At one point in his career Little Richard, who died last weekend, was so famous he thought he might be killed.
“I was afraid to go outside,” he said. “I was scared someone would shoot me.”
In the mid-1950s, there were certain risks associated with being a black rock-and-roll superstar, although “rock and roll” and “superstar” were not yet words in everyone’s vocabulary.
In part, it was this fear that led to his retirement in 1957, following a two-year string of hits including, “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille” and more.
The movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) featured Little Richard’s vocals on the title song with Jayne Mansfield in the titular role.
How could he leave it all behind? I asked him in 1984. At the time, I was a reporter on the pop culture beat with the Baltimore Sun. He was a music legend in Washington, D.C., promoting a book, The Life and Times of Little Richard, by British journalist Charles White.
“A-hum, yes. I was the king,” he said.
The turning point came when he was flying on tour in Australia. His plane was having engine trouble, and he had a vision of the world coming to an end. He even saw a red light streaking across the sky, thinking it was a sign from heaven.
Actually, it was Sputnik, the first earth satellite launched a few days earlier by the Russians. Just the same, the message was clear: It was time to clean up his act and get right with God.
Richard Wayne Penniman, who was washing dishes for a living in the Macon, Georgia Greyhound station only a few years earlier, stopped being Little Richard and enrolled in a Bible college.
He realized later it was an urge to reform his life, but it would take several more retirements before the process was finally complete.
“I’m a minister now in the Remnant Church of God,” he said, suddenly sounding like a down-home preacher. “We are a Ten Commandments-keepin’ church. Yes, we are.”
At the height of his fame in the ’50s, keeping the Ten Commandments was the last thing on Little Richard’s mind.
“Oh, Lord, when I think of some of the things I did, it scares me to death. I couldn’t go through that again. I just couldn’t . . . I did everything from marijuana to angel dust and coke to heroin . . . I’ve had everything the gay world and the straight world had to offer. I’ve had smorgasbords and short orders, I’ve had my dinner served, so to speak.”
But along with the urge to reform he got the urge to entertain again. Maybe there was a way he could do both.
A European tour in the early 1960s was a major success. The Beatles opened for him in Britain and Sweden. Between shows he taught Paul McCartney and George Harrison how to do his trademark high-pitched scream, which they used on one of the Beatles’ first big hits, “She Loves You.”
Then came guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. After being tossed out of the Army paratroopers, he was hired by Little Richard to play in his backup band.
Rock-and-roll revival concerts in the 1970s and ’80s rejuvenated his waning career and finally provided him with the money he never saw during his heyday.
He didn’t get a penny in the early years, he claimed. Not even from “Tutti Frutti,” which he wrote and recorded in 1955, the song that made him a household name in every household with teenagers.
“The first thing I’d do if I was in the singing business today is get a CPA to take care of my money.”
Little Richard’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1986, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected him, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly among others as its first inductees, in effect the founding fathers of rock and roll.
After that, movie parts were offered and Little Richard was suddenly in demand to promote everything from children’s television to Wrestlemania.
More honors came: induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, then the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. The Library of Congress included “Tutti Frutti” in the Library’s National Recording Registry, saying “the unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.”
Rolling Stone magazine praised the song’s opening line as “the most inspired rock lyric on record.”
I’d always been unsure what that line was so I asked the man who wrote it back in his dishwashing days. There are several versions, he said, but “the most respectable one” goes: “Wop bop ba luma ba lop bam boom.”
By 2012, on his last visit to Washington, Little Richard had managed to merge a rock-and-roll revival with a real revival, which made many of his final stage shows as much about the hereafter as they were about golden oldies.
“The world is getting close to the end,” he told the crowd at Washington’s Howard Theater. “Get close to the Lord.”
Then he launched into his classic “Lucille” and sang other hits before finishing with “Tutti Frutti.” To loud applause, he thanked everyone for coming and declared: “I am the architect of rock and roll.”
The architect has left the building.