"Satan will make music a snare by the way in which it is conducted."
-- Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, writing in 1900
I met Little Richard once; I tell people I helped him out, but I didn't really do much. I was just hanging around.
It was summer 1982, near one of the lowest points of his up and down and up career. He was more a character than an artist at the time, a flamboyant celebrity who had just renounced homosexuality on David Letterman, saying, "I'm not gay now, but, you know, I was gay all my life. I believe I was one of the first gay people to come out. But God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve, not Steve. So I gave my heart to Christ."
He had also (sort of) renounced rock 'n' roll, which he'd had a hand in inventing. The evening my friend Pete Ermes and I went to see Little Richard he was not playing music; he was preaching the gospel, at a little black church in Shreveport. We went early, because we expected there would be a crowd.
I would like to tell you that we went to see Little Richard because we respected his legend, and that we wanted to see the fallen god. And that was part of it; though at the time I understood Little Richard as more of a '50s novelty than someone who had set the world afire. But another part of it was cruel; on some level I was being ironic.
When we got there, there was a crowd, though not as large as we'd thought it would be. And there was a problem. A couple of men were tapping on a dead microphone. The church's modest public address system--a lectern with a built-in speaker--was not working. They looked worried. They talked among themselves. We overheard them.
Pete and I wrote songs together. Occasionally we played together too, but mainly he played solo gigs in nightclubs. His main instrument was a Fender Rhodes electric piano. As luck would have it, we had driven to the church with a speaker for that piano riding in the back seat of his diesel Rabbit. He hadn't bothered to unload it after he packed up following the previous night's gig. We stepped up to the frantic men and asked if maybe they could put the speaker to use.
They could. We went and got it, they plugged it in and cabled it up, and it worked fine. Plenty loud enough for the little church. They thanked us. One of them asked us if we would like to meet Little Richard.
Of course we would. That was why we came.
One of the men led us down a hall to a makeshift dressing room. He rapped on the door, opened it a crack, and stuck his head in, apparently to determine if its inhabitant was decent. He pulled it back, nodded to us, pushed the door open the rest of the way and ushered us inside.
What I remember most about the meeting with Little Richard was that he did not seem little at all. He was, in his platform shoes, as tall as me, and well built. He wore a relatively subdued cream three-piece suit with a striped tie with a honeycrisp apple of a knot, pancake makeup, and just a touch of mascara. His smile was electric.
We sputtered something at him.
"Are you boys in a band?" he asked, and we said we were, though we weren't really. It didn't seem like it was worth explaining the nuances of our partnership to Little Richard. He told us to stand on either side of him, he put his hands on the back of our heads to bend them down in prayer. He asked the Lord to make us "bigger than the Beatles" who, he reminded us, had opened for him when he'd played Hamburg in 1962.
We stuck around and listened to Little Richard preach that night, but don't remember much of what he said. Basically his message was that if the Lord could save an old homosexual like him, then no one was beyond hope. He told us he was searching for a good Christian woman to marry, that he was looking forward to experiencing fatherhood.
And he told us a little bit about his life, that his father had been a Seventh-day Adventist preacher who sold moonshine on the side, that it had been hard growing up in Macon, Ga., and that he hadn't played rock 'n' roll for years but was working on a new gospel album.
It was only a couple of years later that Little Richard enjoyed a comeback, boosted in large part by an authorized oral biography by Charles White called The Life and Times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock, that detailed his heartbreaking childhood and how he'd played drag clubs, sometimes in the persona of Princess Lavonne, before finally catching hold of lightning in 1955, when Specialty Records' Art Rupe teamed him up with some New Orleans musicians including drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen. They toned down the lewd lyrics, but "Tutti Frutti" retained its animalistic charge. "A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!" was the devil's walk-up music.
For a few years, Little Richard was back, albeit in a Hollywood and Disney-friendly form. He made cameos in movies; he cut children's records. He told Prince he'd worn purple first. He told an interviewer that he had "invented gay." (Though in one of his last interviews in 2017, he told a Christian broadcaster it was "unnnatural affection.")
What we forget about him, what we maybe never knew about him, was that Little Richard was genuinely dangerous and subversive. Little Richard was a progenitor of the cultural practice we call rock 'n' roll, he was right there with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in the first rank.
"Little Richard was doing rhythm and blues, but with horns," Van Morrison once said. "It was different than Elvis Presley, and so I preferred it. Why would you like Elvis if you had the real stuff?"
It's instructive to remember that Pat Boone's cover of "Tutti Frutti" sold more copies than Little Richard's original.
Spoiler alert, Pete and I never became bigger than the Beatles. But we got a story out of it. We got blessed by Little Richard.
All of us did.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 05/12/2020