No Prince Without the King
No Prince Without the King
As he himself would have been the first to say, everything began with Little Richard — not just rock ’n’ roll but gender bending as showmanship, self-mythology as an art form, drag in the middle of Main Street.
And while much of what the man born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., laid claim to had roots deep in African-American culture, his genius was to position himself like a throw-down ball queen decimating the competition as he played the dozens, positioning himself as the originator, the basis of all the begats.
He was too much; no one ever said different. Even his too-muchness, though, had its source in a rich and vivid queer identity he alternately skirted, trumpeted and refuted but could never successfully efface. It is there in the music, of course, but also in a personal presentation only marginally less startling and radical today than it would have been in the repressive and homophobic America of the 1950s.
“There would be no Prince without the King,” the costume designer Arianne Phillips wrote in an Instagram post last weekend after Little Richard died at age 87. It included an indelible black-and-white image of Little Richard wearing a fringed jumpsuit, his arms upraised in the posture of an evangelical preacher, his eyes rimmed in kohl, his hair a bouffant nimbus, his mustache penciled on above a rouged mouth set in a provocative moue.
Without the man Mick Jagger called the King, there would likely have been no Mr. Jagger himself, made up and prancing onstage in skintight jumpsuits, or any of the other musicians whose assaults on gender did not — let’s face it — come out of nowhere. There would have been no Elton John, queening in front of millions, or David Bowie, who freely credited Little Richard’s inspiration.
There would be no Madonna who, in appropriating vogueing was also inadvertently paying homage to a lineage of drag and trans and queer people whose otherness could not be wiped off like greasepaint when the curtain came down. The sturdiness of the chain of inspiration Little Richard embodied can still be seen in the transgressive work of performers like Janelle Monáe, H.E.R. and Tyler the Creator.
Given how improbable it was that the raw and unconstrained talents of a sexually uncategorizable (though essentially queer) black man with one leg shorter and one eye larger than the other would come to be positioned at the center of 20th-century culture, what seems miraculous is that Little Richard happened at all.
Who could have predicted the mainstream ascent of a sometime drag performer who, before his first hit record, worked as a dishwasher at bus station slop joint in the Jim Crow South? How, in an era when queerness was medicalized, criminalized, stigmatized and largely confined to the shadows, did the comet of Little Richard’s gift — the visual one as much as the musical — blaze its way to visibility?
It almost didn’t happen. Early publicity material and album covers show the effort record labels made to package Little Richard to accommodate the conservative tastes of the time. He is dressed in sack suits or sweater jackets of a kind favored by superstars like Nat King Cole. In one still from Peacock Records, the processed and marcelled hair that was Little Richard’s irrepressible glory has been squashed beneath a calypsonian’s straw hat.
Yet Little Richard was nobody’s crossover act or bumpkin. Appearing as an unlikely nightclub act in the 1956 Hollywood film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” with Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell, Little Richard stands to pound the piano while dressed in a conservative gray sharkskin suit. When the camera pulls back, though, we note that his shoes are two-tone, silver on black; the toe caps may even be metal.
Even when dressed for masculine realness, Little Richard somehow managed to be subversive. Thus, while the figure in the vintage photograph on the cover of a paperback edition of “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” the 1984 Charles White biography, seems innocuous enough when viewed through contemporary eyes — powder blue suit, pink shirt, pink tone-on-tone tie — it is worth remembering that, in the benighted 1950s, pink was unambiguously a tell.
The suits were abandoned once success was assured. The makeup got heavier: the lipstick more overt, the spackled-on foundation and the heffalump eyelashes. The hair became pneumatic enough to recall Little Richard’s early days onstage performing as Princess Lavonne.
Much has been written about the spectacular vagaries of Little Richard’s long career — his meteoric success, sad decline, excesses both chemical and sexual, religious conversions, comebacks and his apparent acceptance at last of the self-parody (“Family Feud” and “Hollywood Squares”) that is so often the Act III denouement of show business careers.
The magisterial image I will always retain of Little Richard, though, is derived from the wild physical amalgam that first emerged from the shadow world of Deep South clubs, when he led a band called the Upsetters: face-beaten looks swiped from raggedy drag queens, a pompadour adapted from the R&B singer Esquerita, piano licks copied from Louis Jordan and vocal ones from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the gospel singer Marion Williams.
The picture I am thinking of is a portrait, possibly painted from a photograph, and created in 2013 by the artist Jack Pierson. Covering the whole of a nine-foot canvas, it depicts Little Richard’s face in monumental close-up, a froth of hair, wild eyes, mouth opened wide to emit a reverberant, eternal hysterical falsetto holler.