no truly worthy way to follow that hit, Richard released a series of exciting tracks that had Specialty urging him to keep the octane high — in part to stay one step ahead of cover artists like Pat Boone, who tried to keep up anyway and added "Long Tall Sally" to his list of R&B covers that also included an inexplicably successful hollowing-out of "Tutti Frutti." Inexplicable, notes Ribowsky, because if it was simply a matter of racism and white listeners wanted to hear the song from a white artist, Elvis Presley had a cover that was far superior. At least Richard landed his deserved songwriting credit on the song, which meant he profited from Boone's sales — and the cover may have actually helped the sales of his original, which was sought out by kids who, as Richard himself knew, preferred his record even as they played the Boone version for their parents' benefit.

In other cases, though, Richard didn't get his due financial rewards. Rupe siphoned his royalties, then withheld them after Richard found Jesus — in his account, after an engine-failure scare on an airplane to Australia — and stopped making rock and roll records. He wouldn't be gone long, but his temporary "retirement" from pop music had an effect even more profound than Elvis getting drafted; while Richard would occasionally find his way onto various charts in succeeding years, he'd gone from being the zeitgeist to losing it entirely.

In a sense, Richard pioneered another rock role: the elder statesman. He was essentially in that role by 1962, just a handful of years after "Tutti Frutti," when he shared bills with the Beatles. He'd make gospel records and try his hand at a more mature form of R&B, but ultimately, what audiences wanted — and what he was able, to the end of his long life, to deliver — was the Little Richard of the '50s, pounding the piano and delivering the shriek that changed music.

A typical story comes from just before the Beatles tour, when Richard was still resolutely rejecting rock. British promoter Don Arden booked him to share a bill with Sam Cooke, and given Cooke's gospel origins Richard crossed the Atlantic convinced the show would be all about spreading the Good Word. Travel delays forced Cooke to miss the tour's first show, and Richard bewildered audiences with a gentle gospel set. Arden wasn't worried, though: he knew that once Cooke arrived and made the audience swoon with his secular opening set, the competitive Richard would need to show he could outdo the sexy singer. Sure enough, after Cooke's set Richard came out and tore straight into "Long Tall Sally."

Little Richard's personal life was...complicated. Ribowsky doesn't shy from it, but he also doesn't promise any exceptional insight in a biography that really doesn't aspire to be much more than a functional introduction. The author chronicles Richard's difficult relationship with his large family, particularly his father — who essentially forced Richard to leave home as an adolescent, but later would proudly play his son's records at the nightclub he owned.

Ribowsky also duly notes Richard's relationship with the teenage Audrey Robinson in the '50s, and his later ill-fated marriage to a woman he wooed when he was trying to get right with the church. His statements about sexuality — his own and others' — were all over the map, ranging from celebrations of his "pansexuality" to later condemnations of homosexuality as "unnatural."

He also told a long series of tall tales about everything from sex to money, and Ribowsky does due diligence to sort the wildest stories out. It's true, for example, that Richard was in rooms with Buddy Holly where sex was had; it's probably not true that Richard successfully urged Holly to bed his own girlfriend just before taking the stage. It's also true that Brian Epstein asked Little Richard to help make industry connections for the Beatles in America; Richard's account that Epstein offered Richard half the Beatles' eventual record contract seems impossible to credit.

In the end, it comes back to "Tutti Frutti" in all its wild, undeniable, irreducible brilliance. It doesn't necessarily sound like a compliment to say that Richard's greatest success after the 1950s was to keep playing himself, but for an artist who defied all expectations regarding what a Black boy from Macon would and could be and do, becoming truly himself and playing that role to the hilt was also Little Richard's greatest triumph.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

February 18: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon (buy now)

February 25: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record by Neal Karlen (buy now)

March 4: Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame by Lisa Robinson

March 11: Gorillaz Almanac


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