Lunch With Little Richard. Whoo!
A 1984 interview, side of hash browns
It's a warm day in 1984, and Little Richard and I have a lunch date. I thought about some places befitting Little Richard, the undisputed father of what the kids called rock and roll.
I considered Le Cirque, where European royalty met upper class American ladies who lunched. It would have been a matter of time before some Duchess, fourth in line for the Queen of Luxembourg, broke protocol and asked Little Richard for an autograph,and perhaps leaving her room number at the fancy hotel upstairs.
Or there was the Four Seasons Grill Room, where political and publishing power players met to meal and deal. But it wouldn't have been fair to the regulars, used to ruling their celebrated fiefdoms, to not be the most famous person in the room.
So we walked into a luncheonette in midtown Manhattan, the kind of diner that used to be plentiful for the city's office workers. Our entry does not go unnoticed. As we are seated, the host says, "Little Richard! Haven't seen you since this morning's paper." A woman politely asks for an autograph. "Do you mind?" she asks. This will be repeated often during the next half hour or so, and Little Richard always gives the same response as he signs his name: "I love it! I really love it. When they stop asking, I know I'm in trouble. I love every minute of it."
Little Richard was in New York on an unexpected mission: He was promoting writer Charles White's biography, "The Life and Times of Little Richard, The Quasar of Rock." (Harmony Books, 1984). Here are some excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and continuity, but including more pauses for autograph requests. It's an audience participation interview in the booth of a diner, and it is a joyous experience.
Someone, a waiter or the manager or a customer, comes over as I'm setting up my tape recorder, after Richard has ordered tea, eggs, and hash browns.
“WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROCK AND GOSPEL?” ASKS SOMEONE AWARE OF THE TWIN PASSIONS OF RICHARD WAYNE PENNIMAN'S MUSICAL AND SPIRITUAL LIFE.
LR: Rock and roll is more of an explosion. Gospel is quieter, but it's consistent.
WR: (perceiving the obvious): THIS PLACE STARTED ROCKING THE MINUTE YOU WALKED IN. WHAT'S THAT LIKE?
LR: I love it. It's almost like a resurrection here. A resurrection of Little Richard, it all comes from one source, I won't say it, but it's beautiful. I'm at the age where I can appreciate it more.
The age of 19, you don't know what's going on. You get a little older, you want to be wanted more then. You want it more than ever in your life. That's why I'm talking about "The Lives and Times of Little Richard, The Quasar of R&R."
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THE BOOK?
LR: He [Charles White] had done like five years of research. All over the world. He was a member of the Little Richard Fan Club, one of my loyal fans. In fact in England, he's a doctor of rock. That's who he is, Doctor Rock. [White had been a podiatrist, known over there as a chiropodist. Doctor Rock was his moniker on a BBC show.]
I decided I would get involved, talk about the experiences I've been through, the chaotic moments I had. It's really about sex, drugs, rock. And then the Rock of Ages. It's the best book I've read, and not because it's about me, but it's an important book about the 20th century. It tells the truth about music, my life generally. The ways I've been involved with so many facets of life, and people can benefit from it.
THERE ARE MANY STORIES ABOUT HOW YOU GAVE UP ROCK AFTER A SCARE ON A PLANE FLIGHT TO AUSTRALIA, AND YOU THREW YOUR JEWELRY OFF A BOAT. WHAT HAPPENED?
LR: When I left rock and roll [after 1958] for the first time, it was not for a religious purpose. In those days they didn't have jet planes, I was on a propeller plane to Sydney, Australia. Can you imagine? It took me a year, I felt, to get there. Four engines. The engines were red hot, and I thought the plane was burning up. I had with me a book my mother had given me growing up, called The Great Controversy, written by Ellen G. White. [The essential text of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, published in 1858. The subtitle is "Between Christ and his Angels and Satan and his Angels"].
At the beginning of the book is a picture of those two angels flying in the sky, hair blowing in the wind, and I could picture those angels in my mind flying under that plane to protect me. It shook my mind. So I decided then to go back to school, to Oakwood College [now Oakwood University, an historically black Seventh-Day Adventist school] in Huntsville, Ala. The first reason was I needed to study, to learn more, how to read better, and count better, I needed a little more education. Then [after college] I came back to show business, and I met the Beatles and the Rolling Stones then, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Preston and many other entertainers.
WHAT ABOUT TOSSING YOUR RINGS IN THE WATER?
We were on a boat, going someplace in Australia. Two of my musicians didn't believe that I was going to stop and go back to school, and if I didn't mean it, I would throw the rings in the water. I threw them in the water.
A MAN AND WOMAN COME TO THE TABLE. "LITTLE RICHARD, THIS IS MY WIFE JOANNE, SHE'S CRAZY ABOUT YOU. I HATE TO BOTHER YOU GENTLEMEN..."
LR: When you stop bothering me, I'm in trouble. I don't mind.
(He signs an autograph for Joanne.)
WR: MOST OF YOUR HITS FOR SPECIALTY RECORDS WERE PRODUCED BY BUMPS BLACKWELL, AND HE SAID IN THE BOOK YOU NEEDED HIM.
LR: I believe we had a chemistry, but I could have done it without him. I don’t think he was the cause of the hits. I produced myself. I am a producer, and I'm a creator. He didn't make Little Richard. He was an A&R man for the record company. I was already Little Richard when Bumps met me. They just sent him to record me. I had "Lucille" when I met him! I had "Tutti Frutti" when I met him. He was blessed to find me, and I was blessed to be signed to the company he was with. He's a genius in his own right. You understand me? He's a genius in his own right.
I always knew I'd be a hit, a big success in music, but I never knew I would be what I am today. It happened for different reasons than I thought.
WHAT DID YOU THINK IT WAS GOING TO BE?
I never knew I would be a legend! Or that I'd be talking to you. That I would be the creator, the innovator, the architect of rock and roll. And I'm grateful to be here and follow these artists who paid and contributed. And who say that I am the beginning. The old man came through, he knew what to do, woo woo woo! (laughs)
WHEN YOU MET THE BEATLES DID YOU SENSE THEY WOULD BECOME LEGENDARY?
I met them in Liverpool, Brian Epstein brought me to Liverpool, to do some concerts. His daddy ran record shops there. When I arrived, Billy Preston was my organ player, he was 14 years old. I went on the stage [and the Beatles were not yet seasoned performers]. I took them with me to Hamburg, Germany, to the Star Club and we were gonna learn and help each other. I met the Rolling Stones too. I thought Mick Jagger would be a star. He was more exciting at the time.
I thought Paul would be a star. To me Paul was the Beatles. He was a genius, still is, one of the greatest songwriters and singers, entertainers, and producers I've ever met. I'm glad I had the opportunity to promote him.
BACK IN THE 1950S, WERE YOU IRRITATED THAT PAT BOONE HAD POP HITS WITH YOUR TUNES SUCH AS "LONG TALL SALLY" AND "TUTTI FRUTTI"?
At first I was. But later I was glad. Because he and Elvis both opened the door. White guys doing my music at the time, it was called race music. I was the first black guy to cross over to the masses. My music also brought all the racists together, I was very appreciative and very honored. Thank you, Pat, amen.
DO YOU REMEMBER A MOMENT WHEN YOU SAW THOSE BARRIERS BREAK DOWN IN A CONCERT?
Yes I do. Augusta, Georgia. People were jumping out of the balcony. Because blacks were on the floor, whites were in the balcony, they were called "white spectators." Races were brought together. I'm very grateful.
WHITE PEOPLE WERE JUMPING FROM THE CEILING?
White people jumping from the ceiling to see Little Richard. Leapin' for joy, to see the baby boy, from Georgia. The Georgia Peach.
A LOT OF PEOPLE THOUGHT ROCK AND ROLL WAS DEMONIC OR SATANIC. IS IT POSSIBLE TO RECONCILE THAT WITH YOUR PREACHING?
I believe this about music: there's good music, and bad music, there's good food and bad food, there’s good people and bad people, there's good clothes and bad clothes. God has given us the opportunity to make our own choices. And I love him for that.
DO YOU WANT TO ROCK AND ROLL AGAIN?
No. At the age of 51, I've got to hold on to the rock of ages. I'd feel like a silly old man trying to hold on to rock and roll.
BUT LOOK AT TINA TURNER.
Yeah, look at her! She's one of the most electrifying entertainers. I'm glad for her, she's amazing. I don't know anyone who can stand up with her, black or white, not even Michael (Jackson). She wrings it out, she's a thriller, she's a dilla, I love Tina. I couldn't do what Tina's doing today, because she never stopped singing. It's exercise, all that leaping and jumping she does. Like going to the gym every day. She's a hard worker.
ARE YOU SAYING YOU'RE A LITTLE OUT OF SHAPE?
At this date, I shouldn't test fate, because it would take, everything for me. I had my day and I had my say and I had my way! So, nay nay nay!
WHAT YOU THINK OF MICHAEL JACKSON BEING THE BIGGEST STAR RIGHT NOW?
I'm happy for him, he's a good friend of mine, he's the Little Richard of his generation. Him, and Boy George, David Bowie and Prince, I see a lot of Little Richard. . . I see James Brown and Jackie Wilson too. If he wasn't for me, David Bowie said he wouldn't be able to sing. The Beatles say that, Elvis Presley says that. But Michael is one of a kind because he sings so smooth he's so clean with it. Elvis was a rage, Beatles were a rage, I was a rage. But Michael is bigger. More people are buying records today, more are buying tickets. He's making history already.
WHAT IS YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE LIKE NOW?
The most exciting thing I do is when I open my eyes in the morning. And know that I'm still here. Moving my legs, moving my fingers. I get high just opening my eyes. It's beautiful. I spend my day praising God, I'm a minister. I'm preaching the gospel, and I want people to read that book. Keep on keep on looking up.
WHATS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING PEOPLE CAN GET OUT OF YOUR BOOK?
It's a charge. Like turning on a light. If they've been down, it will bring them up, if they've been out it will bring them in. Turn on your fan, it's just began. Thank you! I liked that! It's like somebody told me what to say. Ooh, ain't that beautiful! You gotta send me that tape. I must read that tape, that's beautiful.
RICHARD, ONCE YOU'VE GOT IT, YOU NEVER LOSE IT.
Even at the age of 51! I really enjoyed this, it made my day.
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