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The Originator At 73

"Do you know who I am? I am Little Richard!"

I overheard that shouted to a clerk at the US passport office on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, Jan. 17, 1996. That's the closest I've gotten to rock's true royalty. The Originator was about 30 feet away from me, decked out in a shiny black suit with gold trim, hair did and make-up applied. It was 7 a.m. and he was reading someone the riot act over a passport issue like they had taken away his name. And at 6' he was definitely not that little.

Less than a year earlier, I had the opportunity to be in the audience for the American Music Awards at the Shrine. In a 40 year salute to Rock & Roll, Little Richard backed by the reunited Go-Go's opened the show with a ripping version of Tutti Frutti. And that's the only other time I've seen him perform.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Penniman! We'd be living in nowheresville, population us, without you. His early publicity noted that was he was born on 12:01 am Christmas Day, 1935. A not so subtle flash of self-aggrandizement. But, the truth is out that Richard Penniman was born on Dec. 5, 1932.

Little Richard is everything he claims to be and more. The Originator, the Emancipator, the Architect of Rock & Roll. It's true. No musician has ever matched his energy or outrageousness on stage or record (or in their personal life). Oh, some have tried and come close. But they owe everything to Richard. Most of my favorite artists are directly descended from Little Richard's 78's for Specialty Records. His heyday was brief, less than 2 years between 1956-1958. But he built the bedrock for all that followed. Prince, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Mick Jagger & Elton John all built on what Richard started. James Brown followed in the Georgia Peach's footsteps. Elvis and everyone else covered his hits or tried. Jimi Hendrix was a backup musician for Little Richard in the '60's. The Beatles opened for him on tours in the UK and copied his trademark "Whooo!" for their biggest British Invasion hits. That's how huge Richard's scope is in the history of pop music. Now, artists like Andre 3000 and myself carry Richard's banner.

Arguments that anyone else made Rock & Roll what became fall flat. Nothing touches Tutti Frutti for pure attitude and spirit. The opening line is still the most singular in pop music. Everyone knows it, even if you don't know the rest of the song (but, you do). That is the big bang of popular music. There were Rock & Roll recordings that preceded it, but that was like the energy gravitating toward that moment that it would explode forth as "Womp Bop A Loo Mamb A Lop Bomp Bomp!" It's hard to hear the song now and contemplate its power, without thinking about all that has come after it. Copied it, exploited it, lampooned it, watered it down. My friend Bob says that Richard outlived his legend and became parody. Possibly. Eddie Murphy's hilarious spoofs of Richard in the 80's didn't help. But listen to those Specialty sides and you'll hear everything you ever needed to know about Rock & Roll. [Most of those records were cut in New Orleans with the most ferocious and famous session players of the day. Again, underscoring the importance of the Crescent City's impact on our cultural history]

Hits like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, Lucille and Good Golly, Miss Molly are essential to any musical collection or any discussion of what popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries is about. Naturally, Richard was in the inaugural class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What do I take from his music, his statements? Be bold. Look good. Let your self burst forth on stage and in life. And don't knock the rock! I'm forever indebted to Little Richard.

So, Little Richard is 73 today. I would love to actually meet him someday. I hear his performances, though rare, are still potent. Filled with humor, self-righteousness and awesome tunes. That's Rock & Roll! Long live King Richard.
Ooh, my soul!

Love, Power, Peace.


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