Little Richard’s Music Was Dangerous, but So Is Freedom

Little Richard at a microphone
Anna Bleker via Wikimedia Commons

Good Golly

Little Richard is a button on the top of my bedroom-scale battery-powered guitar amplifier. Click and the soft trebly jangle of the strings becomes a roar of noise and possibility. He invented this, the electric guitar as we know it, without even touching an electric guitar. This truth came to me in a flash of insight one day as I listened to Little Richard’s voice overloading a microphone, blowing out the sound into a growling blast, then whooping up into clear piercing falsetto, the sheer power of his breath and tissue pushing the equipment somewhere no one built it to go. Much later, I would learn that this was a provable, canonical fact—that a former backing musician of his named Jimi Hendrix had explicitly announced, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” It was all self-evident if you opened your ears, or let Little Richard open them.

Peepin’ and Hidin’

Little Richard’s music was “dangerous,” the subhead on the Times obituary declared. Probably I’ve called it something like that myself, at some point. Dangerous to whom, though? From the ’70s through the mid ’80s, I had a sense of the music existing as Oldies, maybe scrolling by on TV commercials for nostalgia collections, the goofy stuff old people listened to before new generations figured it all out. The audible horizon behind me ended at the Beatles. “[T]hose honkie Beatles who ruined rock ’n’ roll,” I read in Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, in 1986, in my small town outside of Baltimore. I didn’t take him literally; the book was not quite a bible but an effective spiritual tract. On reinspection, the text did not mention Little Richard’s name directly, but my best guess is still that it would have been some other evangelization from Waters—our local and internationally renowned Pope of Trash—that sent me to the LP bins at the mall where my teenage hands landed on a copy of Little Richard: 22 Original Hits.

Put the Jinx on Me

It was loud and it was blatant. The story of the original, raunchy lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” gets told over and over, as if adding or restoring the words “good booty” or “grease it” would prove something that wasn’t already there on the vinyl, as if the slippin’ and slidin’ and Bald-Headed Sally and the insinuating lisp at the start of “Send Me Some Lovin’” didn’t make it clear enough. The self-styled King and Queen of Rock and Roll was trying to be in a renunciatory phase by the ’80s, but so was all of America. The contemporary pop charts were extremely queer and extremely closeted, to a degree that’s probably impossible to convey to anyone who grew up on the 21st century—such a degree that even if you were personally oriented toward heterosexuality and cis identity, it was impossible to shake the sense that everything the popular culture was saying about meaning and desire was confounding bullshit, meant to conceal. The story rock and roll tells and retells about itself, in corny self-important tones, is about liberation and rebellion, but by the time I was out of middle school, that story was being told by Kenny Loggins or the retro-counter-appropriationist guitar freakout of a time-traveling Michael J. Fox. The youth culture had grown up to inflict Reaganism and hair metal on the people behind them. The most dangerous thing would have been not to have heard Little Richard.

Built for Speed

Little Richard had already heard and lived the contradictions everyone was busily trying to ignore. He was joyously black under white tyranny, flamboyantly queer under straight tyranny, deeply God-troubled under the tyranny of secular commercial fame. It all came clattering and swaggering back out in fury and delight, in well under three minutes, if not two. It seemed self-evident, but nothing ever was (I dubbed the LP onto a cassette and tried popping it into the tape deck in a car full of other guys, and it got replaced with U2 in very short order). The Beatles covered “Long Tall Sally” and you can hear Paul McCartney trying his little heart out; before you pick on them for it, hear Sam Cooke turn his gorgeous, immortally soulful voice to “Send Me Some Lovin’” and not even try to hit the target Little Richard set up. Little Richard would return the favor to the Beatles by performing “I Saw Her Standing There,” delivering McCartney’s yells and whoops with a sort of kindly indulgence that made it clear his diaphragm and larynx were under no strain. Nobody else could be Little Richard, but if you listened to Little Richard—to the sound that came into being on his mythical lunch break, when he shook off the anxiety of the recording studio to bash out his booty song on the piano—you could hear what it sounded like if a person had the courage to be himself.