The stupid but true thing to start off with is there was nothing “little” about him.
I was born in 1987, a year after Richard Penniman was officially canonized as one of rock and roll’s true pioneers, inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From that point through the early ’90s, he got to enjoy some unlikely fruits of becoming an elder statesman that aren’t typically afforded to many at this stage in their careers. In 1986, his song “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” from the soundtrack to Down and Out In Beverly Hills, scraped the upper half of the Billboard Hot 100. In 1992, he released Shake It All About, an album of literal children’s songs (“The Hokey Pokey,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”) for Walt Disney Records. Two years later, he sang the theme song for the educational cartoon The Magic School Bus, based on a children’s book series of the same name.
This is the sort of stuff that goes at the end of an obituary, particularly when your career is punctuated by fiery, foundational sides like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Keep-a-Knockin’,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and others, breaking free from the walled garden of Billboard‘s rhythm and blues charts and crossing over into the pop survey so easily that scared record men assigned Pat Boone to cover them and out-chart these unbridled sides. Recording “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for five-year-olds, on its face, pales in comparison to dressing up in distinctive clothes and a gravity-defying pompadour, riling up black and white audiences (often together) with the very foundation of what we now know as rock and roll.
But that last third of Little Richard’s career was as sneakily subversive as the rest. When you bridge the gap between sacred and secular as strikingly as he did, walking away from R&B for stirring gospel several times in his career, becoming a celebrity minister seems like a farce. If you came to Europe as a conquering hero (letting an up-and-coming Liverpool quartet in on some of your secrets), competing on Wheel Of Fortune looks like a bit of a comedown. And when you invite future legends like Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston into the same session, appearing in Geico ads should be an aberration. But here is the truth: almost no one could do both so effortlessly.
And by doing the schlock as much as the successes, he left a sneaky trail of breadcrumbs for the sharpest ears to discover. Those who heard the grace notes and vocal hiccups of the man singing about the bus that does science experiments could ask around and discover the man who made sensuous, shocking pop music that built a foundation for generations to come. The best part was, of course, that the same man did both.
To interpolate a favorite single of his, Little Richard can’t help it. And may we all remember that we are the better for it.