In the history of rock and roll, there are a handful of giants to point to, progenitors who got the ball rolling, so to speak. We’re talking about artists who hit the charts in the mid-1950s, at the birth of rock and roll, way before the Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, and the Stones.
Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Rosetta Tharpe, Elvis – all outstanding, noteworthy stars. And then there was Little Richard, in many ways the most unlikely rock god, yet ironically perhaps, the most revered among rock and roll ancestors.
A new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, hits theaters this week running on all the cylinders – much like the flamboyant singer who shook, rattled, and rolled his way into the hearts and minds of a generation. It’s a great film, and highly recommended!
Known for his breakout 1955 hit, “Tutti Frutti” (the original version referred to a gay encounter “Tutti Frutti, good booty…”), the story of Richard Wayne Penniman is fascinating. The singer existed in contradiction, the “spark plug of rock and roll,” as noted in the film, an over-the-top performer who was openly gay before it was widely accepted. His queerness is front and center, as is the paradox of his later life, when Richard was openly hostile toward the gay community, and preached against homosexuality as an ordained minister.
Director Lisa Cortes, known for the award-winning film Precious, and the 2019 HBO documentary The Apollo, draws a picture of a man, who was no doubt tormented, yet almost always jubilant in public life. The film honors Richard, while not avoiding the complicated history of a man, who more than once, could be seen as adding fuel to homophobia. With stunning graphics, expert commentary, and well-sourced archival footage, this bio-doc is certainly the authoritative account on the subject.
Cortes calls on music royalty – celebrities like Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and Billy Porter, among others, for their thoughts. The film also includes rare archival footage from talk show hosts, music icons (Berry, Domino, Paul, and John), leading Black and queer scholars, family members, and Penniman himself.
“He was everything. He was doing church in the theater,” says Mick Jagger, who opened for Richard with the Stones on a UK tour in the early 60s when the band was still playing covers. (Note: there were near riots at many of those shows, not for the Stones, but during Richard’s sets.)
Much of the story is familiar, a template for Black musicians who came of age in the mid-20th century South. Penniman grew up outside Macon, GA in a deeply religious family. He was influenced by the blues and gospel he was hearing in the AME church, where he apparently drew quite a bit of attention. His family struggled financially, and he is remembered by siblings and friends as a spirited kid who liked to have fun. Later, his father abused him and kicked him out of the house at age 16 due to his effeminate mannerisms.
In his teens, Richard performed on the “Chitlin Circuit,” often in drag under the name Princess LaVonn, in bars and clubs that operated somewhat under the radar. The film covers his early influences, his rise in traveling shows, and the impact of race and sexuality on his career in the early 1950s. Like many of that era, he was arrested more than once for morality offenses, many of which seem laughable today, or at least did seem laughable until the past year or two…
Following the ups and downs of his career, the film takes on the mystery of his soul and spirit – how could a once openly gay man, the “bronze Liberace,” publicly turn against a community that nurtured him and bolstered his success? Richard’s buoyant optimism through most of his recording career was offset by his fears. He remained committed to his religion, fearing eternal damnation, a concept that fueled his return to the church on several occasions. It’s a complex legacy, well told in the film.
“My music brought down the walls of segregation,” Richard remarks in an interview. He’s right – his songs moved from the traditional Black R&B audience and had mass appeal among white fans. (Remember, most audiences were still segregated in the 1950s, by law or local custom.) In fact, his style was eventually co-opted by white performers – Jagger, Bowie, McCartney, Elton John, and many others. Paul McCartney even admits to “borrowing” Richad’s “woo” scream in the film. (No doubt, a familiar experience for many Black musicians – see: Elvis Presley.)
Don’t miss this one – it’s entertaining and educational – at theaters Tuesday and on pay-per-view soon!
Little Richard: I Am Everything plays for one night only Tuesday, April 11 at Jane Pickens Film and Events Center. Click here for details. The film will be available on streaming services on April 21.