Little Richard surely merits an academic biography, hefty with dry, sociopolitical commentary and footnotes.
But so much about the “architect of rock ’n’ roll” defies linear logic that his life and work lend themselves to a more digressive and intuitive chronicle, informed by the Southern Gothic improbabilities that sweat-soak his hometown of Macon. After all, as his song argues, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way how you do it.”
It takes a poet, in other words, to convey the miracle of Little Richard.
David Kirby, who has published eight collections of verse, limns his subject with the loop-de-loops of wonder, mischief and insight that characterize his poetry, and the resulting nonfiction account, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll, to be released in November by Continuum, sings in a way that, like the singer’s hammy, barn-storming performances, makes you gyrate with pleasure.
‘America’s Other National Anthem’
Little Richard, born Richard (or Ricardo, according to some accounts) Wayne Penniman in 1935, is a vocalist, songwriter, pianist, preacher and outsize cut-up who is widely credited with launching rock ’n’ roll, and, by extension, the explosion of a rebellious youth culture ready to shake off social, racial and sexual repression. Yet he remains curiously undersung and his albums undersold, laments Kirby, whose goal is to honor this spangled revolutionary in his proper place on the historical stage.
He writes, “…all the parts that make up rock ’n’ roll had been moving toward critical mass for years, but when Little Richard shouted, ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom,’ suddenly, to quote the Book of Genesis, there was a firmament in the midst of the waters. It’s a huge song musically, but it’s also a seminal text in American culture, as much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘Song of Myself,’ and the great documents of the Civil Rights era are. In a sense, it’s America’s Other National Anthem.”
Kirby outlines the arc of the entertainer’s calling(s)—the early years when he sang in church, made mischief, and walked with a limp; the dealings with record producers; the religious awakening and abrupt career change prompted by a Sputnik sighting that “shook his mind”; the sexual ambiguities. However, this book is less a straightforward biography than a meditation on art, music, and culture through a lens lined heavily with kohl and “Pancake 31” makeup. He writes, “I hear America singing, and it sounds like Little Richard,” adding, “To me, he’s a way of looking at the world.”
‘Old, weird’ and valuable
Kirby, a literature professor at Florida State University, ranges over topics as diverse and seemingly unrelated to the Georgia Peach as America’s namesake (Amerigo Vespucci, a shady pimp, thief, and sorcerer); the fox-and-hedgehog theory of philosopher Isaiah Berlin (Penniman is the monomaniacal hedgehog); and the verbal tools of other “electrified prophets” such as Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and Lewis Carroll, whose “gyre and gimble in the wabe” makes “Tutti Frutti” sound downright sensible.
Mostly, though, Kirby is besotted with what Greil Marcus dubbed the “Old, Weird America,” the deliciously gamey pageant of hucksters, bootleggers, shake dancers, freaks, geeks and other raffish characters one does not see at the chrome-and-glass mall. Macon holds a prominent zip code, if not the honorific of capital, in the Old, Weird America; he calls it “Everybody’s Other Home Town,” where he has “had some of the weirdest conversations in my life” while researching the influences on Little Richard’s wild-eyed showmanship: snake-oil salesman Doc Hudson; the big-haired, drag-queen pianist Esquerita; and Dr. Mobilio, the turban-wearing Macon “prophet” who would brandish a “Devil’s Child,” described by Penniman as a “dried-up body of a baby with claw feet like a bird and horns on its head.”
Given all that, the primal scream of “Tutti Frutti” seems inevitable.
The Technicolor turn
Kirby has structured this book around that song like an hourglass with an explication of “Tutti Frutti” functioning as its skinny waist: “Everything that came before flows into this narrow pass, and the world we live today flows out the other side.” And in the two minutes and 25 seconds of that ditty, Keith Richards observed, the world changed from monochrome to glorious Technicolor.
The lyrics are seminal in every sense of the word, having originated as a jaunty celebration of sex. “Tutti Frutti / Good booty …” the original lyrics began. Savvy young wordsmith Dorothy LaBostrie—who later attributed her inspiration to wholesome dreams of ice cream—provided the radio-ready second draft. A guileless-seeming teenager named Enortis Johnson furnished the adulterous concept of “Long Tall Sally,” scrawled on a napkin. (I would devour biographies of both women, if any existed.)
LaBostrie’s sweetening touch enhances the “hand-made” authenticity of the song, prompting Kirby to muse: “All art is the result of the deliberate transformed by the accidental; the poet wields his words and the composer his notes obsessively, and then something happens—a chance encounter with a stranger, a snatch of overheard conversation, a dream of a long-dead friend—and the work spins off into a totally new plane.”
The sexual urgency of “Tutti Frutti” (“Gotta girl named Sue, she knows just what to do”) propelled kids to dance so vigorously that they knocked down the ropes, fences and balconies of segregation. The music liberated their bodies, and their spirits followed. In Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll, Kirby’s hagiography fits his subject like a sequined cape. Its fringe of odd details and learned asides affirms his contention that, “All new music changes the world, but no music changed the world the way this song did.”