It’s his birthday today. One of the best documentaries of the year is Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard: I Am Everything, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Ebert.
Little Richard. Live performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”, 1963.
In the performance above, Little Richard moves from preacher to sexually-explosive showman to maestro, sometimes blending them all together, no difference between Personae. The performance is almost 6 minutes long. He conducts the audience, like a Pentecostal preacher does on any given Sunday, bringing emotions, down, then up into a fevered pitch, or like a conductor of a gigantic orchestra, commanding the strings to retreat, the percussion to come forward, the horns to subside, the unison/melody to explode as one. Little Richard starts out like he’s in church, speaking to the congregation, telling him what he wants from them, telling them what he EXPECTS from them. This will not be a passive experience. He demands something from them, just like they demand something from him.
The audience response throughout is both organic and created: Little Richard is in control of it. The audience response is damn near involuntary – and that is because he is never less than totally in charge.
The middle instrumental section is riveting: Slowly, with no fuss or fanfare (it’s not James Brown throwing off his cape: it’s as though Little Richard is in his bedroom by himself), Little Richard takes off his jacket, folds it, puts it down, straightens his tie, and then re-tucks his shirt into his pants, as all hell continues to break loose around him. Taking off his jacket is not a “bit.” It looks practical: a professional performer who gets rid of the jacket because it is constricting and he’s hot (and so wet with sweat by the end of the performance he looks like he’s swum the Hellespont). But the tucking-in-shirt, straightening-the-tie caesura is also because he has to take a moment to “get himself together” before he moves into the second half of the song … which he knows will be a workout. He knows where he’s about to go.
Near the end of that sequence, he climbs up on top of the piano: he needs perspective so he can conduct from a better vantage point, so that everyone can see him.
Later, he drops to his knees and the mood changes, the bottom drops out: he’s got something personal to say, he needs them to listen. He’s a preacher again, pleading with his audience, bringing them down: quiet down now, quiet down, listen to what I’m telling you. After getting them in unison with that quiet, he jumps to his feet again, and the performance explodes. You wouldn’t think there was a higher level the performance could reach, but Oh Us of Little Faith.
Little Richard’s job – calling, more like it – is to perform, to bring that song to its full potential, the potential that already lives in him: he does not rely on lights or choreography or fancy sets or camera work. Part of his job is controlling audience-engagement:
1. Give them a GREAT time.
2. Make sure they follow him through the peaks and valleys: everyone must be in sync – emotionally – at all times.
HE wants to get something out of the song, too: it’s the only way he can do it. He is searching for a catharsis, too. The apotheosis of his expression. His personal experience of performing that song would be meaningless without the two-way current running between him and the crowd. NO ONE IS HELPING HIM in the performance except his partner – the audience.
I am only pointing this out ad nauseum because most performers need help. They need choregraphy/costumes/lights to help them (and, perhaps, also hide them, pump up a sense of engagement when there isn’t much there). But here, whatever goes on in that room, it is only Little Richard who is responsible for it. He is in charge of every mood-shift, every explosion, every switch-back, every intimate almost whispery “Okay, so let’s go over this one more time” …
Follow the Leader. And they follow him into mass-psychosis.
The stories of Little Richard on tour with Sam Cooke (as told in Peter Guralnick’s biography of Cooke) are so funny and so absurd you almost distrust the accounts. But there are multiple sources, everyone who was on that tour with them, saw it. At the time of that tour, Little Richard had become convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s music. He devoted himself to Jesus (actually, devotion is too mild a word), but he was still touring with packaged “rock” shows when this born-again-twice experience happened. He now felt that everyone around him – including the audiences – was evil and/or lost souls who needed to be saved, but his tour-contract hadn’t run up yet. He drove everyone on that tour insane. The promoters and managers were not thrilled that Little Richard was turning rock ‘n’ roll shows into revival meetings. There are stories of Little Richard reading the Bible backstage in a booming voice while wearing a cape.
That tour was the in-between time where Little Richard was still billed as a rock ‘n’ roll star, even though he was performing gospel songs (annoying audience members who wanted him to sing his hits). After the tour ended, he poured himself 100% into gospel music, putting out a couple of great gospel albums (some of his best stuff, I think).
But finally Little Richard switched back again. He succumbed to the inevitable draw. The draw his audiences felt too. In other words, he accepted Satan back into his life. He roared back into the secular scene.
As with all those country boys – white and black – who changed American culture, Little Richard was never far from his Jesus-loving roots. Elvis, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf … their sexual/emotional ferocity was another kind of expression of what went on in the little country churches – Baptist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God – on dusty corners through the American South. This was heresy to say at the time, and probably still heretical in some circles now. We are still split: the divine and the secular, the holy and the profane … kept in separate rooms. But these guys … they kicked down the walls between separate rooms, creating one big room.
Being saved is for the NEXT life, not this one.
There was precedent for this in Little Richard’s life. His father was a deacon in their Baptist church by day, and a nightclub-owner and bootlegger by night. The scales of Good and Evil were balanced (uneasily) in him, as they would be in his son. Jesus and Moonshine and Rhythm & Blues walking hand in hand. It was not hypocritical at all (and this was something Northeast secular-minded critics couldn’t get a handle on at ALL because it wasn’t their world. If you’re raised, oh, Episcopalian, or Unitarian, if you grew up in the suburbs in Connecticut… how are you going to understand these Southern boys? With their Jesus and their pink suits and their unashamed sexuality?).
And that’s what you can see in this 1963 performance. Little Richard sings about shaking bodies and orgasmic expression but what he’s doing is taking all of those people to CHURCH.
“Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen.” — Little Richard
One of my favorite covers of all time:
Here he is doing it live at The Today Show in 1997.
LR singing “Tutti Frutti” in Alan Freed’s 1956 film Don’t Rock the Knock.