In this segment from WHYY’s Fresh Air program, rock historian Ed Ward discusses the brief period of Little Richard’s career in which he sang gospel music. It wasn’t as informative as I’d hoped, but it did make me want to find out more about the Pompadoured One, whose real name is Richard Wayne Penniman.
This 2000 article from the Chicago Sun-Times is a start. Dave Hoekstra reports that Mahalia Jackson was a major influence on Penniman, and that he was ordained as a Seventh-Day Adventist minister at Alabama’s Oakwood Theological College (also the alma mater of several members of Take 6). He’s also mused aloud about eventually doing an all-gospel show.
“Nearly all of Penniman’s dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel. The architect of rock’n’roll mixed that ministry. . .with theatrics he learned from the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon [Georgia]. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.”
This is intriguing—a mixture of gospel, medicine and theater. Music, medicine and theater. It would be interesting to explore the interaction between these three elements that is present in gospel music, gospel concerts, and different forms of worship. Perhaps I shall in a later post. Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom!
Penniman also credits his piano style to Esquerita, a pianist he met while traveling with a preacher, and Brother Joe May, a Missouri-based gospel music singer.
Has anyone seen The Little Richard Story, the biopic mentioned in the article? Are there any good biographies that really explore Penniman’s life and the tensions he felt between his faith, homosexuality and his love for both gospel and rock’n’roll?
A couple of other Little Richard links:
An Encyclopedia Encarta article, which notes that Penniman’s father was a Seventh Day Adventist, a bartender and a bootlegger. (?!)
Some of the information on this website conflicts with that in the encyclopedia entry, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m curious about whether his R&B track “Ain’t That Good News” was a spoof on the spiritual “Ain’t ‘a That Good News.”
Listen to Penniman sing gospel on Little Richard Sings the Gospel, Pure Faith and It’s Real.