RIP Little Richard (1932-2020)

3rd November 2023 · 1950s, 1956, 2020, 2020s, 2020s, Rock'n'Roll

Little Richard was not just one of the formative figures in the birth of rock’n’roll but an influence on those to follow. Even if he did ‘borrow’ his own sound and look from a little known predecessor.

Back in the Nineties, when I worked on the Evening Standard, I was invited to a ‘press conference’ by Little Richard at Ronnie Scott’s.

A few news hacks turned up, hoping for some sort of major announcement (a new stage musical, perhaps), only to find themselves at a run-of-the-mill record launch from a guy most of them had never heard of, dressed up as something more important.

The Fleet Street boys quickly lost interest but some, searching for a line, fired a few questions at the pompadoured pop star, who was sitting at a piano dressed in all his stage regalia, looking a little out of place in the darkness of a daytime jazz club.

Someone came up with the bright idea of asking him what he thought of (pre-paedo) Michael Jackson and Little Richard sat there looking bemused. “Michael who?” he asked. “Michael Jackson,” the journalist said again. “Michael who?” repeated Little Richard.

If a man can raise an eyebrow sarcastically, then that’s what he did as he repeated, with a wink and a smile, gesturing at the extravagant tunic he was wearing: “Michael who?”

He chuckled to himself as the journos began to twig. One of them inquired; “What about Prince?” – the purple one being in his pomp at that time. “Listen,” said Little Richard. “I was doing that before those boys were BORN.”

He made a good point – even if, as my friend Jeremy Simmonds points out, he appears to have liberally borrowed from a little-known RnB pianist called Esquerita (aka The Magnificent Malochi; real name Eskew Reeder Jr) for his own image and style.

And then, as the hacks wandered back to their offices, leaving only the determined freeloaders (me and a handful of others – were you there Dominic Mohan?) to avail themselves of the free refreshments, he looked down at the keyboard and asked: “Y’all wanna hear some music?”

In front of about half a dozen of us, he began to play a selection of rolling instrumental boogie-woogie blues tunes on the piano for the next 20 minutes or so. It was absolutely spellbinding. Even more spellbinding than when I later saw him perform from the best seat in the house – front row centre aisle – at Wembley Arena.

RIP Richard Penniman