Little Richard interview: 'If I had been white, there never would have been an Elvis Presley'

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Little Richard in 1966 - AP
Little Richard in 1966 - AP

At the Hollywood hotel where he lives all year round, Little Richard twists excitedly in his chair, does a few dance steps, thrusts and arm heavenwards and squeals: "O Lord, honey, you tell those English people to come see their Little Richard do his stuff on the concert stage. I will ah-maze and astound. They will see history come to life."

Trained, as a boy in Macon, Georgia, to sell snake oil in Dr Hudson's Travelling Medicine Show, Richard Penniman can still do a very convincing sales pitch. He will tell you that God Almighty so blessed this poor boy, the son of a bootlegger, that he rose from rural obscurity to become the Father of Rock, the Master Blaster, the Innovator, the Emancipator, the Black Angel of Soul.

And, good golly Miss Molly, he will tell you from the bottom of his heart: "If only I had been born white, there never would have been an Elvis Presley."

When this holy rolling spirit is in full flight, Little Richard will burst into song: a little Tutti Frutti here, a bit of Long Tall Sally there. In a voice that is still amazingly smooth and perfectly pitched, he launches into Slippin' and Slidin' (Peepin' and Hidin'), and then abruptly stops to hold out his arms and announce triumphantly: "The world never heard nothing like that until I came along. They was all singing slow things like Pennies from Heaven, and you know there weren't no pennies falling from heaven in my neighbourhood. I was singing a different tune, darling."

Yes, at 66, Little Richard is still crazy after all these years, and boasting that he will leave everyone in awe when he brings his act to Britain in May. As he sees it, the new tour will be 1962 all over again, when the Reverend Little Richard caused riots in London and Bristol and headlined a bill featuring some eager lads from Liverpool named John, Paul, George and Ringo.

"The only mistake I made was when Brian Epstein offered to give me a half interest in the group if I took some of their records back to American and got them a recording deal. I turned him down."

How could you do that, Richard?

"Well, with all those harmonies they were doing, I thought they sounded like the Everly Brothers. And I just figured the last thing the world needed was four more Everly Brothers."

Little Richard performing in 2005 - Reuters
Little Richard performing in 2005 - Reuters

In love with his own magnificence, Richard has often been underwhelmed by the promising talents who have gathered at his feet over the years. He remembers a skinny guy with a tambourine who used to follow him to parties in London, and says: "So, one day, I told this kid that he could stand at the side of the stage and play along with us on his little tambourine. And now, you look at him, my old friend Mick Jagger, and what do you see? You see him strutting down the stage just like I used to do. Isn't it obvious that he's doing my old act?"

Then, there was the young soul singer he met in a Georgia prison. "That's right, I discovered James Brown when nobody knew him but the warden." And the limo driver whose looks left him cold: "I thought Sonny Bono had a face that only a mother could love, and I wasn't even sure of that."

And the young black guitarist who kept pestering him for advice. "What was Jimi Hendrix calling himself in those days? Oh, yeah, it was Maurice James. I never thought he would amount to anything. He was always mumbling something about trying to make his guitar sound like my voice, and then I saw him trying to play the guitar with his mouth. That boy was wild."

When Hendrix later confided to his reluctant hero that he was hoping to have a hit with a song called Purple Haze, a bewildered Richard asked: "And how purple is it?"

Of the four Beatles, he liked Paul best and fondly remembers the young man's ambition to become a star in America. "Paul was always the nicest one, and when we were playing the Star Club in Hamburg, he used to hang out with me and ask questions about America. He'd say, 'Richard, is it a very big country?' and 'Tell me what American girls are like.'"

Little Richard at the Apollo Theatre, New York, 2006 - WireImage
Little Richard at the Apollo Theatre, New York, 2006 - WireImage

But John Lennon was nothing but a thorn in Richard's side. "Heavens, that John was pure misery. If I would have had a stick, I think I might have beat him with it. He would do horrible things, like get you in a little room, pass gas and run out and lock you in. Oh my, I can still smell it."

You mean he liked to play a lot of practical jokes?

"Practical? What do you mean practical? There wasn't anything practical about them. They were terrible."

So how did the star of the great and glorious Richard become eclipsed by all these younger rivals? Why doesn't everyone agree that he is the grand architect of rock?

"Now, that's an easy one to answer, because you know a lot of people don't want to give Little Richard the credit he deserves. Some of it is just plain racism. They resent a good-looking black man who goes from having nothing to being rich and famous.

"My oh my, I was so poor that I couldn't have afforded a turkey sandwich if the turkey had brought it to me. And then, because I was a little flamboyant, some people thought I was Alice instead of Richard."

Alice? You mean, they didn't like you because you're gay?

"Well, I may have acted like Alice, but I was still Richard. I had to be Alice or the white folks wouldn't have let me play their clubs back in the Fifties. They were afraid that all the young white girls would take one look at this beautiful suntan and fall in love. If the older folks thought I was Alice, then it was safe to have me around.

"But the girls fell in love with me anyway. They took one look at this bronzed beauty and lost control. They had to tie the socks on me. Otherwise, those girls would have stripped me clean."

 Little Richard, circa 1970 - Getty Images
Little Richard, circa 1970 - Getty Images

In his golden years, Richard has apparently decided that he was never really homosexual, and that neither sex nor drugs interest him today. He says: "I'm clean now, totally clean. Of course, I was never really dirty. But now, I don't even drink wine. Can you imagine that some folks even drink it for Communion?"

Richard appears to be shocked by this fact, but at the peak of his popularity, a sip of wine would have been the least of his vices. He had a reserved spot in the fast lane, cruising Los Angeles in his custom-made gold and white Cadillac, with its leopard skin interior and a boot full of loose cash.

He struggled with cocaine and alcohol problems, and never seemed to lack companions of both sexes. For a short time, he was married to a woman named Ernestine, but the most interesting of his girlfriends was a stripper who called herself Angel.

"Oh, I was out and about with her, but I wouldn't say she was ever my girl. She was a lot of people's girl. She went out with everybody. She was a clothes-dropper. She liked to get naked."

When I ask whether the rumour is true that Angel was blessed with a 50-inch chest, Richard looks at me mischievously and says: "I never measured it. But I guess every bit of it must have been real in those days. These days, people got a lot ofthings they put up there to make themselves look big. But, you know, Richard always says, 'Watch out: every hill isn't necessarily a mountain.'"

The singer's own appearance is still rather youthful. He's lean and his face is almost wrinkle-free. But his brown complexion and long black hair, which he now keeps at shoulder length, make him look a little bit like an Apache warrior on speed. When he gets excited and starts talking rapidly, his eyes become huge and he waves his arms and kicks his feet.

He likes to point to Prince and Michael Jackson as examples of popular black artists who have followed his lead, but he doesn't feel that he has much to offer the current music scene. "With black audiences, you're only as popular as your last hit record. Black people tend to set trends, so if you're not in the current trend, you are out. And, anyway, I don't care much for this music that's not really music. All the rappers are just copying the old beats and pretending to make something new. I'm like the old cook who could say that she made everything from scratch. Now, ain't nobody making anything from scratch."

Recently, a black admirer stopped Richard on the street and told him: "Stay chocolate." But he replied: "Suppose I feel like being pineapple tonight?"

It is clear that his ego is the size of Jupiter, but he is right about being one of the truly original voices of rock music. Before 1956, when Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally soared to the top of the record charts, the only composer who was doing similar work was Chuck Berry. In part, Elvis launched his career by doing a successful cover version of Tutti Frutti.

There is considerable justification for Richard's view that his music was given greater play when white singers put out their cover versions. Pat Boone had the greatest success with Tutti Frutti, and many other white entertainers, including the Beatles, did well with Long Tall Sally and other hits introduced by Little Richard. Forty years on, it is not easy to look back and see how radically new this music once seemed.

"I was afraid to play my tunes when I first went into a recording studio. I was just going to give them some old-fashioned rhythm and blues numbers because I thought the record company would laugh if I sent them tunes like Tutti Frutti.

"So I sat in the corner of the studio and played some of the music for myself, and the producer heard it and said, 'What is that?' It didn't sound like anything he had heard. And we recorded it and, sure enough, the kids loved it. We knocked their toes out of their boots."

When his early recordings began to be played on popular radio, many of his friends and family had no idea that their Richard Penniman was the new sensation Little Richard.

"I came home one day and told my mother, 'Hey, Mom, that's me on the radio.' She didn't believe and told me not to be lying to her about such things. And she went on not believing that it was me until one of my Cadillacs showed up in the front yard."

Little Richard at the funeral of Ray Charles, 2004 - Shutterstock
Little Richard at the funeral of Ray Charles, 2004 - Shutterstock

When his career went through its inevitable lows, he was forced to sell the fancy cars and houses. Over the years, he has seen his reputation go up and down many times, and has had to fight to regain lost royalties and other legitimate income owed to him from past recordings.

Today, he lives reasonably well in his Hollywood hotel overlooking the seedier side of Sunset Boulevard. He's not rich and he's not poor. And he insists that what he wants most is to secure his rightful place of honour in rock history.

"At the recent inductions to the Rock Hall of Fame, Billy Joel said I was one of the true pioneers. It was nice to hear that, but even when people were ignoring my contributions, I always knew that there was a pillar in the house of rock that I had put there and that wasn't going to be moved. Nobody can change what I created all those years ago."

No, but Richard's massive ego and erratic style have often driven even his most ardent admirers to distraction. When I left him last week, he could not stop raving about how much he would impress "those English people" on his new tour. But, now, on the eve of his much-anticipated return to Britain, the concerts have suddenly been cancelled.

The promoters insist Richard is to blame. He says he is the innocent victim. He wants to play the concerts, but claims the promoter has inexplicably pulled out.

It's a shame that this difficult wonder of living history can't cross the Atlantic and strut his stuff one more time. Whoever is at fault, Richard is bearing this latest disappointment as well as can be expected.

As he likes to say, life, with all its ups and downs, is "a blessin' and a lesson."

Interview by Michael Shelden. This interview was first published in The Daily Telegraph on April 19, 1999

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