Little Richard, flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dead at 87

FILE - In this July 22, 2001 file photo, Little Richard performs at the 93rd birthday and 88th year in show business gala celebration for Milton Berle, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died Saturday, May 9, 2020.

What are your earliest musical memories?

I'm sure for some it may be songs learned in church or during early school days. Maybe it's songs gently sang by a parent or other caregiver.

Perhaps it's the theme of a favorite television show, or a tune learned from playmates.

For me, it's the music of Little Richard and Elvis Presley.

My earliest musical memories date back to songs I heard when I was just a tyke — when my then-teenaged aunt Dee Anna Smith liked to have sit me down beside her on the floor. She made me her audience while she played disc jockey and spun her favorite 45 rpm platters on her small, portable record player.

She really liked the early rock 'n' rollers. Living the rural life in Adamson, she had amassed a small stack of treasured 45s.

I not only remember how the songs sounded as she spun the grooves — I also remember how some of the records looked.

I felt fascinated by her Elvis Presley records, and not only because of his explosive music. I also liked the picture of a white dog with dark ears looking into a Victrola on the record label.

Adding to the mystique, the Elvis record she usually played was called "Hound Dog." Gee. I wondered, was the dog Elvis sang about the same dog pictured on the record label? Elvis sang "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog" — but the canine on the record label looked more like a terrier to me.

Years later I would learn the image on the record had been that of a terrier-mix, a real dog, named Nipper, who became the mascot for RCA records.

From what I could tell, there was only one other recording artist who my teenaged aunt held in as high esteem as Elvis. His records were on the Specialty label. Even though I was still too young to read, I quickly learned to recognize Specialty records, due to the label's distinctive yellow, black and white coloring.

When she placed the record on the turntable, an excited, frenetic voice blasted from the grooves, causing me to jump while sitting down (It can be done)!

Heck, there wasn't even a musical intro — just a few hisses and pops as the needle touched the often-played vinyl record, then the husky voice of Little Richard exclaiming "I'm gonna tell Aunt Mary, about Uncle John. He said he has the misery but he has a lot of fun!" Some of his sounds I couldn't even translate into words, such as the falsetto (Woh-oh-oh-oh baby, gonna have some fun tonight!"

Wow! I thought it will be cool to become a grownup so I can have some fun tonight too! I wondered what sort of fun Little Richard was singing about? From the excitement in his voice, I figured it must be pretty great!

"Long Tall Sally" wasn't the only Little Richard record my aunt owned. She also had "Tutti Fruitti" and "Good Golly Miss Molly"

Years later, much would be written by music historians about how major record companies would put out versions of early rock 'n' roll or rhythm and blues songs by artists such as Pat Boone to supposedly make the original recordings more palatable to mainstream markets.

I don't know who bought Pat Boone's version of "Long Tall Sally" — but it sure wasn't my aunt Dee. She wanted the real deal, so she got Little Richard.

Little Richard and Elvis not only expanded my musical horizons. They helped with my vocabulary too. The flip side of "Hound Dog" had another great Elvis song, "Don't Be Cruel." My young ears had never heard the word "cruel" before, leading me to ask what it meant.

Little Richard expanded my vocabulary too. In fact, he taught me one of the first "big" words I ever learned:

"A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-ba-lop-bam-boom!"

Hearing the music of Little Richard for almost as long as I can remember, is among the reasons I felt so sad when I learned he died on May 9, at the age of 87, while living with his brother in Nashville.

He endured far beyond his years as a 1950s rock 'n' roller — as I was recently reminded.

When I got home the other day my teenaged daughter, Shera, asked me if I'd heard Little Richard had passed away. My daughters are familiar with some of my favorite artists  — but I didn't know he was on her radar.

I asked how she knew of Little Richard.

"He came on 'Full House,'" she reminded me  — and I instantly remembered the episode when Little Richard and his band guested on the popular sitcom.

During the past week, there have been many tributes posted about Little Richard's kindness — including one from film director Ava DuVernay, who tweeted about how he used to leave her a generous tip while she worked as a waitress in Los Angeles while attending college.

"He tipped me a crisp $100 bill each week on a $75 breakfast with friends," she tweeted. "This was 30 years ago. Helped me so much. God rest his soul."

Her story about Little Richard's generosity did not surprise me, though. I'd already heard it.

Little Richard once played at the legendary Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. Unfortunately, I had to miss the concert. I did go to Tulsa the very next day to pick my mother up at the airport. My mom was a friendly person and she later told me she enjoyed talking with the porter who helped her with her luggage after her flight landed at Tulsa International Airport.

She related how the porter told her her he'd just helped carry the luggage for Little Richard himself as the famed rock 'n' roller caught a flight from Tulsa following his concert at the Cain's.

My mom recalled how the porter told her about his surprise when Little Richard handed him a tip for his assistance. Why was he surprised, I asked?

"It was a $100 bill," she said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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