Oh, the mad mystery of rock ’n’ roll. Half the fun of listening at the crack of dawn to this hilarious, uplifting documentary (16 May, 4am) was hearing people trying to work out how on earth a human being like the late Little Richard came to be – sifting for clues through his youth and influences.
Singing as an exhibitionist child to his preacher father in 1930s Georgia, he imitated the women in the choir to perfect his signature yelp. Having joined a travelling circus as a teenager, he met the female impersonator Billy Wright – all make-up and choreography. He forced his own band to wear false eyelashes and to think of themselves as chorus girls. (“They hated it.”) This was Little Richard: ambitious, confident, staggeringly camp. (“Sing like Ray Charles? I refused.”)
In interviews, he is unstoppably amusing. (“My idol was Moses!”) Clips of him in original recording sessions defy aural logic. “You seem to be straining,” complains the studio manager for “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Little Richard coughs, affronted. Then gives forth a howl: rococo energy incarnate. You feel it in the back of your teeth. I used to think of Sam Cooke live at the Harlem Square Club as the benchmark for audiences wild with excitement (listen to it on YouTube), but one session band member turns up here and declares gigging with Cooke “boring”. Definitively, it was Little Richard who’d inspired a whole new level of chaos and glee and shock.
Or was it? The baffling history of music! Those early encounters with people such as Wright seem, to me, key. How close so much great rock (and early film) is to vaudeville and music hall. Chuck a brick out of the window in the US in the 1930s and you’d hit some original and strange entertainer who’d been touring since 1890 in perfume and greasepaint. Bob Dylan is always going on about Gorgeous George, the “Human Orchid” wrestler. Every time Little Richard opens his mouth, as much as a whole complex hinterland of gospel music you hear that particular American echo – of buffalo tamers and sawdust under the trapeze. Of clowns being carted off across the Great Plains to the barely controlled mayhem of the unsuspecting crowd…
Little Richard: A Whop Bop A Lua – A Whop Bam Boom
BBC Radio 2
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show