Little Richard. That’s a big one. It doesn’t affect me as much as the deaths of others would, but I wanted to say something anyway, because he affected people who affected me a LOT. So, here’s My Little Richard tribute, in five covers:
The first, of course, was The Beatles. Paul McCartney could match Little Richard howl for howl, as the band tackled “Long Tall Sally,” McCartney’s roar driving Ringo and the guitar players SO hard, and vice versa, that it’s no WONDER The Beatles got so great. They copied the best, then exceeded them.
The second was a group that followed The Beatles in dominating rock ‘n’ roll on the Top 40, bringing authentic energy to everything they did: Creedence Clearwater Revival covered Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” on their second album, and by that point, I was 13 and STILL hadn’t heard the Original. Even if I had, I doubt I would have loved it as much as CCR’s swinging cover.
Third was the next great rock band, but it wasn’t a cover of a particular Little Richard SONG – it was a cover of a drum beat. But that drum beat, lifted from Richard’s “Keep a-Knockin’,” was played so well – better than the original, truth be told – that it launched a whole new song. That song was “Rock ’n’ Roll” by Led Zeppelin, and John Bonham’s lift of the “flattened-out double shuffle” attack of Charles Connor’s playing on the Little Richard classic couldn’t have been better.
Fourth is a song I didn’t even realize was Richard’s until I started working on my week-by-week history of the crucial year 1967, music1967.com. While researching it, I discovered Little Richard’s nice-try attempt to regain the audience he’d walked away from when he joined the ministry. 1967’s The Explosive Little Richard was a solid attempt, but much of the magic was gone. Still, there was a song that I was already familiar with from yet another classic rock band: Richard’s “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” became funky magic in the hands of Rod Stewart, who expanded it and retitled it “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It)” on his second album.
Finally, John Lennon’s big band version of “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (produced by Phil Spector) takes Richard’s original and gooses it into overdrive, with a hard-charging’ horn section, Spector’s massive sound and Lennon’s peerless voice.
All of this is leaving off the importance of Richard’s flamboyance, daring, humor, beauty and soul. The man was astounding. He was also confounding, frustrating and could have been much more. He is treated as a gay icon, but he was as anti-gay as he was gay (at least in public), due in large part to his Christian beliefs. The man died conflicted, and that’s sad.
Little Richard Penniman was an original, he was at the Source of it all, and he will of course always be honored as such. But he also inspired some greats who came after him, and in many ways exceeded him. Still, they wouldn’t have become who they became without him, and I honor this chain of creation that will, god willing, continue forever.
Rock In Peace, Mr. Penniman. Thank you.