Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Little Richard, Live in Alexandria

We did something fun last night, went down to the Birchmere to see Little Richard. The guy is seventy-six years old now, comes out in a wheelchair, but man, he's still got it.

Little Richard really was one of the originators of rock and roll, it's crazy to imagine him playing in England with the Beatles as his opening act, or touring with the unknown Rolling Stones. His guitar player, later known as Jimi Hendrix, once said, "I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice." Last night at the Birchmere Richard was all personality, the true diva of rock and roll, dripping with rhinestones, sitting at his piano with a big box of tissues, which he would frequently use to wipe his face. When someone in the audience would shout out something, he'd turn to them and say, "Shut up." Because he can.

Little Richard's roots are in gospel music. His first public performance was singing with Sister Rosetta Tharp in 1945, and even last night he threw a few gospel songs into the act, and preached quite a bit. At one point he talked about his peers who have passed on, noting that you can't ask why God takes someone when He does: "You don't put a question mark where God has put a period." A lady in the audience shouted out, "Ain't nothing you can do about it nohow," to which Little Richard responded, "Shut up."

Where some of the pioneers of rock and roll burned out or were hounded out of the music business, Little Richard dropped out at the peak of his career, in 1957, to become an evangelist. For several years he recorded nothing but gospel music, considering rock and roll to be the devil's music. As he once said, "If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody."

His onstage persona is a perfect mix of magnified paradoxes. He wore a fake-looking toupee and eye makeup, still has that pencil-thin mustache and primps and fusses like a princess while he's performing. At times he would turn to the band and say, "Watch me!" It wasn't that they weren't paying attention, or that he was going to give a cue, it appeared that he simply wants people to watch him. At the same time, he would say, between songs, something like, "I sure love each one of you, men and women alike, and I hope you love me," humble and heartfelt as can be.

Little Richard played some songs last night with a sense of boredom. He started with "Good Golly Miss Molly" but never did sing any of the verses, just the chorus over and over again, sort of mumbling it. He got the crowd whipped up, ready for "Tutti Frutti," and then had one of the horn players sing it. Oh, he finally finished the piece, but he seemed somewhat bored with the song. On the other hand, some of them, for instance "Lucille," simply kicked butt. He had a big band with four horns, his son on bass and a guy whose job was to stand in the back and dance, and when they got into a groove it was a powerful sound. You could see Little Richard enjoying that big sound, working out on the high notes of the piano over the guitar solos, calling on the sax players to "play one more." Or he would sing a phrase and wave his hand to stop the band, and say, "That sounds pretty good," and sing the phrase again, giving it one of his trademark embellishments, pausing to admire the sound of his own voice, then start it up again on the piano, with the band following.

I think the high point of the night for me was "Directly From My Heart To You." Somewhere in a box I bet I still have the Specialty Records LP with that song on it, and I loved the whole album, especially the soulful ballads. This particular song started with a slow, funky blues groove, he had the band riff through the twelve bar verse twice before he came in singing, and his voice was fluid and clear, you really did know you were in the presence of a special talent. I'd link you to that song but can't find his version on YouTube, it was never a big hit but last night it was just perfect.

Local piano player Daryl Davis opened for him with a half hour of rousing boogie-woogie and blues, and he introduced Little Richard, who he has performed with in the past. He noted that Little Richard, more than anyone, was responsible for knocking down the barrier between the races, attracting a biracial audience from the very beginning (the audience last night was, I'd say, eighty percent white).

Daryl Davis himself is an extraordinarily unique character. Here, watch this Paula Zahn segment on him. Davis is a black man, a Silver Spring resident who has befriended a number of members of the Ku Klux Klan, with the idea that it will be harder to hate him if they know him. It just takes a huge amount of courage, it seems to me, but this affable pianist seems unperturbed, he would be a good guy to hang out with, I'll bet.

One thing that struck me last night was the influence of country music on these two black roots artists. Little Richard did two Hank Williams songs in his set, and Daryl Davis did something pointed, I thought. He was singing a Jimmy Reed blues standard, and in the middle of it he stuck a verse of Merle Haggard's. Also, while his set was basically a tribute to classic blues and boogie artists, he did Mickey Gilley's "The Power of Positive Drinkin'," which is about as country as you can get. You often think of rock and roll as originating when white artists started performing rhythm and blues music, but really, it went both ways, a divided country coming together with one big backbeat.


Anonymous deluxe said...


"man, he's still got it"

I second that emotion

Little Richard was always the wildest of the original rock 'n rollers

go see him before it's too late

October 20, 2009 2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is an ironic twist

because the Episcopal Church has begun to allow gay priests, hordes are deserting to other deniminations

the Vatican announced new protocals today for smoothing the conversion to the Roman Catholic church

for years, any Protestant clergy who converts to Catholicism has been allowed to remain married

today's move, to attract former Episcopal priests will result in a dramatic increase in the number of married Catholic priests

this will eventually lead to the inevitable question: why can't all priests marry?

which will lead to the end of the leading gay employer, the celibate Catholic priesthood

"(Oct. 20) -- The number of married Catholic priests could grow sharply as the result of the Vatican's epochal decision to welcome thousands of disaffected Anglicans and Episcopalians into the Catholic Church.

At press conferences in Rome and London on Tuesday, Vatican officials announced that the Church would set up a special canonical structure that will ease the conversion of members of the Anglican Communion without them having to give up what the Vatican called "the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony." That means not only a body of prayers and hymns, but also a tradition of married priests and bishops.

"It's a stunning turn of events," says Lawrence Cunningham, theology professor at Notre Dame University. "This decision will allow for many more married clergy in Western churches, and that's going to raise anew the question, 'If they can do it, why can't the priests of Rome?,'" says Cunningham.

The move comes amidst discord within the Anglican Communion, which unites 77 million Anglicans and Episcopalians under the loose authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The church has been racked by schisms over its stance towards homosexuality.
For many traditional Anglicans, known in the U.S. as Episcopalians, the last straw was the 2003 election of openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. In protest, many have broken links with the Episcopal Church and declared themselves loyal to conservative Anglican bishops in Africa or South America. One group of such dissidents said today, "This move by the Catholic Church recognizes the reality of the divide within the Anglican Communion and affirms the decision to create a new North American province that embraces biblical truth."

The news is likely to have a particularly strong effect in Great Britain, where there has been a tendency for years for members of the nominally Anglican majority to join the Catholic Church, from 19th century theologian John Cardinal Newman, poet T.S. Eliot, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Two prominent priests who publicly broke from Anglicanism stated today that after this ruling from Rome, some Anglicans "will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.""

October 20, 2009 4:56 PM  

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