Little Richard, one of the greatest rock n roll singers and performers of all time, has transitioned into spirit. He was 87 in earthly years, and the cause of his transition was bone cancer.
As an artist, it would be hard to accurately describe the influence that Richard had on rock n roll, music, and future generations. Singers really got how powerful his voice was. Singing in a demanding, high register well over a decade before the emergence of hard rock and heavy metal, his ability to belt was unparalleled then and still now.
I hate when people use the term falsetto to describe his voice. Due to general misunderstanding of the term, people often refer to any male vocalist singing in a high register as falsetto, but the two are not one and the same. Falsetto is not even a vocal register, but a tone. It is airy, and weak sounding. It sounds breathy, and non-substantial. It has no power, or bite. That was not Richard’s singing.
Richard’s voice could be thought of as analogous to both a rowdy tenor and alto saxophone through an ear-shattering amplifier. Yet, he was not a tone deaf screamer. He sang beautifully: on pitch, with great phrasing, and soulful, heartfelt interpretation.
He was David Bowie’s favorite singer. Iggy Pop has mentioned that when he recorded the album Raw Power, he was trying to sing like Little Richard.
It is astonishing to think that somehow, Little Richard burst onto a 1950’s middle America white public and became famous. He shocked people, especially parents, because people had never seen anything like him before. Pat Boone covered some of his hits in a more sanitized version, but the kids of America loved Little Richard. Imagine this: a black man screaming and hollering, wearing heavy makeup, acting effeminate (as the 1950’s term was), jumping off stage, ripping off his clothes and giving them to the audience, all done in 1950’s white America. It was astonishing that he was so on the fringe, yet had such a powerful mainstream impact.
And, with that impact also came him being dismissed. People who are truly the innovators often have their contributions trivialized or disregarded. Richard’s flamboyant sexuality (as in his gayness) and being black made him a double minority. This was a turnoff for the gatekeepers: the narrow-minded establishment that approves who is recognized or not. Richard didn’t like the rejection, and spoke out about it. He deserved all of the respect of the entire world, and he didn’t have to tolerate being thrown under the bus.
He spoke out and championed his accomplishments, as he should have. Why did he need to be humble? To keep himself small? Why should he accept the not-so-subtle dismissal of his tremendous contributions, influencing everyone from the Beatles, to The Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix (who played with Richard), to Prince, to Michael Jackson, and to the entire world of music?
Thankfully, Richard received some of the acclaim he deserved as the decades unfolded, but he probably would have not if he hadn’t tooted his own horn. In today’s world, people scoff at the idea of somebody tooting their own horn, as if it is the height of shameful self-aggrandizement and whipping your tiny dick out embarrassment. But, I am thrilled that Richard let everybody know who he was. He was his greatest promoter and he deserves any and all credit he ultimately receives.
I have to say that Richard was one of my greatest rock n roll inspirations. He helped to inspire my own sense of authentic outrageousness and desire to both rock and shock the world. Because I was different when I was a kid, I had a tough childhood. I sometimes got a reprieve when I went to spend weekends at my cousin Bobby Skafish’s house. Bobby, his brothers and sisters were older than me, and they had this wonderful collection of original rock n roll records. It was them who turned me on to Little Richard. And whenever I went there, I wanted to hear his records over and over. Surprisingly, my parents didn’t have a problem with me liking Richard, and at times even picked up some of his albums when they were out shopping and brought them home to me.
The frenetic energy of Richard’s records and singing, along with his flamboyant performance style was a win-win in my young social outcast mind. I never wanted to be like him, or sound like him, but let his uniqueness be an inspiration for me to hopefully take the boundary-pushing aesthetic further.
When I think of my favorite Little Richard songs, I start with Good Golly Miss Molly. The drumming of Earl Palmer, the ferocity of the band, and Richard’s vocal performance are just unparalleled. I also love Lucille, because of the unique one-of-a-kind approach to the vocal. In other words, no one else could really sing that song and do it justice but Richard. Keep a Knockin’ is also one of my favorites, too. Not only did Led Zeppelin lift the drum intro for their 1972 song Rock and Roll, Richard’s band sounds like it’s coming apart at the seams. Again, Richard’s performance in such a high vocal register in full voice is jaw-dropping.
In reflecting on the immeasurable impact of Little Richard, all of us should take a moment to salute his unparalleled greatness and wish him well moving forward in the spirit world. But, as time moves so quickly in today’s world, let us never forget who he was and all he contributed.