Little Richard’s Legacy and Influence

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Little Richard’s Legacy and Influence

It would take a real musicologist to tease out precisely what Elvis Presley and The Beatles took from Little Richard, what they co-opted and got rich off, what in turn influenced decades of rock music. It would take an expert to tell you which exact chord progressions and vocal inflections were his, which elements of performance that feel like they have existed forever can be traced directly back to him. But as a music fan, I’m going to round it up to “everything.”

I’m in my forties now, so for my whole life, Little Richard has been a rock legend and a character in pretty much equal measure. He’d show up in a Grammy montage of iconic rock and roll moments alongside Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, sure, but he’d also be on Hollywood Squares with Martin Mull and Anna Nicole Smith. He’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and on the Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. He’s the single greatest innovator in rock music history, and Denise’s uncle on Full House. In the pantheon, and on the Geico commercial. Those of us who weren’t alive to see him in the 1950s and ‘60s are as likely to remember his persona as his music. Maybe more.

What it took me years to figure out is that the persona, the humor and exuberance, were a reaction to what they took from him. To make himself a little bit of a character was the only way for Little Richard to be seen and heard in a world he’d influenced so fundamentally that it took him completely for granted.

Look at this moment from the 1988 Grammy Awards.

I remember watching this live and thinking he was milking the bit just a beat too long. I see it now, and it’s not a bit at all. He’s 30 years into his career, without a single Grammy to his name, and there’s a 20 percent chance he’s about to give the Best New Artist award to the fucking Breakfast Club. He’s next to a guy who stole his hairstyle, in an auditorium full of artists across at least three separate genres of music that bear his imprint, and he knows what they all don’t: that he’s never gotten his due. There is rage just under the surface, it’s real, and it’s justified. But anger wasn’t going to cut it, not in the conservative ‘80s, not from a black man. He couched his exasperation in humor, but many a truth is told in jest. He built that house.

You should also watch every second of this 1972 BBC interview.

You heard him right: Pat Boone sold more copies of “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard did. (For those younger than me, this is like Jojo Siwa doing a version of “Formation” that outsells Beyonce’s.) The interviewer—as dazed and confused as you—asks whether that bothers him, and his response is heartbreaking: “It made me feel good! They opened a door that was locked and I couldn’t get in, and I wrote it.” The disrespect runs deep; he got none in 1957, he still gets none in 1972 when he has to inform a BBC personality that he gave The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix their early breaks—and he knows he has to address the whole thing with a light touch. He’s arguing for his legacy, even as he turns the whole interview into a wrestling promo by the end. A delicate dance he was never allowed to stop doing.

It is possible to understand his impact on the world, but unless you were there, it’s difficult to feel it. We can’t know a world before Little Richard, what seeing him perform for the first time must have felt like, any more than we can know a world before the wheel. His influence is so vast that trying to pin it down is like watching one of those educational films that asks you to imagine a world without carbon. He was not instrumental in rock and roll, he was rock and roll.

And just in case you forgot it, which too many did, he stayed larger than life to remind you.

Also, he was on Baywatch.

Editor-at-Large
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.

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