“Some of the stuff I’ll be doing tonight I’ve only done a few times on stage,” the country musician, mystery novelist, and former gubernatorial candidate of Texas, Kinky Friedman, warns, with his deadpan, mellow rasp. “So I might screw up. It’s possible. And if I do you’ll know because I usually go, ‘Fuck.’ ”
Kinky has been on the road all summer, quietly touring in support of “Circus of Life,” his first new album of original songs in more than forty years.
“Now, in Europe, when I screwed up, they loved it,” Kinky adds, as he begins to strum. “They all felt it was performance art. The audience here has no sense of that. They don’t think it’s performance art. They just think I’m a little fucked up.”
On a recent visit to perform at City Winery, Kinky stayed with his friend Ryan (Slim) MacFarland and his family, at their home, in Jersey City. “What’s it like having Kinky Friedman as a house guest?” I ask Slim.
“As soon as Kinky walked in the door, with his black Stetson hat and ostrich-skin boots,” Slim recounts, “my five-year-old daughter was in awe. He squatted to meet her at eye level, tipped his hat, and asked if she had ever seen a real cowboy before. She loved it.”
Kinky isn’t, in fact, an actual cowboy. But he is a genuine showman, whose credits as a musician include a stint on tour with Bob Dylan, during the 1976 leg of his “Rolling Thunder Revue,” a travelling caravan of featured performers that included Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Neuwirth.
“For Kinky,” Slim continues, “life is the performance. So he’s always on: the cigar’s in his hand, maybe he slept in his clothes . . . ”
“ . . . and he’s knocking on your door asking if you want coffee at some ungodly fucking hour, telling you that you’ll drink it black because that’s how they drink it in Texas . . . ”
“ . . . and then he’s bringing you a cup of dirty black coffee, and you’re gonna drink it, and he’s gonna sit there and talk to you and blow cigar smoke right in your face and you’ll just deal with it because he’s funny and irreverent and you love what’s coming out of his mouth.”
Onstage, Kinky exhibits similar traits, minus the smoke. The next night, in Jersey City, at the comparatively diminutive Monty Hall, a music venue owned and operated by WFMU, the local public-radio station, Kinky introduces “Waitret, Please, Waitret,” from 1976’s “Lasso from El Paso,” his last album of original material. In the song, a customer politely invites a waitress to “come sit on my fate.” After one verse, the unfashionably misogynistic tune is abandoned, despite the cautious laughter of the predominantly middle-aged and older crowd. “Well,” the Kinkster, as he is also commonly referred to, especially in the third person, proclaims, “you get the drift.”
“You know, a lot of people, when they think of Kinky Friedman,” McFarland says, “they think of songs like ‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,’ ‘Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed,’ and ‘Asshole from El Paso.’ The funny shit. But Kinky mostly writes serious, heartfelt songs.”
Before launching into “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” which has a funny title but is undoubtedly his most serious song of all, Kinky (who is proudly Jewish) regales the audience with a seeming tall tale. While on a book tour of South Africa, in 1996, Kinky met the anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwhale (pronounced “sex-wah-lay,” but spelled, as Kinky pointed out, “Sex Whale”), who was imprisoned in a cell beside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Every night for three years, Sexwhale told Kinky, Mandela listened to “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” the first song of the rock era to be written about the Holocaust, from a smuggled cassette of Kinky’s début album, “Sold American,” from 1973.
“Ride, ride ’em Jewboy
Ride ’em all around the old corral.
I’m, I’m with you boy
If I’ve got to ride six million miles.”
Toward the end of the evening, Kinky puts down the guitar in favor of a copy of “Heroes of a Texas Childhood,” one of more than thirty books that he has written that isn’t a mystery novel, to read “The Navigator,” a story about his father. “He taught me chess, tennis, how to belch, and to always stand up for the underdog,” Kinky explains before reading, “as well as the importance of treating children like adults, and adults like children.”
Although Kinky has been out of the political limelight since his unsuccessful bid to become the Texas agriculture commissioner, in 2014, he has not forgotten how to campaign. “My definition of politics still holds,” Kinky asserts. “ ‘Poly’ means more than one, and ‘tics’ are blood-sucking parasites.” At the end of the show, Kinky descends into the audience to graciously shake as many hands as possible as he leads the satisfied mob to the merch table in the lobby.
It was a 3 a.m. telephone call from another one of Kinky’s lofty friends, Willie Nelson, that inspired “Circle Of Life.” Kinky was watching “Matlock.” Willie, who Kinky also refers to as his therapist, instantly diagnosed his friend with depression and prescribed him to pick up the guitar and write. “When it was all over, and we were done with the record,” Slim recalls, “and Kinky heard it for the first time, he said, ‘Slim, you’ve made a senior citizen very happy.’ ”
“Rollicking, playful, good-time blues and intimate, reflective balladry…her songs ring with emotional depth” —Rolling Stone
“A welcome ray of sunshine…Ball is a killer pianist, a great singer and songwriter. Potent blues, sweet zydeco, soulful, fast and furious Texas boogie…heartfelt, powerful and righteous” —Billboard
“Fifty years have passed in a flash,” says Texas-born, Louisiana-raised pianist, songwriter and vocalist Marcia Ball of her long and storied career. Ball, the official 2018 Texas State Musician, has won worldwide fame and countless fans for her ability to ignite a full-scale roadhouse rhythm and blues party every time she takes the stage. Her rollicking Texas boogies, swampy New Orleans ballads and groove-laden Gulf Coast blues have made her a one-of-a-kind favorite with music lovers all over the world. With each new release, her reputation as a profoundly soulful singer, a boundlessly talented pianist and a courageous, inventive songwriter continues to grow. Her love of the road has led to years of soul-satisfying performances at festivals, concert halls and clubs. The New York Times says, “Marcia Ball plays two-fisted New Orleans barrelhouse piano and sings in a husky, knowing voice about all the trouble men and women can get into on the way to a good time.” The Houston Chronicle says simply, “She’s as perfect as an artist can be.”
With her new album, Shine Bright, Ball set out to, in her words, “Make the best Marcia Ball record I could make.” In doing so, she has put together the most musically substantial, hopeful and uplifting set of songs of her five-decade career. Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and recorded in Texas and Louisiana, Shine Bright contains twelve songs (including nine originals), ranging from the title track’s rousing appeal for public and private acts of courage to the upbeat call to action of “Pots And Pans,” a song inspired by renowned Texas political writer and humorist Molly Ivins. From the humorous advice of “Life Of The Party” to the poignantly optimistic “World Full Of Love,” the intensity of Ball’s conviction never wavers while, simultaneously, the fun never stops. Shine Bright is exactly the album Ball set out to make. “It is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record,” she says, in light of some of the album’s more serious subject matter. The secret, according to Ball “is to set the political songs to a good dance beat.”
Born in Orange, Texas in 1949 to a family whose female members all played piano, Ball grew up in the small town of Vinton, Louisiana, right across the border from Texas. She began taking piano lessons at age five, playing old Tin Pan Alley and popular music tunes from her grandmother’s collection. But it wasn’t until she was 13 that Marcia discovered the power of soul music. One day in New Orleans in 1962, she sat amazed as Irma Thomas delivered the most spirited and moving performance the young teenager had ever seen. A few years later she attended Louisiana State University, where she played some of her very first gigs with a blues-based rock band called Gum.
In 1970, Ball set out for San Francisco. Her car broke down in Austin, and while waiting for repairs she fell in love with the city and decided to stay. It wasn’t long before she was performing in local clubs with a progressive country band called Freda And The Firedogs, while beginning to sharpen her songwriting skills. It was around this time that she delved deeply into the music of the great New Orleans piano players, especially Professor Longhair. “Once I found out about Professor Longhair,” recalls Ball, “I knew I had found my direction.”
Marcia Ball Performing “Shine Bright” at the Austin City Limits Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony (with Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson, Carolyn Wonderland, and Shelley King lending their vocal talents)
When Freda And The Firedogs broke up in 1974, Ball launched her solo career, playing clubs around Austin, Houston and Louisiana. She signed with Capitol Records in 1978, debuting with the country-rock album Circuit Queen. Creating and honing her own sound, she released six critically acclaimed titles on the Rounder label during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, Ball—collaborating with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton—recorded the hugely successful Dreams Come True on the Antone’s label. At the end of 1997, Marcia finished work on a similar “three divas of the blues” project for Rounder, this time in the distinguished company of Tracy Nelson and her longtime inspiration, Irma Thomas. The CD, Sing It!, was released in 1998 and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Marcia Ball has appeared many times on national television over the years, including the PBS special In Performance At The White House along with B.B. King and Della Reese, Austin City Limits and HBO’s Treme. She performed in Piano Blues, the film directed by Clint Eastwood included in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series which aired on PBS television nationwide in 2003. Marcia also appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman with The New Orleans Social Club, where she not only reached millions of people, but also helped to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 2012, she had a role in the independent film Angels Sing starring Harry Connick, Jr., Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson. In 2017 she performed on NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas, live from The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Ball joined Alligator in 2001 with the release of the critically acclaimed Presumed Innocent. The CD won the 2002 Blues Music Award for Blues Album Of The Year. Her follow-up, So Many Rivers, was nominated for a Grammy Award, and won the 2004 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues Album Of The Year as well as the coveted Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year award. Her next release, Live! Down The Road, released in 2005, also garnered a Grammy nomination, as did 2008’s Peace, Love & BBQ (the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart). 2010’s Grammy-nominated Roadside Attractions and 2014’s The Tattooed Lady And The Alligator Man successfully grew her fan base even further. Altogether she holds ten Blues Music Awards, ten Living Blues Awards, and five Grammy Award nominations. She has been inducted into both the Gulf Coast Music Hall Of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame. The Texas State legislature named her the official 2018 Texas State Musician. As her hometown Austin Chronicle says, “What’s not to like about Marcia Ball?”
Since joining Alligator, Ball has blossomed as a songwriter. Each album has been filled with fresh, original songs, never more so than on Shine Bright. Ball easily draws her listeners deep into her music with instantly memorable melodies and imaginative imagery. Her songs paint vibrant musical pictures richly detailed with recognizable characters, regional flavors, universal themes and colorful scenes, both real and imagined. Living Blues declares, “Her originals sound like timeless classics and southern soul masterpieces that no one else can imitate.”
Now, with Shine Bright, Ball’s new, aggressively hopeful songs are energized by Steve Berlin’s inventive and exciting production, creating electrifying music that is daring, inspired, poignant and timely. The Boston Globe calls Ball “a compelling storyteller” who plays “an irresistible, celebratory blend of rollicking, two-fisted New Orleans piano, Louisiana swamp rock and smoldering Texas blues.”
Of course, Ball will bring the party on the road, playing her new songs and old favorites for fans around the globe. “I still love the feel of the wheels rolling,” she says, “and the energy in a room full of people ready to go wherever it is we take them.” With both her new album and her legendary live performances, Marcia Ball will shine a light into the darkness, making the world a brighter place one song at a time.
What do you do after a busy day of wandering the hills with your dog, fishing and a bike ride? a matinee …
“To describe the recent films of the documentarian Robert Mugge as cultural reference books doesn’t mean to imply that these explorations of the musical byways of Southern rural America are lacking in pungent musical sap. It’s the careful balance between music and scholarship that lends Mr. Mugge’s films a foundation of academic seriousness that flirts with dryness without becoming mired in trivia. Documents of a flourishing below-the-radar culture, often involving musicians who won’t be around much longer, they are archival records as well as entertainments. For every obscure blues or folk musician shown performing in his films, there is usually an expert standing by to explain where this artist or group stands on the family tree of American vernacular music. Instead of concentrating on the trunk and larger branches, Mr. Mugge likes to examine the smaller branches and even the twigs. “In his new film, RHYTHM ‘N’ BAYOUS, Mr. Mugge returns to the South (this time to Louisiana) to compile a singing dictionary of the state’s roots music styles and assorted hybrids, from the blues to ‘swamp pop’ to the fusion of Cajun, Creole and rock ‘n’ roll known as zydeco. Part musical travelogue, part anthology, part archival document, RHYTHM ‘N’ BAYOUS is a rambling journey loosely divided into four sections. Begun as the official chronicle of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bus tour…it turns into a more informal, out-of-the-way journey to blues and zydeco clubs, gospel churches and radio stations, and musical family gatherings in backwater bayous. A number of the performances are as rough-hewn as the tiny clubs in which they are filmed. But RHYTHM ‘N’ BAYOUS is finally not about being polished. It’s about the organic process by which a culture expresses itself though music and the hybrids that evolve naturally when these cultures begin to mingle. That, after all, is how rock ‘n’ roll was born.” – Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Steve Earle misses New York.
It’s the first thing he announced when he called from his home in Williamson County, Tenn. — a nest his business manager jokingly calls the Alamo, in reference to the number of divorces it has withstood. The country-rock musician fled the city in March after the coronavirus brought “Coal Country,” a documentary play for which he wrote original music, to a close two weeks into its planned monthlong run at the Public Theater.
“Ghosts of West Virginia,” Earle’s new album of songs from the production, is due out May 22. With his usual promotional tactics restricted by social distancing measures, he’s spending his housebound days brainstorming ways to bring attention to the story of a 2010 mining disaster in Montcoal, W. Va., which inspired “Coal Country” and the music.
His son, John Henry, 10, and a memoir project are also keeping Earle busy, but he still finds time for his yoga practice, watching HBO shows and reading well-loved fantasy novels. He tracked his recent cultural intake and broke it down in an interview. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 and practice yoga. I hit the mat before I get coffee, before I do anything. It’s an Ashtanga practice; I practice six days a week.
I started doing it about five years ago because it was the one thing lacking from my 12-step program — you’re supposed to pray and meditate every day. I read “Be Here Now” and I’ve known about all this stuff. But for my 60th birthday my manager took me to Maui to meet Ram Dass, so that’s kind of what got it started.
I read The New York Times briefing every morning. When I’m in New York, I wake up and watch NY1 long enough to see the weather and what the subway’s doing. Here, I’ll watch Channel 4, the local NBC station. Then I’ll switch over to MSNBC.
I fix John Henry’s breakfast, wake him up, and he starts home schooling at 9:15. For any small child — and for kids with autism, definitely — home schooling is not sitting them in front of a monitor and walking away. You have to do it yourself. That’s time consuming; it’s two-thirds of my day Monday and Tuesday.
My son is nonverbal. One of the things we do together is sing. He knows 100-odd melodies. No words, he never sings words. Some of them are kids’ songs; some of them are songs I’ve made up since he was little. He knows every bit of “The Sound of Music,” every single song.
He works with a musical therapist, and especially now that we’re doing it online, I get involved. I usually get my guitar out, put him on the drum kit and Anthony in New York gets on his guitar on Zoom. Of course, it doesn’t quite sync up, so it can be kind of crazy, timing-wise. But it’s kind of interesting, rhythmically, sometimes.
Wednesday morning, John Henry goes to his mother’s house. So Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I write. I’m working on my memoir as much as I possibly can. I’ve spent a lot of the money and I need the rest of it, so I need to finish this book! I tend to listen to instrumental stuff when I’m writing prose, because you don’t want the words in the way. I’m kind of old fashioned about jazz — I like hard bop. I listen to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Chet Baker. And I love the Chet Baker vocal records, but that’s not what I listen to when I’m in the mode that I’m in right now. And instrumental bluegrass and acoustic music, too — I’ll listen to Tony Rice and Norman Blake and Bill Monroe instrumental records.
Right now I’m most concerned about this story that I spent four years preparing to tell, and that’s of these 29 guys who died in an explosion in a coal mine in West Virginia. It seemed like the best thing to do was to go ahead and put the record out and just try to figure out how to do it in this environment. I spend a lot of time on the phone with my manager and with the label trying to sort all that stuff out. My teacher was Guy Clark, and he said, “songs aren’t finished until you play them for people,” so I’ve got to find a way to play these songs for people.
We’ll find something, but I want New York to come back to life. The first thing that died in New York [after shutdown measures] was the culture, and it stopped being New York really quick. Within 48 hours, there was no live music, no live theater, and there hasn’t been any [expletive] baseball, which I consider to be a cultural disaster.
I’m really always on my phone, and I’ve got The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Guardian that I subscribe to, so I get the alerts. But I’ll watch the NBC evening news, too, just to see if the world blew up while I was trying to make up a hillbilly song.
I’m usually hooked on one HBO show or another. David Simon and I worked together off and on for years, and “The Plot Against America” was pretty amazing. I think he and Ed [Burns] are the only people who could have done that. But a lot of times if you get up at 6 in the morning and chase a 10-year-old around, it’s pretty hard to make it past about 10:00 at night. I don’t stay up late very often, so I end up watching a lot of that stuff on demand.
Here and There:
Nick Tosches just passed away, and he’s probably my favorite writer overall, as far as a body of work. My favorite book is “Coming Through Slaughter,” and number two is probably “Huckleberry Finn,” but then three, four and five are all Nick Tosches’s books. Over the last several months I’ve gone back and reread a couple of them, and read one that I had actually missed. And I’m rereading “His Dark Materials” right now because the HBO version of that was on, and I like those books quite a bit.
One of the most foolish things that you can do is to begin the day by checking the news. This Saturday morning, the news came that Richard Wayne Penniman—Little Richard—had died. He was eighty-seven and had been in failing health. A different President might take the time to commemorate the passing of a great American, one who shaped the culture and its national sound. Don’t hold your breath. But please do play his music and watch his performances: “Tutti Frutti” will lift your heart. “Rip It Up” will get you out of the chair. And isn’t that what you need?
The core of Little Richard’s career was brief—he recorded an incandescent string of hits in the mid-fifties and then went off to rediscover his faith. In the years that followed, he’d dip in and out of show business, and there were some inspired moments, but he was a comet, not a planet. The trail of light that he left behind was, and is, everywhere. Try to imagine Muhammad Ali without Little Richard’s winking persona, his swing and swagger (“I am the King!”). Try to imagine James Brown, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Elton John, and Prince without his electrical charge. Little Richard was an original, and he did not hesitate to remind his students of their debt. He once looked into a television camera and, with affection, told Prince, “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”
Rather than watch the news–––it can wait––go to YouTube and watch Little Richard’s performances of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “She’s Got It,” “Lucille,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Banging boogie-woogie time with his right hand and singing miles beyond anyone’s idea of a “register,” he is a human thrill ride. There is more voltage in one of those three-minute performances than there is in a municipal power station.
One of the underrated books in the pop music library is “The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock,” an authorized biography/oral biography, by Charles White. Calling on multiple voices, it tells a revolutionary, ecstatic, sometimes heartbreaking story. Richard Penniman was born in 1932 into a large, poor Christian family, in Macon, Georgia. His father was a brick mason and a bootlegger. One of Richard’s legs was shorter than the other, making him a source of mockery among other children. “They thought I was trying to twist and walk feminine,” he once told Rolling Stone. “The kids would call me faggot, sissy, freak.”
As a boy, Richard was raised in the Pentecostal Church and sang gospel on Sundays with a family group called the Penniman Singers and another group called the Tiny Tots Quartet. His earliest musical influences included Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Brother Joe May, the “Thunderbolt of the Middle West.” Even as a child singer, Richard was known for his high range and incredible volume. But, in his father’s eyes, he was unbearably effeminate and not to be tolerated. When Richard was a teen-ager, he was thrown out of the house and went to live with Ann and Johnny Johnson, a white couple who ran a local venue, the Tick Tock Club.
Richard was a poor student but, musically, he was a fast learner. He first learned to play the piano in church, but after hearing Ike Turner’s recording “Rocket 88,” and studying the style of S. Q. Reeder, Jr., better known as Esquerita, he adopted a pounding, mesmeric style. Throughout his teens, he was in and out of outfits like Buster Brown’s Orchestra (where he got the name Little Richard) and the Tidy Jolly Steppers. He sang, sometimes wearing a red evening gown, under the name Princess Lavonne, in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show. He was serving his musical apprenticeship in the last days of these minstrel shows; he also inhabited a world of strippers and drag queens and brash comedians. He studied the flashy showmanship of Atlanta-based performers like Roy Brown, who had a hit with “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and he adopted the pompadour and pancake makeup of the jump-blues singer Billy Wright. He played the Dew Drop Inn, in New Orleans, where the m.c. was a famous female impersonator and performer named Patsy Vidalia.
Little Richard signed with RCA Victor in the early fifties, but his career didn’t quite ignite. He was still washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station to make a living. Things changed in 1955, when Art Rupe of Specialty Records put him together with some stellar New Orleans players, including the drummer Earl Palmer and the saxophonist Lee Allen. On September 14th of that year, they recorded “Tutti Frutti,” a bawdy boogie-woogie that Little Richard had been performing in countless drag bars. It included lewd verses such as “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” At the instruction of the producer Robert (Bumps) Blackwell, a songwriter named Dorothy LaBostrie worked with Little Richard to tone down the lyrics. But it wasn’t so much the lyrics as the beat and the ecstatic yowl—“A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”—that made the song a hit. The record sold widely to blacks and whites. (And it did even bigger business among white listeners when Pat Boone recorded it.) For the next couple of years, Little Richard was a star at the highest level of the new art of rock and roll.
In the late fifties, while touring Australia, Little Richard said that he saw a powerful vision in the sky that caused him to give up rock and roll, come home, and enroll in Oakwood Bible College, in Huntsville, Alabama. In the years to come, he made forays back into music, secular and religious, but he was always torn. When Little Richard played the Star Club, in Hamburg, the Beatles were his opening act. “He used to read from the Bible backstage, and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen,” John Lennon told an interviewer.
Despite Little Richard’s own ambivalence about rock and roll, his influence spread quickly, and it ran deep. In the Iron Range town of Hibbing, Minnesota, a high-school kid named Robert Zimmerman listened all night to faraway radio stations playing country music, blues music, and the first rock-and-rollers: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, and, the one he loved the most, Little Richard. In his high-school yearbook, he wrote that his ambition was “to join ‘Little Richard.’ ” His high-school band, the Golden Chords, played Little Richard covers. At a talent show in Hibbing High’s unaccountably ornate auditorium, the principal yanked the curtain shut on the Golden Chords and their cover of a Little Richard tune. Zimmerman wore his hair in a high, poufy pompadour, just like his idol. “I was trying to look like Little Richard, my version of Little Richard,” he told an interviewer years later. “I wanted wild hair, I wanted to be recognized.” He left town and became a star in Greenwich Village with a new name: Bob Dylan.
It seemed evident that Little Richard both thrived on his sexuality but suffered terribly from the time that he had been cast out of his own home as a boy. Despite the flamboyance of his performances and his carriage, he never quite settled, publicly, on a sexual identity. Sometimes, he would say he was gay, sometimes bisexual, sometimes “omnisexual”; there were moments, feeling the weight of his religious background, when he even denounced homosexuality. As recently as 2017, in an interview with a Christian broadcaster, he talked about “unnatural affection.”
Chuck Berry, in his autobiography, recalls performing on the same bill as Little Richard at a school in Connecticut in the sixties. Little Richard, according to Berry’s account, asked Berry to come to his hotel room to “party.” Berry asked him if that meant just the two of them.
“Chuck, I’ve always wanted to perform with you since the first time I saw you on television and have thought about it ever since.”
To make love? Berry asked.
“You’d love it; it’s like no other performance in the world,” Little Richard replied.
Berry recalled, “I tried to match his smile, and then I suddenly excused myself in a rush to get ready for the show, but he bade me farewell in a contented voice, and that was that.”
In the seventies, Little Richard struggled mightily with a consuming cocaine habit. By the eighties, he was starting to suffer from a variety of health problems. Sometimes he would show up to receive an award, sometimes not. He turned down interview requests, played rarely onstage, and gradually faded from public view. But the recordings, the legacy, is there to pick you up, even in the hardest times. “You can’t keep still when you hear the great Little Richard,” as Buddy Holly put it. “He’s the wildest act in rock and roll.”
Or, as Little Richard himself described his effect on body and spirit, “My music made your liver quiver, your bladder splatter, your knees freeze—and your big toe shoot right up in your boot!”
Little Richard, a founding father of rock and roll whose fervent shrieks, flamboyant garb, and joyful, gender-bending persona embodied the spirit and sound of that new art form, died Saturday. He was 87. The musician’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death to Rolling Stone, but said the cause of death was unknown.
Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard cut a series of unstoppable hits – “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” that same year, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958 – driven by his simple, pumping piano, gospel-influenced vocal exclamations and sexually charged (often gibberish) lyrics. “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else. I’m more of a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder.”
Although he never hit the top 10 again after 1958, Little Richard’s influence was massive. The Beatles recorded several of his songs, including “Long Tall Sally,” and Paul McCartney’s singing on those tracks – and the Beatles’ own “I’m Down” – paid tribute to Little Richard’s shredded-throat style. His songs became part of the rock and roll canon, covered over the decades by everyone from the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions.
Little Richard’s stage persona – his pompadours, androgynous makeup and glass-bead shirts – also set the standard for rock and roll showmanship; Prince, to cite one obvious example, owed a sizable debt to the musician. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Richard told Joan Rivers in 1989 before looking at the camera and addressing Prince. “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5th, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he was one of 12 children and grew up around uncles who were preachers. “I was born in the slums. My daddy sold whiskey, bootleg whiskey,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. Although he sang in a nearby church, his father Bud wasn’t supportive of his son’s music and accused him of being gay, resulting in Penniman leaving home at 13 and moving in with a white family in Macon. But music stayed with him: One of his boyhood friends was Otis Redding, and Penniman heard R&B, blues and country while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium.
After performing at the Tick Tock Club in Macon and winning a local talent show, Penniman landed his first record deal, with RCA, in 1951. (He became “Little Richard” when he about 15 years old, when the R&B and blues worlds were filled with acts like Little Esther and Little Milton; he had also grown tired with people mispronouncing his last name as “Penny-man.”) He learned his distinctive piano style from Esquerita, a South Carolina singer and pianist who also wore his hair in a high black pompadour.
For the next five years, Little Richard’s career advanced only fitfully; fairly tame, conventional singles he cut for RCA and other labels didn’t chart. “When I first came along, I never heard any rock & roll,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”
By 1956, he was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon (a job he had first taken a few years earlier after his father was murdered and Little Richard had to support his family). By then, only one track he’d cut, “Little Richard’s Boogie,” hinted at the musical tornado to come. “I put that little thing in it,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970 of the way he tweaked with his gospel roots. “I always did have that thing, but I didn’t know what to do with the thing I had.”
During this low point, he sent a tape with a rough version of a bawdy novelty song called “Tutti Frutti” to Specialty Records in Chicago. He came up with the song’s famed chorus — “a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom” — while bored washing dishes. (He also wrote “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” while working that same job.)
By coincidence, label owner and producer Art Rupe was in search of a lead singer for some tracks he wanted to cut in New Orleans, and Penniman’s howling delivery fit the bill. In September 1955, the musician cut a lyrically cleaned-up version of “Tutti Frutti,” which became his first hit, peaking at 17 on the pop chart. “’Tutti Frutti really started the races being together,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites.”
Its followup, “Long Tall Sally,” hit Number Six, becoming his the highest-placing hit of his career. For just over a year, the musician released one relentless and arresting smash after another. From “Long Tall Sally” to “Slippin’ and Slidin,’” Little Richard’s hits – a glorious mix of boogie, gospel, and jump blues, produced by Robert “Bumps” Blackwell — sounded like he never stood still. With his trademark pompadour and makeup (which he once said he started wearing so that he would be less “threatening” while playing white clubs), he was instantly on the level of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other early rock icons, complete with rabid fans and mobbed concerts. “That’s what the kids in America were excited about,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “They don’t want the falsehood — they want the truth.”
As with Presley, Lewis and other contemporaries, Penniman also was cast in early rock and roll movies like Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1957). In a sign of how segregated the music business and radio were at the time, though, Pat Boone’s milquetoast covers of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” both also released in 1956, charted as well if not higher than Richard’s own versions. (“Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” hit Number 12, surpassing Little Richard’s by nine slots.) Penniman later told Rolling Stone that he made sure to sing “Long Tall Sally” faster than “Tutti Frutti” so that Boone couldn’t copy him as much.
But then the hits stopped, by his own choice. After what he interpreted as signs – a plane engine that seemed to be on fire and a dream about the end of the world and his own damnation – Penniman gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was eventually ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, the result was a gospel set called God Is Real.
His gospel music career floundering, Little Richard returned to secular rock in 1964. Although none of the albums and singles he cut over the next decade for a variety of labels sold well, he was welcomed back by a new generation of rockers like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (who used to play Little Richard songs on the piano when he was a kid). When Little Richard played the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, the opening act was none other than the Beatles. “We used to stand backstage at Hamburg’s Star-Club and watch Little Richard play,” John Lennon said later. “He used to read from the Bible backstage and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen. I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.”
By the 1970s, Little Richard was making a respectable living on the rock oldies circuit, immortalized in a searing, sweaty performance in the 1973 documentary Let the Good Times Roll. During this time, he also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine while, at the same time, returning to his gospel roots.
Little Richard also dismantled sexual stereotypes in rock & roll, even if he confused many of his fans along the way. During his teen years and into his early rock stardom, his stereotypical flamboyant personality made some speculate about his sexuality, even if he never publicly came out. But that flamboyance didn’t derail his career. In the 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard (written with his cooperation), he denounced homosexuality as “contagious … It’s not something you’re born with.” (Eleven years later, he said in an interview with Penthouse that he had been “gay all my life.”)
Later in life, he described himself as “omnisexual,” attracted to both men and women. But during an interview with the Christian-tied Three Angels Broadcasting Group in 2017, he suddenly denounced gay and trans lifestyles: “God, Jesus, He made men, men, he made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. So much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God.”
Yet none of that seemed to damage his mystique or legend. In the 1980s, he appeared in movies like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and in TV shows like Full House and Miami Vice. In 1986, he was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. His last known recording was in 2010, when he cut a song for a tribute album to gospel singer Dottie Rambo.
In the years before his death, Little Richard, who was by then based in Nashville, still performed periodically. Onstage, though, the physicality of old was gone: Thanks to hip replacement surgery in 2009, he could only perform sitting down at his piano. But his rock and roll spirit never left him. “I’m sorry I can’t do it like it’s supposed to be done,” he told one audience in 2012. After the audience screamed back in encouragement, he said – with a very Little Richard squeal — “Oh, you gonna make me scream like a white girl!”
Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, who combined the sacred shouts of the black church and the profane sounds of the blues to create some of the world’s first and most influential rock ’n’ roll records, died on Saturday morning in Tullahoma, Tenn. He was 87.
His lawyer, Bill Sobel, said the cause was bone cancer.
Little Richard did not invent rock ’n’ roll. Other musicians had already been mining a similar vein by the time he recorded his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” — a raucous song about sex, its lyrics cleaned up but its meaning hard to miss — in a New Orleans recording studio in September 1955. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had reached the pop Top 10, Bo Diddley had topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, and Elvis Presley had been making records for a year.
But Little Richard, delving deeply into the wellsprings of gospel music and the blues, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before — something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous. As the rock historian Richie Unterberger put it, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.”
Art Rupe of Specialty Records, the label for which he recorded his biggest hits, called Little Richard “dynamic, completely uninhibited, unpredictable, wild.”
“Tutti Frutti” rocketed up the charts and was quickly followed by “Long Tall Sally” and other records now acknowledged as classics. His live performances were electrifying.
“He’d just burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn’t be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience,” the record producer and arranger H.B. Barnum, who played saxophone with Little Richard early in his career, recalled in “The Life and Times of Little Richard” (1984), an authorized biography by Charles White. “He’d be on the stage, he’d be off the stage, he’d be jumping and yelling, screaming, whipping the audience on.”
An Immeasurable Influence
Rock ’n’ roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, but Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen. Offstage, he characterized himself variously as gay, bisexual and “omnisexual.”
His influence as a performer was immeasurable. It could be seen and heard in the flamboyant showmanship of James Brown, who idolized him (and used some of his musicians when Little Richard began a long hiatus from performing in 1957), and of Prince, whose ambisexual image owed a major debt to his.
Little Richard’s impact was social as well.
“I’ve always thought that rock ’n’ roll brought the races together,” Mr. White quoted him as saying. “Especially being from the South, where you see the barriers, having all these people who we thought hated us showing all this love.”
Mr. Barnum told Mr. White that “they still had the audiences segregated” at concerts in the South in those days, but that when Little Richard performed, “most times, before the end of the night, they would all be mixed together.”
If uniting black and white audiences was a point of pride for Little Richard, it was a cause of concern for others, especially in the South. The White Citizens Council of North Alabama issued a denunciation of rock ’n’ roll largely because it brought “people of both races together.” And with many radio stations under pressure to keep black music off the air, Pat Boone’s cleaned-up, toned-down version of “Tutti Frutti” was a bigger hit than Little Richard’s original. (He also had a hit with “Long Tall Sally.”)
Still, it seemed that nothing could stop Little Richard’s drive to the top — until he stopped it himself.
He was at the height of his fame when he left the United States in late September 1957 to begin a tour in Australia. As he told the story, he was exhausted, under intense pressure from the Internal Revenue Service and furious at the low royalty rate he was receiving from Specialty. Without anyone to advise him, he had signed a contract that gave him half a cent for every record he sold. “Tutti Frutti” had sold half a million copies but had netted him only $25,000.
One night in early October, before 40,000 fans at an outdoor arena in Sydney, he had an epiphany.
“That night Russia sent off that very first Sputnik,” he told Mr. White, referring to the first satellite sent into space. “It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads. It shook my mind. It really shook my mind. I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’”
He had one last Top 10 hit: “Good Golly Miss Molly,” recorded in 1956 but not released until early 1958. By then, he had left rock ’n’ roll behind.
He became a traveling evangelist. He entered Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) in Huntsville, Ala., a Seventh-day Adventist school, to study for the ministry. He cut his hair, got married and began recording gospel music.
For the rest of his life, he would be torn between the gravity of the pulpit and the pull of the stage.
“Although I sing rock ’n’ roll, God still loves me,” he said in 2009. “I’m a rock ’n’ roll singer, but I’m still a Christian.”
He was lured back to the stage in 1962, and over the next two years he played to wild acclaim in England, Germany and France. Among his opening acts were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, then at the start of their careers.
He went on to tour relentlessly in the United States, with a band that at one time included Jimi Hendrix on guitar. By the end of the 1960s, sold-out performances in Las Vegas and triumphant appearances at rock festivals in Atlantic City and Toronto were sending a clear message: Little Richard was back to stay.
But he wasn’t.
‘I Lost My Reasoning’
By his own account, alcohol and cocaine began to sap his soul (“I lost my reasoning,” he would later say), and in 1977, he once again turned from rock ’n’ roll to God. He became a Bible salesman, began recording religious songs again and, for the second time, disappeared from the spotlight.
He did not stay away forever. The publication of his biography in 1984 signaled his return to the public eye, and he began performing again.
By now, he was as much a personality as a musician. In 1986 he played a prominent role as a record producer in Paul Mazursky’s hit movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” On television, he appeared on talk, variety, comedy and awards shows. He officiated at celebrity weddings and preached at celebrity funerals.
He could still raise the roof in concert. In December 1992, he stole the show at a rock ’n’ roll revival concert at Wembley Arena in London. “I’m 60 years old today,” he told the audience, “and I still look remarkable.”
He continued to look remarkable — with the help of wigs and thick pancake makeup — as he toured intermittently into the 21st century. But age eventually took its toll.
By 2007, he was walking onstage with the aid of two canes. In 2012, he abruptly ended a performance at the Howard Theater in Washington, telling the crowd, “I can’t hardly breathe.” A year later, he told Rolling Stone magazine that he was retiring.
“I am done, in a sense,” he said. “I don’t feel like doing anything right now.”
Survivors include a son, Danny Jones Penniman. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, the third of 12 children born to Charles and Leva Mae (Stewart) Penniman. His father was a brick mason who sold moonshine on the side. An uncle, a cousin and a grandfather were preachers, and as a boy he attended Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist and Holiness churches and aspired to be a singing evangelist. An early influence was the gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the first performers to combine a religious message with the urgency of R&B.
By the time he was in his teens, Richard’s ambition had taken a detour. He left home and began performing with traveling medicine and minstrel shows, part of a 19th-century tradition that was dying out. By 1948, billed as Little Richard — the name was a reference to his youth and not his physical stature — he was a cross-dressing performer with a minstrel troupe called Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam, which had been touring for decades.
In 1951, while singing alongside strippers, comics and drag queens on the Decatur Street strip in Atlanta, he recorded his first songs. The records were generic R&B, with no distinct style, and attracted almost no attention.
Around this time, he met two performers whose look and sound would have a profound impact on his own: Billy Wright and S.Q. Reeder, who performed and recorded as Esquerita. They were both accomplished pianists, flashy dressers, flamboyant entertainers and as openly gay as it was possible to be in the South in the 1950s.
Little Richard acknowledged his debt to Esquerita, who he said gave him some piano-playing tips, and Mr. Wright, whom he once called “the most fantastic entertainer I had ever seen.” But however much he borrowed from either man, the music and persona that emerged were his own.
His break came in 1955, when Mr. Rupe signed him to Specialty and arranged for him to record with local musicians in New Orleans. During a break at that session, he began singing a raucous but obscene song that Mr. Rupe thought had the potential to capture the nascent teenage record-buying audience. Mr. Rupe enlisted a New Orleans songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to clean up the lyrics; the song became “Tutti Frutti”; and a rock ’n’ roll star was born.
By the time he stopped performing, Little Richard was in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (he was inducted in the Hall’s first year) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. “Tutti Frutti” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2010.
If Little Richard ever doubted that he deserved all the honors he received, he never admitted it. “A lot of people call me the architect of rock ’n’ roll,” he once said. “I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true.”
The music video begins with the sweeping views of the snow-capped Andes Mountains and the whistle of the region’s traditional wind instruments.
Then you see Renata Flores. Standing defiantly in the baggy pants, slick ponytail and hoop earrings that have become the uniform of hip-hop artists around the world, she begins to rap — in Quechua, the language of the Incas, whose empire was rooted in these heights.
This blend of traditional and transgressive, rural and urban, local and global, has thrust Ms. Flores, 19, and her music into an intensifying debate over identity in the region, and made her a leader among a new generation of artists producing contemporary music in Quechua, which remains the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Latin America.
In the last few decades, internal migration has transformed Latin America into the most urbanized region in the world, but Indigenous languages — spoken by millions who have moved to the cities — have often been dismissed as the speech of poor farmers and relegated to nostalgic cultural spaces, including festivals and museums.
In Peru, artists like Ms. Flores and the promoters of urban Andean music — sometimes called rap Andino or Inka trap — are presenting Quechua speakers as also integral to their country’s future.
“There are people with strong criticism who say, ‘this is an aberration,’” said Liberato Kani, 26, one of Peru’s best-known Quechua rappers, who sometimes hears from people who say the language of the Inca should stay “in the audio in my museum.”
“But if they’re criticizing,” he went on, “it means they’re listening.”
Ms. Flores and Mr. Kani, along with soundmakers like Kayfex, who recently signed with the Warner Music in the United States, are combining the bouncing beats of Latin trap, rap and reggaeton popularized by artists like Bad Bunny with the sounds of the Peruvian countryside.
These include the melodic whistle of the quena, a wind instrument, and the moaning harps and violins used in the country’s most emblematic musical performance, the scissor dance.
Their argument is that there is no better way to become visible than through pop culture.
Mr. Kani’s songs are solidarity anthems that chronicle urban and rural life. “I pray to father mountain for water in my pueblo,” he raps in “Harawi” meaning “Poem.”
After shows, which have attracted thousands of fans, he is sometimes approached by young artists who want to know how to spin rhymes in their own languages, including Aymara, spoken in Bolivia, Argentina and Peru.
Quechua, which is spoken by an estimated eight million people across at least five countries, was spread across South America by the Inca long before the Spanish arrived.
But there are few instances in which the language is used in media to tackle contemporary concerns.
Ms. Flores takes on female power, government corruption, war and international pop culture polemics.
Her new album, Isqun, or “Nine,” set for release this year, traces “everything that the Andean woman has had to go through, since before and including the arrival of the Spanish to Peru,” over nine songs, she said.
She recorded it at a music school owned by her parents, and directed the production. She is an independent artist, self-funded with the help of foundation and competition money, event payouts and a contract with a shampoo company.
In “Somos Fusión,” a half-Quechua, half-Spanish song about the life of the half-Incan, half-Spanish daughter of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, she cheekily addresses Rosalía, the Spanish-born pop star who has sometimes been accused of crowding out Latin American artists.
“We’re fusion,” she sings of Francisco’s descendants. “Rosalía, admit that I’m right.”
Quechua has survived not only conquest, but the foundation of the region’s independent republics, whose leaders often discouraged the language’s use in an attempt to eliminate Indigenous dissent.
More recently, the language has endured Peru’s internal war, which spanned the 1980s and 1990s and pitted a brutal rebel group called the Shining Path against a sometimes equally violent government — with poor farmers trapped in the middle.
When the violence had subsided, Peru’s truth commission found that 75 percent of the war’s nearly 70,000 victims were native speakers of Quechua or other Indigenous languages.
It was out of that pain that several musicians formed a 1990s rock group called Uchpa, meaning “ashes,” helping to launch a Quecha-language blues-rock movement that became a freedom cry for a generation of Peruvians who had grown up choked by fear.
It is out of that legacy that artists like Ms. Flores and Mr. Kani have arrived, aware of the language’s history, but removed enough from the pain to take on new sounds and political issues.
Ms. Flores lives in the small city of Ayacucho, once the cradle of the Shining Path and the birthplace of Uchpa. Her parents, former members of a Peruvian rock band, are now a hospital administrator (her father) and a music academy director (her mother).
She first captured Peru’s attention five years ago. At age 14, having failed to win a season of an American Idol-style show called “La Voz Kids,” she and her mother decided to take what would have been her champion song, Uchpa’s Quechua cover of the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun,” to the internet.
Back then, Ms. Flores just wanted to do “something different,” she said. But she began to think about what it meant to sing in the language of her ancestors.
Her own maternal grandmother had been a teacher in rural Peru during the reign of the Shining Path and had told her about the horror of that time. Her Quechua-speaking students had been recruited by the guerrillas and terrorized by the military, her grandmother said. Speaking an Indigenous language made them both the victims of rebel recruitment and the object of suspicion among other Peruvians.
Her paternal grandmother, who grew up in the countryside, never learned to speak Spanish fluently.
Ms. Flores began to wonder why she sometimes felt embarrassed to hear her grandmothers speak Quechua in public, and why so many of her peers seemed ashamed to speak the language in class.
She began to wonder why no one had ever fully taught her the language.
Over time, she started writing her own lyrics, starting in Spanish and then translating them into Quechua with the help of her grandmothers.
Her goal, she said, was to “rescue our culture.”
“Tijeras,” or “Scissors,” her first politically oriented single, was a #MeToo-era rallying cry. “My scream,” she raps, “maybe if I sing it nicely, people will listen.”
“Qam hina,” or “Like You,” released in September, is perhaps her most ambitious project yet and has been widely viewed in Peru.
Américo Mendoza-Mori, a Peruvian scholar of Quechua who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a translation.
In the song and its video set in the Andes, Ms. Flores tells a story from the perspective of a singer-character whose grandparents disappeared during the conflict.
But as she narrates her grandmother’s story, she also speaks about the girls in rural Peru who spend many hours walking to class each day.
As the song continues, the narrator experiences an unspecified abuse on the long path home from school.
“Munani musquyta,” they chant. “I want to dream. I want to learn. I want to speak.”
Upon seeing the video, Ms. Flores’ maternal grandmother, Adalberta Canchanya Alvarado, 78, declared herself “incredibly proud.”
“She is free and can sing, and we were not,” Ms. Canchanya said. “And she tells it exactly like it is.”