When the singer Little Richard died, in 2020, musical luminaries were quick to laud his influence. Without him, there would have been no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no David Bowie, no Prince. Keith Richards said his music was “like taking the best acid in the world”. He was also a queer pioneer, a thunderous mix of power and flamboyance with a visionary gender- fluid sense of style. Yet as two recent documentaries about him have suggested, he was scandalously under-appreciated for most of his life.
One of 12 children, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in segregation-era Macon, Georgia in December 1932. The two primary forces in his early life were religion and music (a duality embodied by his father, Charles, a deacon who owned a nightclub and sold bootlegged moonshine). Church music encouraged improvisation — you had to play loudly to be heard, and gospel was in many ways hard to distinguish from rock ’n’ roll. Richard particularly admired female singers like Clara Ward, who were able to sing extremely high.
With his headbands, capes and playful hair and make-up, he infused rock with a glamour that inspired Elton John and Marc Bolan. Nile Rodgers tells a lovely story of David Bowie approaching him in the build-up to what became Let’s Dance. While they were wrestling with what visual and musical direction to take on the new album, Bowie knocked on Rodgers’ door and said, “Now, darling, I want my record to sound like this looks”. He whipped out a picture of Little Richard. Beyond the music, Little Richard oscillated between hedonism and a sad sort of self-denial. He was a sexual omnivore: “Everybody liked to go to orgies. I just enjoyed sex in its entirety. Sex to me was like a smorgasbord. You should just go and pick whatever you want.” He had a similar voracity for drugs, often speedballing a mix of cocaine and heroin. As he’d later reflect, his nose was big enough to park diesel trucks on.
Read the full story in Issue 89, available to purchase on TheRake.com and on newsstands worldwide now.
Subscribers, please allow up to 3 weeks to receive your magazine.