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Awopbopaloomopalopbamboom or Bust

Little Richard

Article from International Musician & Recording World, September 1986

The original Mr. Electrify in a very, er, um.. frank interview about Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' roll — the first time round, Iain Blair spares no blushes

Little Richard's theme to the smash film Down & Out in Beverly Hills is the latest success of a highly public, frequently scandalous 30 year career in which sex has played almost as much a part as drugs and rock 'n' roll. At 54, he's as feisty and foul-mouthed as ever - and chasing 110 million dollars in unpaid royalties...


Little Richard is madder than hell — and he doesn't care who knows. The Rock 'n' Roll legend is parading the streets of Hollywood carrying a placard saying ATV Publishing — Pay Little Richard.

"Those folks owe me — and plenty!" he shouts to anyone who cares to listen. "One hundred and ten million dollars in back royalties, that's how much."


Having taken up permanent residence in the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard (the scene of many an outrageous Rock 'n' Roll party in days gone by), one of the true founding fathers of Rock 'n' Roll is currently back on the scene and currently riding very high indeed.

Following his debut film role in the hugely successful Down and Out In Beverly Hills, the man who burst into the world some 30 years ago and electrified it with the immortal words "Awop-Bop-a-Loo-Mop/A-Lop-Bam-Boom" is once more conquering the charts with the theme from the movie, Great Gosh A'Mighty.

"I'm The Creator,The King of Rock 'n' Roll," he proclaims in tones that rarely flirt with modesty, "so why shouldn't I get what's mine for all those songs like Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti and Good Golly Miss Molly? They're all classics now, and I ain't seen a dime. That ain't fair."

Whatever the eventual outcome of the court case, there's no doubt at all about the singer's place in history. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, on December 5th, 1932, with a deformed right leg that gave him a permanent limp. The future King of Rock 'n' Roll grew up "always wanting to preach, and always wanting to sing."

LR: I come from a big family. My Momma, Leva Mae, had 12 children, so we had a lot of fun. And she and my Daddy both came from big families. My mother was a housewife — she never worked. My father worked as a contractor and did quite well. We weren't rich, but we weren't poor either, and we had things like bicycles, and our house was always neat and tidy. My Daddy also sold Moonshine Whiskey on the side — a lot of the black folks called it 'White Lightning,' while some of the white folks called it 'Black Thunder,' and the police were always trying to catch him. I remember once they raided the house, but they didn't find any. He was too clever for them... It was a nice childhood, 'cos Macon, Georgia, was a real country town then and real friendly. I remember all the streets were red mud, and all the kids used to have red feet 'cos most of 'em had no shoes. Yes, it was quite a place, and a lot of great folks come from there — Lena Horne, and James Brown — 'tho he says Augusta — and Otis Reading and Joe Lewis the heavyweight champ.

IB: Did you feel any different as a kid?

LR: Like I said, there were 12 of us — six boys and six girls — and all real good-lookin'. But I was born deformed, with one leg shorter than the other, and this big, big head and a little body. I didn't realise I was crippled, and a lot of the kids used to make fun of the way I walked, and I knew I was different in my heart. But that only made me try harder to compete with my brothers.

IB: Were you a naughty kid?

LR: Not really, 'tho I did some crazy shit!

IB: Like what?

LR: I used to do my no-manners (bowel movements) in boxes or jars and then play tricks on people. There was this Miss Ola, an old lady who lived nearby, and she was crippled too, and I gave her some wrapped up like a present in a shoebox for her birthday once. Well, she thanked me and told me what a sweet kid I was, and I hid round the corner while she opened it up in front of all her friends, and then I heard this screamin' and hollerin' and a voice shoutin' "I'm gonna kill him," and she came runnin' after me without her stick she was so mad. I don't know why, but I did stuff like that a lot.

IB: Did you have a hard time at school?

LR: Not really. I liked school, and I had a lot of friends. But I didn't trust none of 'em and all the boys would fight with me 'cos I wanted to play with the girls, 'cos I felt more like a girl. I always felt that way, ever since I was little. I used to idolise my Momma, and copy the way she sat and talked and powdered her face. I knew I was different as I got older. And not just sexually. I always wanted to be famous, and I always felt I would be. I remember when the teacher asked all the kids at school what they wanted to be when they grew up, they'd say stuff like 'lawyer,' 'doctor,' and then she'd say "Richard — what do you wanna be?" and I'd say "I'm gonna be a star!" "Shut your mouth," she'd say, but I was determined to succeed — I was gonna be a star by far.

IB: What were your first sexual experiences?

LR: I remember I had crushes on other boys. Lots of boys did, but mine was like love. My cousin had a boyfriend, and I loved him so. It was unnatural, but I didn't know it then. My first homosexual experience was with this gay guy called Madame Oop, who was friend of the family. He had another friend called Sis — Sis Henry — and they'd suck you and pay you. And then a lot of white folks would try and pick you up in their cars and take you to the woods and make you French them. My friend Hester did it, but I wouldn't 'cos I was scared. But it wasn't only guys. Some of the older ladies would get you to have sex with them as well. There was one who would just push me up her, 'cos I wouldn't do nothin'. They'd go crazy.

IB: So you were bi?

LR: No, I wasn't bi. I was gay. That was the only way I knew. I was gay from a little boy, and I'd always been like that. I was gay when I didn't even know what was happening! And I believe a lotta people are like that today.

IB: So you were always attracted to gay people?

LR: Yeah. I idolised a lotta gay people. They were so artistic, and they show more love than anybody I'd ever seen. They give their last, and yet they're constantly abused and misused — I know I've been most of my life when I meet someone I care for and loved. Every time I met someone I loved, they treated me terrible. And the person I didn't care about they loved me! It's a funny situation, and it's pitiful really.

IB: Did you come across a lot of prejudice as a kid?

LR: Oooh My God! Did I?! It was really something in those days. You have to remember that it was very different from how blacks are treated today, and I thank God for the change and I'd like to see the same change come over places like South Africa. In those days, blacks were not a part of anything. Though you paid your taxes, you couldn't go to the park, and you'd lose your home if you didn't pay your taxes. You couldn't drink out of the water fountain and you couldn't use the bathroom in public places. I'd travel for miles and wouldn't be able to use the toilet — I'd have to go behind a tree. I'd have to take some water with me in a bottle 'cos we weren't allowed to use the whites-only fountains. You'd get put in jail if you used 'em. It was terrible, 'cos the whites had cold-water fountains, and we only had old raggedy ones that were all rusty and not even chilled. It was really bad.

IB: Was your childhood totally segregated?

LR: Oh no, and that was the other thing. Where we lived was all black people, but a couple of streets away it was white, and all them kids would come over and play with us — but we weren't allowed to play with them! That was the line, the line of prejudice.

IB: Did it make you angry and bitter?

LR: No. It made me fight to be famous. I saw a way of deliverance of bringing people together through fame. I just wanted people to know we all have one blood, and we're all from one God. He made us, and we're the bouquet of the universe, all of us — the black, the white, the red, the yellow — and when the storms of prejudice come, and the rains of injustice, and the hurricanes of racism, and the tornadoes of hatred, God wants us to stay planted in this love.

IB: When did you first start singing and playing music?

LR: I was always singing, as a little kid. It was just in me naturally. We had this group called the Tiny Tot's, that this old lady Ma Sweetie got together. There was me, my brother Marquette Lafayette who sang tenor, my brother Walter who sang baritone, and Bobby Moore, a friend of ours who's dead now. We'd go around all the local churches and different places singing gospel songs and stuff like that. And every night I got up to sing, I'd be in a different key — I'd just never stay in the same key! Course there was no Rock 'n' Roll then. There was Swing and Sway with Sammy Kay, and I couldn't swing and I couldn't sway, so I just rocked. I was singing "Awop-Bop-a-Loo-Mop Alop-Bam-Boom" and doin' high screams from a boy. I was playing Lucille from a boy. It was just part of me. I got tired of older people's music — it didn't fit me at all. So when this style of music came out — and Rock 'n' Roll is really R&B uptempo'd (and R&B don't really stand for Rhythm and Blues — it stands for Real Black!) — I started singing and folks would pay me to play the piano.

IB: Where did you learn piano?

LR: Well, before I got into all this, I met this gay piano player called Esquerita. That was a whole joke about his name — like 'excreta', 'tho' they said his real name was SQ Reeder. Anyhows, he taught me piano. He was incredible, and that's where I learned a whole lot of phrasing and licks. I remember he played One Mint Julep which was out by Ray Charles and The Clovers, and it was like magic to me. So music was always a part of me, and for most blacks in the South, that was your only deliverance; your only freedom, your only relaxation was to sing.

IB: How did you get started in the music business?

LR: I used to hang around all the traveling shows that'd come into town, and just get up and sing with them. And then in the local clubs I'd go and see people like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry — they were already stars then, but they were really singing the Blues. Awyhows, I had this band — we were called Little Richard and The Upsetters — and we were playing all over Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee, and doin' real well. So then I met Lloyd Price who was a big star — he had a big hit with Lawdy Miss Clawdy at the time — and I told him I could sing, so he told me to send a tape to Specialty Records and a guy there called Art Rupe. So I did, but I waited almost a year before I heard anything back, and in the meantime I got into trouble with the law.

IB: What happened?

LR: You see, I knew this girl called Fanny, and I'd drive her around town so's I could watch her having sex with all these guys in the back. She didn't do it for money or nothin', but just to please me, 'cos I really enjoyed watching. Anyway, they put me in jail for 'lewd conduct,' and after that, I had to leave town and stay on the road. So that's when I got the call from Specialty and I went to meet'em in New Orleans. They wanted me to sound like BB King and Ray Charles, while I wanted to scream and do my thing. So after the first session was over, I played 'em Tutti Frutti, and they all turned round and said "that's the song you should have recorded." So we went straight back in the studio, did it, and it became an instant smash all over the world. And they'd never seen a black artist happen so big before. I think it really shook 'em, this wild guy from down in Georgia — The Georgia Peach! He's so exciting, Mr Electrify Himself — Little, Richard from Macon, Georgia! And I was just sreamin', and jumpin' an' leapin' all over the place, wilder than wild!

IB: You mentioned earlier that music represented an escape from poverty and prejudice, but that you were also ripped off by the business.

LR: I was. I signed a real bad deal with the label, and that's the reason for this whole big law suit now. Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, once said that a schoolteacher only made $12,000 a year, and that I didn't have a degree so I should be happy and contented. But what he's failing to understand is I'm not a schoolteacher — I'm an innovator, an emancipator. I'm the creator, the King of rock 'n' roll. I'm the one who made him rich, and he's living on the hill, and we're still in the valley — and if I continued I'd be in the alley, and that's wrong! So I want him to pay me. They owe me. I asked for $112 million, 'cos my songs are classics today — Tutti Frutti, Lucille, Slipping' and Slidin' and many others — and now they sold 'em to ATV. But I just want what's mine.

IB: But they say that you signed away your publishing originally.

LR: No I didn't. They lied. I never signed that away. In fact, I never even had any publishing contract. I want my money, like I want a star on Hollywood Boulevard. I think I deserve a star. I've worked hard and made a great contribution to American culture, and sometimes it's overlooked.

"I'd throw my legs in the air and all over the piano... Lord, I was a screamin' child!"

IB: Do you feel that's also because of prejudice?

LR: I do. I believe that if I was Elvis and a white boy, ATV would pay me — I really believe that from the bottom of my heart. I believe that racism is involved, and it's a pity and a shame in this generation and the 20th century. And every big star, like Elvis and The Beatles, done my tunes. It ain't fair. Lucille was a big Country hit for Waylon Jennings not long ago — it went to number one, and I didn't get a dime. They use Tutti Frutti in cartoons and I don't get a quarter — and that's a shame. He says I signed it away. I ain't signed nothin' away. He put it away and kept the money — that's what he done. It's inhumane, it's injustice. I need my money. I'm getting older. And it's the same thing with my fame. I was really the King of Rock 'n' Roll, but racism was so heavy that they'd never give it to me — they'd never acknowledge it.

IB: How do you mean?

LR: I mean the kids all called me The King, but the system never acknowledged my kingship, and that I was the Rock 'n' Roll innovator, the creator, the man who started it all. They'd always put Elvis up there, and I was out before him. He sang Tutti Frutti, my song, on The Steve Allen Show, and that song, which was my first record, also made Pat Boone a star. First they put out Elvis, and then Pat Boone, to dampen down my popularity.

IB: Why?

LR: 'Cos they didn't want all those white girls screamin' on that black guy, and he was handsome and lookin' good, and they said "No way, no way." And all those white kids had my record hidden in the drawer, and Pat Boone's version up on the table, 'cos mine was wild and full of energy. My music when I came on the scene was called 'race music.' My music was the music that broke the barrier and brought people together. Before, when black performers used to go from city to city, all the white folks would sit upstairs — they were called 'the white spectators.' But when my music came out, they all started dancing together. So my music really had an impact on integration. Plus they saw I was free and uninhibited, and a known homosexual. I'd throw my legs in the air and all over the piano — I'd leap all over the amplifiers. Lord, I was a screamin' child!

IB: What about all the stories of backstage partying and orgies?

LR: Ooh yes! We had some pretty wild times, and no problem getting girls. They'd just come back to the hotels with us and I'd like to watch them having sex with the guys while I masturbated. I did it all, right in the hole! I was a sex lover, and I used to love masturbation. I'd do it six, seven times a day. If my hand was a razor blade, I wouldn't have nothin'. If it was sandpaper, I'd have a pencil — or a toothpick. Yeah, sex was a very big part of my life. In fact, they should have changed my name to Little Sex instead of Little Richard, 'cos I loved it so much.

IB: Did you have many relationships with women in those days?

LR: Oh yeah. I was gay, but you see I always loved women. I remember meeting this girl called Angel and we stayed together for quite a while. She had this incredible body, with 50 inch, titties and a tiny, 18-inch waist. It's true what they say — nothing grows in the shade! She pulled a lotta good-lookin' guys for me, 'cos that body was like a magnet! Wd loved each other, and we got so close that she wanted to marry me, but I didn't want to.

IB: But you did get married.

LR: Oh yes, I got married! But that was in '59, when I first retired from showbiz. You see, ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be a preacher, so when I started travelling around and spreading the Word of God, people told me I should get married — and I was afraid if I didn't marry I'd go to hell. Anyhows, I met my wife, Ernestine, at an evangelist meeting, and we got married, but I was a terrible husband, very neglectful, and in the end she divorced me. And at the same time I left the church, 'cos they found out I was homosexual. That's when I began touring again, when I went to England.

IB: Is that when you met The Beatles?

LR: Yes, but I'd never heard of them or The Rolling Stones before I got there. What happened was that Brian Epstein's father owned a lotta record stores in Liverpool, and they brought me up there to play, and that's when I met The Beatles. They'd never met a famous person or even made a record, and they just wanted to touch me. I was playing with Billy Preston, he was my organist and only 14 at the time, and I'd throw my shirt into the audience, and then I swapped shirts with Paul McCartney. I remember he was so excited I was wearing his shirt. They were crazy days, and Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones were all sleeping on Bo Diddely's floor 'cos they had nowhere to stay. Later, The Beatles went with me to The Star Club in Hamburg; and Paul made me teach him my famous high scream (demonstrates).

IB: What about John Lennon? There were stories that you didn't get on well.

LR: Oh, we got on well. John was very outspoken, and I was too, so we were like two doors hitting each other. He was full of fun, and you got to remember, we were young. But they idolised my thing, and they called me King. All the bands did in Britain, and they wondered why America didn't recognise me as they should. Europe always recognised my kingship, and now the US is finally doing it.

IB: Back in the States, you began having a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol.

LR: Yeah, I become a drug addict. The thing is, as a kid at home, I'd never heard of no marijuana. There were no drugs, 'cos it was a very religious place. Later, I started smoking grass, and then I went from grass to angel dust — and the angels had nothin' to do with that dust, let me tell you. That PCP is terrible. It had me acting wild. I've crawled around on the floor like a dog, and you get so you don't even know what you're doin'. You been doin' it all, until it wears you out and then you can't even get out of your bed. And then I started getting into cocaine. Man, my nose was big enough to park diesel trucks up there, I used so much! Then I'd mix cocaine and heroin to make Speedballs, and after that I became an alcoholic. That was in the Sixties and Seventies, and I was in bad shape. I was gone.

LB: Why do you think you got into that state?

LR: I felt lonely. I felt down. The record companies wouldn't push my music. I'd have good records out and they wouldn't get behind them. It was like they were afraid of me. They knew that if they let me in, I'd be back on top again, 'cos although I had a black audience, it was mainly white. My audience was 98% white, 'cos Rock 'n' Roll grew that way.

You see, at first Rock'n' Roll was black, and then it got fast, and all the black kids were into singing grooves and making up dance steps, and the fast Rock 'n' Roll didn't fit with the dances and their steps. It's not that they hated it, but it just didn't fit with their routines. They liked a more Soul-type thing, and rock was more uptempo. And that's what I am — A Rock 'n' Roller! I'm not a Soul singer, but I'm really a Rock 'n' Roller and I like that I am.

IB: Are you clean now?

LR: Absolutely. I am clean. I use Oxydol! I gave it all up, 'cos I think that at this stage, and at this age, and on this page that's been written in history about me, I wanted to be free of all attachments to drugs and drink, etc. I get high just knowing I'm alive now. I'm a survivor, and when I think of a lot of people I knew, like John Lennon and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who was my guitarist, who're all dead — well, I thank God I'm a livin' legend, not a dead one! I'm 52 now, an' I'm lookin' well an' I'm just so grateful to be alive.

IB: Are you still involved in music?

LR: Yes, but I don't do Rock 'n' Roll now. I sing Gospel — I love Country Gospel, traditional Gospel and contemporary Gospel — and I'm into it very heavily, especially now I'm an evangelist. I travel and preach, letting men know that God can save anybody. Jesus died for gays too, you know.

IB: You say that you've given up the drugs and the booze and the wild times. Are you still gay?

LR: What I'd say is that at this stage and at this age, I don't do anything now. I've done enough. I've done everything! So I don't practice anything now. I'm getting older and I'm not ashamed of it, and I want to do it gracefully too. I know my shortcomings — and my longings and my middle parts, and I also know that God has given me my body, and I don't want no cancer, or to get sick.

IB: So what sort of lifestyle do you lead?

LR: I live in Riverside, California, and I lead a very low key lifestyle. Sometimes it's so low key I can't even find the lock! I travel a lot, preaching and spreading the Word, but I haven't been doin' it in a flamboyant way.

IB: Since rejoining the church, you've rejected a lot of the music you used to play.

LR: Yes, I've left the Rock of Rock 'n' Roll for The Rock of Ages.

IB: So what do you think of today's artists, like Prince or Boy George who obviously owe a lot to you, both in fashion and in music?

LR: Well, I was invited to the premiere and the party for Prince's Purple Rain film last year, 'cos he's a friend, and I believe he's me in this generation — and he does too. He knows where he got it from. Michael Jackson is me in this generation. Boy George is me in this generation. David Bowie is me in this generation. And I'm grateful these people loved me enough to want to be me, and imitate my style of dressing, and my style of presentation, etc. I just want them to know, 'Don't forget God.'

IB: It's been 30 years since you first burst onto the music scene. Looking back over all those years and everything you've done, how do you view yourself today?

LR: I see myself as a child that was lost on the road, and the guide helped me find the way again.

IB: Do you reject your homosexuality and everything you did?

LR: I never reject all that, or anything I've done. What I feel about all of it is that it was an experience for me that God permitted me to have. And I'm glad I had it. I don't resent having that experience, or resent anybody. Most of my friends are gay, and I'm happy knowing them. It's a joy, and I'm glad they're my friends. They're better than a whole lotta people I've met — and some I don't wanna meet! But God love us all. He don't separate his love, or the rain, or the air. What's needed is tolerance. We all have shortcomings — some of us have longcomings — and any problems like drugs, drinking, bad habits, the only thing that can heal is ilove. Not condemning, or hatred, but love.

Previous Article in this issue

Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue

The Famous Five: Synths

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Sep 1986

Interview by Iain Blair

Previous article in this issue:

> Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue:

> The Famous Five: Synths

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