It was cancer, not the coronavirus, that took the life of the 87-year-old rock music pioneer known to the world as Little Richard.
But Good Golly Miss Molly, it’s still hard to lose such a blessing to our culture, especially when gifted ground-breakers like Little Richard seem to be rarer than ever.
In fact, there was nobody like Richard Wayne Penniman, the dirt-poor dishwasher who transformed himself into the self-dubbed “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Yes, his ego was big as his towering hairdo, but he deserved that honor and many more, profoundly influencing the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, Hendrix, Bowie, Patti Smith, Prince, MJ, everybody!
Not only did he inspire future generations of rock, Little Richard was also an erotic pioneer for the Sexual Revolution and Gay Liberation. I’m no music critic, but as a sexologist, I’d like to credit him with paving the way for many people to embrace their own not-so-straight sexuality.
He called himself “omnisexual” which is pretty much the same as “pansexual,” aka bonoboesque. In other words, he liked everybody. He was married, dated women and loved it when the ladies in his audience threw their panties at him as he performed, but he was also very much into guys. An avid cuckold, he enjoyed watching his girlfriends have sex with other men (which got him busted for “lewd conduct” in Macon, Georgia). Other times, he’d just get it on with the men himself; no girlfriend necessary.
However, Little Richard was a devout Christian whose father kicked him out of the family home for being “gay,” so he struggled with his desires for men throughout his life. He often denied or proclaimed that he’d “conquered” those feelings. Then, a few years or minutes later, he’d confess that he always was and always would be attracted to men.
Interestingly, he never seemed to struggle with what we call “crossdressing”—even making it an aspect of being a successful “crossover” musician in such segregated times. He later opined that his effeminate manner made him seem less of a threat to insecure white men who gave him easier access to “whites only” venues.
Little Richard was the King and the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His style was aggressively feminine: the bouffant pompadour, pancake makeup, mascara, powder like his beautiful mother used, lots of glitter and flamboyant fashions during a very grey-flannel-suited time when flamboyance was not “in” for any man but Liberace. Indeed, this was years before Ziggy Stardust touched Earth and decades before Sir Elton donned his sequin shades or RuPaul’s Drag Race was even warming up.
Then there was Little Richard’s first major hit, “Tutti Frutti.” Sounds sweet as candy, but what is it?
When I first heard the song, I felt he was singing about me, “Got a gal named Sue / She knows just what to do.”
Though I had no clue what to do.
Years later, I learned the true meaning of the mysteriously tasty Tutti Frutti: anal sex.
The original lyrics he couldn’t record in-studio were “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it’s tight, it’s all right / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy…”
So Little Richard was a sex educator too, teaching us how to make sweet backdoor love without force and with a lot of lube.
He wasn’t shy about the centrality of his libido, though he usually framed it with a disarming rhyme. When asked about rockabilly music, Little Richard didn’t miss a beat, “I don’t know about rockabilly, but I been rockin’ willy for years.”
Last but not at all least, Little Richard was a great integrator, bringing black and white people together from their strictly segregated sections of the club, sock hop or concert hall and into the aisles to dance. It was revolutionary, it was very bonobo and it’s the type of revolution we as a society need again and again and right now.
We love you, Little Richard, and we are grateful for all you have done for our sexuality, our culture and to heal the wounds of our bigotry.
Go get that Tutti Frutti Booty in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, Baby!
© May 9, 2020.