The online tributes to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard are coming in fast and furious, as they should. Yes, he was an iconic American artist who influenced an entire generation of musicians; but he transcended the standards by which we measure things like stardom and success. For many of us too young to remember the 1950s, Little Richard has simply always been a part of the landscape, like stars in the sky. I will leave the scholarly analyses of his music to other writers; instead I’m reliving a true rock ‘n’ roll moment from Little Richard that I was able to experience firsthand (along with millions of TV viewers), three decades after he first exploded like a supernova onto the world stage.
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It was March 2, 1988. The 30th Annual Grammy Awards were being broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Album of the Year: U2’s The Joshua Tree.) Host Billy Crystal introduces two people to present the award for Best New Artist: Buster Poindexter (the freshly-minted jazz/lounge alter-ego of New York Dolls frontman David Johansen), and Little Richard. Pairing Richard and Poindexter was an inspired choice: both were known for over the top, larger than life stage personas. Poindexter’s eponymous debut album had been released a year earlier and was gaining momentum fueled by his ubiquitous “Hot Hot Hot” single.
Poindexter and Richard strolled across the Radio City Music Hall stage, each looking like the stars they were born to be: Poindexter sporting a mile-high pompadour hairstyle, and Richard in a resplendent gold tuxedo and dark glasses. As they reached the podium, there was the kind of awkward pause that can only happen on live TV before Richard gestured to Poindexter and said: “I used to wear my hair like that!” It was a lighthearted joke that got a decent laugh, but Richard followed it with a deeper remark: “Everything I get, they take it from me!”
You couldn’t argue with Richard whenever he loudly and spontaneously proclaimed himself “the king” or “the originator” of rock and roll; besides the fact that he was correct, these proclamations were always delivered with such grand, celebratory style and explosive power that was joyous to behold. Bass guitar legend Jaco Pastorius once said that “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up,” and anybody with two ears could tell you who the real King of Rock and Roll was.
After Richard engages in a few more unscripted seconds of hair-related banter, Poindexter is eager to get on with it. “Now?” he asks. Richard is having none of it: “Shut up,” he says. Finally, Poindexter announces the nominees (for historical context: Breakfast Club, Cutting Crew, Terence Trent D’Arby, Swing Out Sister, and Jody Watley). The camera returns to the podium for Richard to announce the winner: “And the best new artist is…” and without even opening the card he declares: “ME!”
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As the audience erupts in laughter and cheers, Richard wags a finger and starts to move away from the podium to admonish them. “I ain’t never received NOTHIN’, y’all never gave ME no Grammys, NOTHIN’! And I’m the architect of rock and roll! Y’all never gave me NOTHIN’!” As he shouts the words “architect of rock and roll,” the camera cuts to a wide shot of the packed auditorium jumping to its feet in uproarious praise. He continues over the road of the crowd: “And I am the originator…and I still say ‘Woooooo!’”
It shouldn’t look good on paper: a 55-year old singer who hadn’t been on the pop charts for years, going rogue during a live Grammy telecast. Today, they would have cut his mike and gone to commercial. But what makes this moment so entertaining is not just that it was clearly unplanned and unrehearsed, but that the director of the telecast is on point: it’s obvious that a generation raised on rock and roll was in charge of the media in 1988, and for a hot minute the “30th Annual Grammy Awards” became “The Little Richard Show.”
He finally opens the card to announce the winner, but he’s still not done. He laughs maniacally and shouts “The winner really is me!” As he cackles away from the podium, the camera continues to follow him in all of his shining, subversive glory. He shouts directly at the Radio City audience, off-mike and barely audible to the TV viewers, “I’m gonna scream like a white lady!” Poindexter helplessly tries to reel him in: “Richard…Richard?” “Shut up!” Richard says once more. When he finally announces the “real” winner, Richard shouts “JODY WATLEY!” with enough trademark grit and gusto to make her name sound like one of his own rock and roll classics.
The spirit of Rock and Roll is meant to shock, surprise, and inspire. But’s not enough to be disruptive and subversive for its own sake; you have to do it with style, and make the audience ultimately glad that you did. Little Richard could not help but be exactly who he was at all times; with no elaborate sets, no lights, no backup dancers, not even performing a damn song (!), Little Richard stole that show. When I watched it live I was a month away from my 16th birthday, my own musical aspirations well underway, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. But seeing it again three decades later gave me the same thrill. We all know that his legendary, trailblazing music will live forever, but I am blessed and fortunate to have felt a tiny bit of that man’s outrageous, dangerous magic in real-time. LONG LIVE THE KING!
Photo: Little Richard in 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)
THANK YOU for sharing this classic Little Richard experience! And yes, he was right-he deserved more from the academy than he ever got. He was a primal force in pop music that in some important ways nobody will ever match. I mean it. Listen to that voice in his hits like Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally–the whoops and the screams of unbridled joy and lust and power. Who can match it? Seriously–name one. James Brown comes close but Brown, another Georgian, rightfully looked up to Richard. The line goes through James to Hendrix to Prince–all geniuses, and better songwriters and musicians. But they can’t match what he does with that voice. The Beatles? McCartney can hit those notes, sure, and Lennon, in “Twist and Shout,” gets there once. But Richard *lives* there–he makes it seem like he’d have to restrain himself *not* to sound like unleashed animal libido turned up to 11. Jagger? Presley? Sorry, not even close. I mean, they can smoulder, they can leer–but Richard’s in-your-face siren blast was scary powerful on an entirely different level.
And some of Richard’s magnetism was also because of his clearly fluid sexuality. A drag performer before he was a rock star, he kept the eyeliner and androgynous flash throughout his career. I grew up when parents were freaked out by those young weirdos Alice Cooper and David Bowie and the way they blurred that line–particularly Bowie. But Richard was first, and where Bowie could strike a passive pose to engender (hah–no pun intended) attraction to his beauty, Richard looked and sounded like he may chase you down the street–whoever you were. Scary exciting! When 50s parents worried about the impending end of civilization through race-mixing and sexual abandon, this was Exhibit A. (Which, of course, adds to its charm.)
I first heard Little Richard’s hits through my steady diet of oldies radio (WHND, “Honey Radio” in Detroit)–back when that term meant 50s rather than 80s – 90s music. I particularly got a kick out of Long Tall Sally, which begins: “Gonna tell Aunt Mary ’bout Uncle John / He claim he has the misery but he’s havin’ a lot of fun–!” and continues, “Well, I saw Uncle John with bald-head Sally / He saw Aunt Mary comin’ and he ducked back in the alley–!” This was endlessly hilarious to me because I actually did have an Aunt Mary and Uncle John who were married to each other. And my staid, square Uncle John was very far indeed from being someone getting some side action from Sally, however “built for speed” she may have been. I came to love all of the early rockers–Chuck Berry for those great regular-guy songs and the classic guitar sound, Jerry Lee Lewis for his fire, Buddy Holly for his songs and as a role-model of a bespectacled geek who nonetheless put it all out there. And Richard, who did this one thing, a thing you don’t want to listen too every minute but that has undeniable power, and that he does better than anyone else, before or since. RIP. Again, thanks for the smile of the day.
Great story. Thanks for writing that. He was one of my role models as a performer and band leader.