The Meistersinger of Macon
By Kirby, David
Ooh! My Soul “What are you doing in my cousin’s apartment?” asks Little Richard, and the answer is that I’ve come to Macon to write a travel piece for the Washington Post and also do research for a book on the Georgia Peach himself. Willie Ruth Howard is two years older than her celebrated relative, which makes her seventy-seven, and even though it’s a hot day, I’ve put on a sports coat and brought flowers, too, because I want her to think I’m a gentleman and not just a fan trying to hop aboard the singer’s coattails.
When the phone rings, she talks for a minute and says, “It’s him,” and “He wants to talk to you,” but before I can start telling Little Richard how the world changed for me when I turned on my little green plastic Westinghouse radio in 1955 and heard a voice say, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!” he says, “What are you doing in my cousin’s apartment?” and then “Uh-huh. Well, look around you. You can see that my cousin is very poor, can’t you?” and I’m thinking, well, she looks as though she’s doing okay to me, but who am I to disagree with Little Richard, so I say, “Sure-yeah!” and he says, “Well, then, what I want you to do is get out your checkbook and write her a check for five hundred dollahs!” and I’m thinking, Jeez, I brought her these flowers. . . .
When you call the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the first thing you hear is a familiar voice shouting, “Hi, this is Little Richard, the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, talking to you from my hometown of Macon, Georgia!”
And you think, architect? The word conjures up a larger world, that of Leonardo and Michelangelo, say, who were to Renaissance Florence what Little Richard, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers were to twentieth-century Macon, the one group making paintings and statues and cathedral domes just as the other made soul music, rock, and blues, each in a little, out-of-the-way town and at the same time.
Of the mastersingers who came out of Macon, Little Richard is the undisputed champ. In June, 2007, his 1955 single “Tutti Frutti” topped Mojo’s list of “ioo Records That Changed the World”; the magazine calls it “the biggest bang in the history of pop music.” That song also appeared on Here’s Little Richard (1957), the artist’s debut album and one which was ranked number 50 in 2003 on Roiling Stone’s top 500 greatest albums of all time.
Little Richard has been credited by James Brown, who called him his idol, with “first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.” Smokey Robinson said that Little Richard is responsible for “the start of that driving, funky, never-let-up rock ‘n’ roll.” Capricorn Records founder Phil Waiden said the “greatest rock and roll singer of all time, and the one who still possesses the truest, purest rock and roll voice, is Little Richard.” And Dick Clark proclaimed him “the model for almost every rock and roll performer of the ’505 and years thereafter.”
Truly global, Little Richard’s music electrified such figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “Little Richard sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Richardian.” And Thomas Mann wrote in a letter that “I am defenseless when it comes to Little Richard’s music,” adding that if he saw a performance of “Tutti Frutti,” he “wouldn’t be able to write a line for at least two weeks.”
Actually, Nietzsche and Mann were talking about another Richard, and if you substitute “Richard Wagner” for the name of the pop artist (and “Wagnerian” for “Richardian” as well as Parsifal for “Tutti Frutti”), you have their actual statements. The core idea is the same, though: unheralded, an artist appears who embodies the culture you thought you knew and expresses it better than anyone else, and, by doing so, he advances that culture to a new level. Not only that, he does so in a manner that transforms all cultures everywhere. It was Little Richard who gave Mann the phrase “world- conquering artistry” and led him to say, “Fifty years after the death of the master, the globe is ensconced in this music every evening”-whoops! I mean Richard Wagner gave Mann that phrase, not Little Richard! Still, fifty years after “Tutti Frutti” hit the airwaves, the music of Macon’s meistersinger rules the world.
Before he became the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard was readying himself to play that role. In Macon, it seems everybody has a story about Little Richard. For example, Tommy, a young health care administrator, told me his parents had gone to school with Little Richard and knew he was going to be an entertainer even then because, when the teacher left the room, the precociously outrageous Mr. Penniman would put the trash can on her desk, sit on it, and sing “Sitting on the slop pot, waiting for my bowels to move.” (Which, as Tommy sang it, sounded uncannily like Little Richard’s 1956 hit “Slippin’ and Slidin’.”)
And Willie Ruth Howard, Little Richard’s cousin, told me how the tot who would be the meistersinger beat out rhythms on every surface he could find, crooned Louis Jordan songs, and followed a musical vegetable vendor around the neighborhood as he sang about his wares; later, he would write “I Got It” about the little old man in a billy goat cart. Before he knew it, the Wagner of rock ‘n’ roll was preparing for stardom, scripting a role for himself and then, as the German composer never did, stepping into it.
He was in the right place to do just that. The history of America is that of scam artists, swindlers, posers, and other marginal figures. The country is even named after such a mountebank: a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review features a piece on Amerigo Vespucci, who bluffed his way into prominence; the pull quote reads “As it turns out, America-this nation of hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors-was named for the right guy.” There’s a direct lineage between Amerigo and the ventriloquists and con artists who are immortalized in the work of Charles Brockden Brown, Hawthorne, and Melville and who take the form, in the twentieth century, of Doctor Nobilio, the Macon “town prophet” and spiritualist Little Richard remembers from his boyhood, and the Doc Hudson whose medicine show the singer joined as a youth.
With teachers like these, it isn’t long before Little Richard is bedecking himself in pancake makeup, mascara, pomade, capes, and jewelry. With a tradition like this, it’s no surprise that the most important force in twentieth-century pop music is a gay black cripple (one of Richard’s legs is shorter than the other) from the wrong side of the tracks. The song “Heeby Jeebies” contains the line, “Bad luck baby put a jinx on me,” but in Little Richard’s world, a jinx just might be a good thing.
Keep A Knockin’
Little Richard first steps into a recording studio in 1951, when he is eighteen. He tries to imitate his idol, Billy Wright, but he lacks Wright’s dynamics, possibly because this is the first time he has sung without a live audience to give him the yells, whistles, and waves that drive his show forward. He produces one hit that sells well in Atlanta and Macon, a song called “Every Hour,” but in an occurrence that became commonplace in his early career, the song is re-recorded by Billy Wright himself as “Ev’ry Evening” and eclipses Little Richard’s version.
In 1952, Little Richard cuts four new tracks, but these, too, go nowhere. In 1953, again he cuts four tracks; not only do these tank as well, but in a clash over the singer’s swagger and attitude, Little Richard is beaten by Peacock Records owner Don Robey and suffers a hernia that won’t be repaired for years. In a later session, he cuts four new tracks for Peacock, but these are never even released.
Little Richard keeps a-knockin’ on the door of show biz success, however, and in 1955 sends Specialty Records a tape in a wrapper that producer Bumps Blackwell describes as “looking as though someone had eaten off of it.” The songs on the tape show promise, but probably Little Richard would never have recorded again had he not hounded the staffers at Specialty till they agreed to bring him into the studio for a final try.
This time, the persistence pays off.
I Got It
As James Brown and Smoky Robinson point out, Little Richard began with piano-driven rock; his boogie-woogie piano recalls the use to which that instrument was put in the big-band music of the 19405. To this melodic structure he adds the infectious beat of funk, defined by music historian Anne Danielsen as “bass-driven, percussive, polyrhythmic black dance music, with minimal melody and maximum syncopation.” Thus the vast musical potential of the piano is added to the funk that, as Danielsen says, is “a difficult thing to play properly, because it should in fact be played everything but properly.”
Indeed, the song that changed the music forever is a most improper song. The 1955 recording session with Bumps Blackwell at the helm has been productive but lackluster, though during a break, Little Richard begins to pound the piano and sing a paean to the joys of anal intercourse: “Tutti frutti / Good booty / If it don’t fit / Don’t force it / If you grease it / Make it easy,” and so on. The music is electric and the lyrics totally unacceptable, so Blackwell calls in songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie to write new ones. Little Richard is too embarrassed to sing the song to La Bostrie’s face, so he sings to the wall while she makes notes for the new lyrics. The musicians take a break, come back, and with Little Richard pounding the piano again, nail the song in three takes. It’s not always easy to see the seams in history, the rifts between what came before and what after. But this is such a seam. This is when, to paraphrase Keith Richards, a once monochrome world is filled with colors we’re still trying to find names for. And it takes a song as dangerous as “Tutti Frutti” to be that powerful: in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the young knight Walther is eventually successful in his quest to become a master singer but fails at first because his song is “too radical.”
All Around the World
Little Richard’s genius lies in his invention of an “improper” style that no other musician could counterfeit.
Not that they didn’t try. Little Richard’s raucous style, genderbending persona, and sexually suggestive lyrics were anathema to the authorities, which is why a number of his hits were tamed and reissued by white artists, notably (and laughably) Pat Boone, whose cover of “Tutti Frutti” actually outperformed the original, rising to #12 on the Bilboard charts as opposed to the source record’s #17. But when Boone released a bowdlerized version of “Long Tall Sally,” the Little Richard original outperformed it on the Billboard charts, #6 to #8. Bill Haley took on Little Richard’s third major hit, “Rip It Up,” but once again, the original version prevailed. All successful artists go through a period of educating their audiences and persuading them to accept a new art form, and Little Richard was no exception; with his succeeding releases, the master didn’t face the same chart competition from his pale imitators.
Of course, Little Richard’s best imitators learned everything they could from him and then developed their own music. Consider Otis Redding’s deliberate and repeated attempts to model himself after Little Richard or this description of the first appearance at Liverpool’s Cavern Club by four gangly and barely known young men: Beatles biographer Bob Spitz writes that “the audience stirred and half turned while [master of ceremonies] Bob Wooler crooned into an open mike: ‘And now, everybody, the band you’ve been waiting for. Direct from Hamburg-.’ But before he got their name out, Paul McCartney jumped the gun and, in a raw, shrill burst as the curtain swung open, hollered: I’m gonna tell Aunt Mary / ’bout Uncle John I he said he had the mis’ry / buthegottalotoffun. . . .”
The rest isn’t just Beatles history but the history of pop music the world over. To the south, in the London suburb of Bromley, David Bowie took note. Back in New Jersey, so did Bruce Springsteen. Up in Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman declared in his high school yearbook that his one ambition was to join Little Richard’s band. Rick James, Prince, Justin Timberlake: the line goes back to one man. To one song, really, to a bawdy shoutfest that was cleaned up in a New Orleans recording studio in 1955 and became the most influential song in the world. “Tutti Frutti” was a pebble in a pond; it shaped artists and albums, who then shaped artists and albums on their own. The influence hasn’t stopped, and it won’t.
Maybe I’m Right
The photographer Robert Doisneau, who chronicled life in Paris for a period of sixty years and whose best-known photo, “Kiss by the hotel de Ville,” has hung on thousands of dorm-room walls (and now web sites), once said, “The world I tried to show was a world I would feel good in, where people would be kind, where I would find the affection that I wanted for myself. My photos were a sort of proof that such a world could exist.”
And what is the equivalent world that Little Richard made? Wolfgang Schneider writes that Wagner’s music provided Thomas Mann’s characters with a “delighting adrenalin surge, holding the promise of flight and freedom” and quotes Mann’s secretary at Princeton as saying that, when the German novelist listened to Tristan and the Gotterdam’ , merung, “his face, normally so controlled, gradually lets go and becomes soft, mild, full of pain and joy.” A surge of pain and joy, the promise of flight and freedom: what better description is possible of the world of Little Richard?
But as it has been revealing to put the American master in the context of German culture, let us take that repositioning a little further, and here I turn to Mark Edmundson’s remarkable recreation of Anna Freud’s explanation of her father’s work to the Nazis when they questioned her in Vienna on March 22, 1938. “My father . . . knows you better than you know yourself,” Edmundson imagines her saying. “For years he has been writing about the hunger for the leader-your Hitler, your halfmonster, half-clown-and all the others who’ve come before and all who will come later in his image.” The father of psychoanalysis “understands how the leader brings oneness to a psyche-and a state-at odds with itself. He knows how the inner life is divided-ego battling id, prohibition battling desire, in incessant civil war-and how painful that division can be.” And then, as though she somehow knew about the six-year-old boy who was dancing and singing for pennies in Macon even as Nazi tanks rolled through Vienna, Edmundson’s Anna says that “the great man shows the people how to indulge their worst and most forbidden desires-and then to congratulate themselves for doing so. … Under the leader, inner conflict relaxes, people become unified. All of their energies flow in the same direction: They become intoxicated; get high, and stay that way.”
Half-monster, half-clown, a leader can bring people together in benign ways as well. The meistersinger of Macon, the Wagner of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard is an anti-Hitler who melts racial divisions and gets people of all kinds out onto the dance floor, jiving together.
A foxy warrior, Little Richard fought against what cultural theorist Joseph Roach calls “the staggering erasures required by the invention of whiteness.” Every song he sang and every show he performed was played out against the larger backdrop of American racism, in a world where Ed Sullivan presented Fats Domino at his piano but hid his band behind a curtain (presumably the trombone player stood well back) so white TV viewers wouldn’t have to deal with too many black faces at once, an act of “erasure” exceeded only by the 1954 CBS production of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that showed Huck alone on his raft, having excised the slave Jim, whose quest for freedom is the book’s driving force. You can gauge the relationship between the rise of civil rights and the success of “race music” simply by juxtaposing two newspaper headlines from the era: the one reads “SUPREME COURT OUTLAWS SEGREGATION” and the other “TEENAGERS DEMAND MUSIC WITH A BEAT, SPUR RHYTHM & BLUES.”
But it would be wrong to sanitize rock and make it a force for social good, to say, as Mavis Staples has, that “It’s all God’s music-the Devil ain’t got any music.” Rock does unlock the id. Writing of the effect of “Long Tall Sally” on the audience in the Cavern Club, Bob Spitz says “it was convulsive, ugly, frightening, and visceral in the way it touched off frenzy in the crowd.” The whole point of the song contest at the heart of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is for the young knight Walther to win the hand of the beautiful Eva, and how can a song work miracles if it isn’t magic?
By the time I got off the phone with Little Richard in Willie Ruth Howard’s apartment in Macon, I had agreed to give her, not the five hundred dollars he requested, but the ready cash I had in my wallet, which came to eighty-eight dollars: fittingly, the same number of dollars as there are keys on a boogie-woogie piano. She and I talked a while longer, and the next thing I knew, I was standing outside and wondering whether what I had experienced was a dream or something that had really happened.
That’s the way the music works, though.
Print sources for this essay include Rick Coleman’s Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock V Roll, Anne Danielsen’s Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament, Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, and, of course, Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard. Greil Marcus’ The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice helped shape my thinking throughout, and The MOJO story entitled “ioo Records That Changed the World” was of vital importance. Other important short works include Wolfgang Schneider’s “Mann and His Musical Demons” in Sign and Sight, Mark Edmundson’s “Freud and Anna” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s review of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America in the New York Times; these are all readily available on line, as are the appropriate web pages I used from both Wikipedia and Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews. The Mavis Staples quote is from “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” which aired on PBS stations in 2007.
And while it wasn’t a source of facts per se, throughout the writing of this essay I listened to the three-disc set called the Specialty Sessions, the many false starts and variations on which schooled me in the raw sounds that underlie Little Richard’s shrewd, tricksy arrangements. The section heads in this essay are titles of songs on the three-disc Specialty Records set that constitutes the greatest source of information about Little Richard’s early music, especially the 2:24 song that turned the world from one color to many.
David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University and the author most recently of The Ha-Ha. To hear his poem about Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” click the audio link on www.davidkirby.com. For an image of the statue, go to http://www.wga.hu/index.html.
Copyright Triquarterly 2008
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