By: Joseph R. Castel

Living rock royalty bows down to the late Little Richard (died 2020) in the new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, by award-winning director Lisa Cortes. Paul McCartney, Niles Rogers, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and a host of other legends testify to Richard’s inspiration toward their success in the music business. Crowned as the “architect of Rock and Roll,” Richard was slighted most of his career despite his pioneering contributions to the genre. The slight was so stinging, it turned personal for Richard to the point of embarrassment. On live television programs, he would demand to be acknowledged as the father of rock. He would lament out loud, “Why haven’t I been given an award?” If these documentary testimonies by his musical peers are true, then why hasn’t there been more recognition given to Little Richard?

The obvious answer is race and queerness as the documentary points out, but the other reason for Richard’s lack of recognition is perhaps, his own self-sabotaging persona. Of course, being out was unthinkable in the 1950s, but for Richard, being openly gay amongst his peers, family and friends was evident to all who knew him, even if he wasn’t out to the public eye. However, the music industry neglected to give the diva her dues, possibly for her being queer and then him denouncing it, and then embracing it, and finally exorcising himself from being gay altogether in his final years. As one historical expert in the documentary puts it, Richard was “very good at liberating other people, he was not good at liberating himself.”

Richard may have been conflicted about his sexuality, but he did help break the color barrier in the South where white and black kids were not allowed to comingle in a venue. White teenagers broke down that Jim Crow law by attending concerts scheduled for blacks only. Teens, black and white, were able to exhibit their pent-up frustrations through Richard’s music and raise a ruckus.

In the documentary, Richard confesses to being the first out pop singer and then denounces his gaydom on David Letterman in 1984 while promoting his autobiography. Richard told a perplexed Letterman, “God gave me the victory. 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.”

At the time, I remember being disappointed that Richard had disavowed being a homosexual. Not that he was a role model, but as a young person just coming out in the AIDS era, having a rock icon condemn their own homosexuality was just another punch in the gut. Especially after establishing a persona off his campy theatrics. This was not the first time that Richard would denounce his sexuality as sinful though.

His first denunciation came after a string of billboard hits in the mid-fifties, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, and Long Tall Sally. Little Richard turned his back on the music world at the height of his fame. On a flight to Australia, the diva had a premonition he was going down in flames (literally), while on tour in 1957. After “angels” landed his plane safely on the ground, Richard saw a “fireball” flying across the sky during his concert and was so deeply shaken, he threw his gold rings into the ocean the very next day, and renounced his secular music and wild lifestyle.

The fireball was actually Sputnik 1 being launched, but that made no difference to Little Richard and she made a bee line to a Bible college in Alabama, got married, and adopted a child. Interestingly, the documentary skips the part where Richard is kicked out of bible school after he exposes himself to a male student. According to Wikipedia, “The incident was reported to the student’s father, and Richard withdrew from the college.” So much for divine intervention.

Richard returned to music, but his limelight in America had extinguished. He toured in England where he was still a huge star and met the Beatles before they even cut a record. The Fab Four swooned all-over Little Richard during a photoshoot. Even the Rolling Stones opened up for him on tour. Little Richard was big as ever, and since he had a catalog of hits, he didn’t need new songs to promote while touring Europe. Not only did Richard return to secular music, he continued his rampant sexual escapades with men and women, and by the 1970s, added hard drugs into the mix.

Richards then returned to America and jumped on the 50s nostalgia bandwagon in the 1970s, but by the time Aids came around in the early eighties, Richard jumps back in the closet, writes a book, and repents.

Cortes dives deep into the archives of Little Richard. Before he made it big, Richard sang in drag in a traveling vaudeville show and called herself, Princess LaVonne. It was two openly gay black musicians, however, that really made an impression on Little Richard. Esquerita, a R&B singer and songwriter with a pompadour hairdo, pencil moustache, and pancake makeup gave him the courage to go all out. It was singer Billy Wright though that helped Richard get his first recording. Wright also applied the pancake makeup, have mercy.

One of doc’s commentators stresses that Richard didn’t necessarily steal these musicians’ swag so much as they mirrored who Little Richard was destined to be. Looks wasn’t the only thing Richard copied. The entertainer liked Ike Turner’s boogie woogie piano playing, and was enthralled with many of the gospel singers at the time that were pushing the envelope on religious music. Perhaps his biggest influence was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who’s music was a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and the electric guitar. Some say Tharpe is the queen of rock and roll, but I’m placing my bets on Little Richard.

What makes I Am Everything so compelling are the commentaries from the cultural historians that contextualize Little Richard’s milieu – growing up poor, black, and queer in the south where one interviewee claims, and it’s my favorite quote, “The south is the home of all things queer. . .” and there isn’t anything queerer than Little Richard, honey.