Suppose a notorious prostitute gave up her profession, joined a church, went to seminary, became a preacher, established a church, built up it’s membership so that it was able to build a lovely new sanctuary, and then retired. And suppose that after her retirement, a large group of former customers decided to give her an award for being the best prostitute in the business.
She would refuse, right? She would prefer that people not even know about her past, but if they did, she would certainly renounce it. She would publicly return all the money she earned from prostitution to a charity for unwed mothers (or something).
Suppose it was discovered that she financed her new church sanctuary with money she had earned as a prostitute?
Suppose that hundreds of young women read books and articles about her early career and announced that they wanted more than anything to become great prostitutes.
Yes, a very weird story, isn’t it? It is the story of Little Richard. Yes it is.
Let me make absolutely career: Little Richard’s rock’n’roll career was not in any manner really prostitution or like prostitution. I am saying that Little Richard himself, by his own standards as a Christian preacher, came to regard it as such. Insofar as it goes…
Little Richard was perhaps the greatest genius of the early rock’n’roll era. If you have never seen a good video of one of his early performances– and I don’t mean just a clip– you must see it. He is utterly remarkable. Here’s another. And another. He was a whirling dervish of dance and vocals and whoops and hollers and piano, and absolutely mesmerizing. He excited people so much they sometimes broke into a riot.
Watch Paul McCartney sing for the Beatles in the early years. You are watching Little Richard. Watch Mick Jagger, Elvis, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna– all owe an enormous debt to the original, Little Richard. Even Bob Dylan, someone you would not immediately think of as influenced by Little Richard, listed, in his high school year book, the ambition of joining Little Richard’s band.
And then Little Richard got religion.
Little Richard, who had been brought up in the church, of course, always believed in scripture, in Jesus, in the Ten Commandments and the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t care at first. He was flamboyant, charismatic, and absolutely homosexual. He lived the way he wanted. But in the early 1960’s, he embraced the religion of his upbringing and repudiated rock’n’roll. He refused to sing any of his hits. He sang gospel tunes, spirituals. Sometimes he would spice them up with a performance that suggested if not replicated his early career, but mostly he stood on stage in a suit and sang into a microphone while barely moving his body.
He says he gave up homosexual relationships. I’m not sure I believe him. He was still surrounded by gay men at times. It’s very hard to tell because Little Richard was not known for his honesty or candor when it came to his personal history.
The point is, Little Richard believed that his early career was a sinful expression of a sinful lifestyle– like the prostitute in my fable above. He begged God to forgive him. He tried to go straight and reform.
As the documentary, “Little Richard: I am Everything” makes clear, unlike the prostitute of my fable, he wants it both ways. He demands recognition for the very things he repudiated in his later life. He demands honors and money for behaviors he now condemns, in his earlier self, and, by implication if not directly, in others.
He complains bitterly about not being paid for his sinful expressions.
I found the last half hour of the documentary a bit offensive because of that. That, and the the rather clumsy attempt to blame everything that was denied to Little Richard on homophobia, as if the Beatles, and Elvis, and Tom Petty, and Joni Mitchell, and everyone else go their due, except for poor old gay, black Little Richard. It’s simply not true. Little Richard did not get compensated fairly for his work because the music industry systematically rips off every young artist whatever their color, religion, or sexual orientation.
Do you think there’s a whole lot of straight male artists out there who were paid fairly and who feel that the industry treated them well? Or contemporary female country artists?
Leonard Cohen, incidentally, did the smart thing and retained control of his publishing rights… until his agent talked him into selling the entire catalogue to Sony Music and then pilfered the money forcing him to resume touring again.
And on Excessive Demands from Copyright Owners
On How the Music Industry Brilliantly Extended Ripping off the Artist into the Napster Era
On Ani Di Franco’s lovely resistance.
On the unfortunate delusion embraced by Little Richard’s that authentic sexuality is in conflict with his religious faith and Jesus would never love him as the gay man that he is and always will be.