Steve Pastis POP ART TIMES
If they gave out a patent for rock'n'roll, it would belong to Little Richard. With such pioneering hits as "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "Lucille," Jenny, Jenny," "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Keep A Knockin," he laid its foundation, established its rules and provided its spirit. By 1968, Little Richard had sold more than 32 million records internationally.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, the third of 12 children, and began singing in his local church as a youn- gster. After winning a local talent contest, he signed with RCA Records in 1951. Success, however, was not immediate and he soon found himself back at home at a menial job. A few years later, he sent a demo to Specialty Records, a small Los Angeles-based label. The song, "Tutti Frutti," brought him the attention that eluded him earlier and led to his string of hits... and established rock'n'roll. (If you don't believe he invented rock'n'roll, just ask him. He will convince you.)
Little Richard took time out to talk to us during his current tour. The interview was delayed a few minutes by autograph seekers knocking on his door. He didn't seem to mind. Little Richard enjoys being Little Richard.
Pop Art Times: How do you fit in to the history of rock'n'roll?
Little Richard: I created rock'n'roll! I'm the innovator! I'm the emancipator! I'm the architect! I am the originator! I'm the one that started it! There wasn't anyone singing rock'n'roll when I came into it. There was no rock'n'roll. There was "Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye." They was singing "Pennies from Heaven." but they wasn't falling in my neighborhood.
PAT: Who were your musical influences?
LR: Mahalia Jackson, Ruth Brown, Roy Brown, the Clara Ward Singers.
PAT: How do the musicians of today compare with rock 'n roll's pioneers?
LR: I think that they depend more on their guitars for their music and we depended on the guitar and the horns and the piano and the rhythm drums and everything. I think they just get loud guitars and turn off the bass and have loud drums.
PAT: Is loudness covering up a lack of talent?
LR: I think a lot of them don't have any talent and I think they know who they are. A lot of them do have talent. That's in all races. Some people are talented and some are not in the field. Some people make up for it through doing gimmicks.
PAT: You only received a half a cent from your records?
LR: They offered me a half-cent (per record) which I never did get any of.
PAT: Do you feel cheated?
LR: I was cheated.
PAT: How would your career have been different if you were white?
LR: I believe that if I was white, I would have been way bigger. I would have been a bigger star than I am today.
PAT: If you were white, would Elvis Presley have been necessary?
LR: If I was white there wouldn't have been nobody else, period. I don't want to call no names. There wouldn't have been nobody, because I am the innovator. I am the emancipator. I am the architect. A lot of people recorded all of my tunes. You can go back and you can see all these people recording my songs. They're good people and I have no dislike. I love all these entertainers. I love them. But I was stole from and I was copied. I'm not mad about nobody emulating me. I want to be that. I want people to do what I do, but I don't want them to take it and don't pay me.
PAT: Why aren't rock'n'roll's pioneers making new music?
LR: I figure if you can't enhance the building or renew the building, why mess with it? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
PAT: You were quoted as saying that record companies don't want to give rock's pioneers a chance to record new material.
LR: I still believe that today, especially for black entertainers. I believe if you are white and been out a long time ago and come out now, they would let you in and you can go on the top of the charts when you put out a record. But if Fats Domino put out a record, it wouldn't go on the charts. But, on the other hand, if someone else (who was white) put out a record, you would see them up on the charts although they ain't been out in ages. They want you to look like a has-been, a never-been. They want to push everyone else and call them "the world's greatest rock'n'roll band."
PAT: Why did you leave rock'n'roll in 1957?
LR: I wanted to learn more about business and I wanted to learn more about the Lord. That's the reason I stopped.
PAT: So you became a preacher?
LR: I never did become a preacher, as such. I never did get ordained or anything like that. I just went to school at Oakwood in Huntsville, Alabama, to study business (administration) and I took a little theology. A lot of press really said that, but I'm not a preacher. I'm a rock'n'roll singer.
PAT: Why did you leave rock'n'roll in 1975?
LR: What they called "quit" is that I just stopped touring. I was tired. I'd been in it all of my life from a boy. When I got broke and needed some money, I came back and I've been back ever since.
PAT: How did you get the name "Little Richard"?
LR: I used to be a baby.
PAT: Most people used to be babies, but very few are still called "little."
LR: They called me "Little Richard" and I kept the name. After I grew up and got older I didn't bother. Stevie Wonder changed his name from Little Stevie Wonder, but I never did bother with mine.
PAT: Was there a Miss Molly?
LR: Not really.
PAT: Was there a Lucille?
LR: There's not a Lucille either.
PAT: Was there a Long Tall Sally?
LR: There's not a Long Tall Sally either. I made all that up. I know people named Sally, but they don't have nothing to do with the song.
PAT: Jimi Hendrix used to play guitar for you?
LR: He was my guitar player when he was about 17 or 18 years old. He played in my band. Billy Preston played organ with me. He was 14 years old. Joe Tex was with me. I used to teach Tina Turner. James Brown was my vocalist. But I never knew these people would be famous now. If I'd have known that, I'd have signed them all to contracts. The Be- atles were with me, opening my show. I didn't know that they would get to be famous. If I'd have known that, I'd have had a contract as long as from here to my toenails. Mick Jagger used to open shows for me through Europe and he wasn't famous. I didn't ever think these people were going to be what they are. I thought that the Beatles would be that famous, because the Beatles sounded like four Everly Brothers to me. They were very good with harmony.
PAT: Did the British Invasion threaten your career?
LR: No, no, no. It really brought my career up because they were doing all the stuff. They were singing all the old music. They were doing all my songs, and Chuck Berry's tunes.
PAT: Whose music do you listen to these days?
LR: The little listening that I do do to the radio... I like all music. I like Mariah Carey. I like Janet (Jackson). I like Michael (Jackson). I like Prince. I like some things by Sting. I love Elton John. I like Queen Latifah. I like LL Cool J. I like Salt'N Pepa. I love Whitney Houston. I love Bobby Brown... If it's good, I like it.
PAT: What affect have you had on the careers of singers like Michael Jackson and Prince?
LR: I think they was impressed by me. They look like me. I think that they got a lot from me. You know that little thing Michael does, 'eeooo!', if you listen to my songs, you'll hear that.
PAT: You were very good in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." Any plans to do more films?
LR: I would love to do that again.
PAT: Do you get calls to do more films?
LR: I would like for somebody to call me for that.
PAT: Did you enjoy making a children's record?
LR: I love children and the record became a big hit. I didn't think that "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" was going to be such a big hit like it was.
PAT: You went through some tough times right before you became famous, even having to take menial work.
LR: I used to wash dishes at the Greyhound Bus station on Broadway in Macon Georgia.
PAT: I read that you even supported your family as a drag queen.
LR: That never been me. I don't know where they dragged that from.
PAT: Please give me your comments about other rock'n'roll pioneers... Chuck Berry.
LR: He's a great songwriter, a great individual and a great entertainer.
PAT: Jerry Lee Lewis.
LR: A great entertainer and a great person. I just toured with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry through Europe and it was very good.
PAT: Not competitive like the old days?
LR: It's still competitive, even today. When you go on the stage, it's just like when you play ball. You can know me, but when you go on the court, you want to be the winner. When you go out on the stage, you want to be the one. We love each other. We hug each other. We eat with each other. When you go out on the stage, it's a different thing.
PAT: I have heard that you and Jerry Lee Lewis once argued about who would close a show and he won the argument, but you played for two hours so nobody would want to follow you.
LR: I've done that a few times.
PAT: You have had an incredible career. What ambitions do you still have left?
LR: I just want to be peaceable. I want to teach love as I travel. I'd like to be remembered as a person who loved God and people of all creeds and colors. I'd like to tell all new entertainers to remember that the grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it's just as hard to cut.