Little Richard’s death last week was mourned all over the world, and his skill was lauded. No obituary we saw was as good as Myles Johnson’s profile, “Little Richard’s Traumatic Black, Queer Childhood Helped Mold Rock’n’Roll,” published in Vice in 2017. The article opens with an interview Little Richard did with Donny and Marie Osmond in 2000:
… he describes the bloody beatings his father would give him while naked and tied up. Richard breaks down in tears. His father was a deacon and dark, or “jet black, blue black” as Richard referred to him during the interview. He received these beatings because of his failing of gender and for performing queerness as a child in the deep South. Despite his father’s violence Richard says, “He didn’t want me to wear long hair, I wore it anyway. He didn’t want me to put rouge on my face, which I didn’t really have to have it, it was there anyhow. I wore it anyway.”
When Johnson wrote this piece, Little Richard (age 84) had just denounced homosexuality on a Christian broadcasting network.
Despite the black roots of rock ‘n’ roll music and culture, [the expressions of stars like Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and David Bowie] have freed young white people, generation after generation, but imprisoned Little Richard inside guilt because of the belief that his queerness and what he had created was against God. It is sad to think that the people that created an environment for there to be a Summer of Love in 1967 or a punk rock movement in the 70s have hardly been able to receive the same type of societal freedom. In the case of Little Richard, what we have left is a man that designed something bigger than religion, being tamed by religion.
He wasn’t just a great musician, he was an extraordinary influence on the music of several decades.
To understand Little Richard, you must first return him back to his title: the architect of rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard is credited not just being the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll artists, but as the designer of the entire genre to some musical historians. Ma Rainey and Chuck Berry also deserve credit. Richard inspired countless other legends ….In 2010 he told GQ, “Mick Jagger used to sit at the side of the stage watching my act. Every performance. Where do you think he got that walk?” According to Little Richard’s legend, Liberace was only playing piano in tuxedos when on tour with him, until the celebrated pianist spotted Richard performing in a suit adorned with glass. In the same interview, Elton John quickly talks about Richard’s influence on him, noting how the performer’s prowess as a pianist and his flamboyant style inspired him to sing about tiny dancers. “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins and energy,” John said, “I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll piano player.”
The queerness which Richard eventually disowned had perhaps an even greater influence, Johnson argues:
Because a queer person played a huge role in creating the bedrock of American youth culture, which is rock ‘n’ rolll, is why we see these queer expressions resurrect routinely in the culture. This makes the cyclical rise of the rebellious, queer rock and pop star seem less as an act of cultural radicalism and more methodical. I’d argue that folks like Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, George Clinton, Elton John, Lil Uzi Vert, Rick James, Young Thug, Miguel, and many more aren’t these random cultural explosions, but they’re actually following a pattern and blueprint set by Little Richard. They are staying faithful to who created the dreamscape so that they could even hope to make a noise.
Johnson clearly loves not only Richard’s music, but the man himself. Since he’s talking about the man more than the music, he doesn’t talk about the quality of the early songs: coming from a life of trauma and terror, Richard nonetheless offered his audience the invaluable gift of unmitigated, unfiltered joy. In spite of the horrifying pain, he brought an open-hearted exuberance to rock’n’roll which is certainly part of the reason so many great artists wanted to have what he was having.
And like so many stories of abuse, it didn’t end well for Richard:
In the twilight of his life, Little Richard is still that child being dominated by the toxic masculine force that attempted to beat the queerness out of him as a child. He relinquished his legacy and denied himself the fullness of who he is in order to not only look worthy in his God’s eye, but in the eyes of his abusive father that rejected him and caused him to cry on national television at the age of 67. And this, too, falls in line with the American tradition of cultural consumption. The worlds that Little Richard’s childhood pain and agony formed were stolen and appropriated, and used to liberate white audiences and fuel white supremacist capitalist gain. While today, Little Richard himself is a shell of who he once was. A quick, quirky headline between scandals. Just an old man waiting to return home.
Thanks to Lori Selke for the pointer. Follow Debbie on Twitter.