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Little Richard's Big, Glam Legacy

Dec 05, 2012 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Today, Dec. 5, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, The King of Rockin' 'n' Rollin' Rhythm & Blues Soulin', turns 80.

Whether or not Mr. Penniman invented rock 'n' roll, as he has often loudly and boldly claimed -- and, to be sure, he's got a better, prettier claim than most -- it's as obvious as the eyeliner around his lips that this son of a bootlegger from Macon, Ga., invented glam rock, way back in the "uptight" 1950s.

The King-Queen of Rockin' 'n Rollin' may possibly have been inspired in his style by tonsured "bad boy" Gorgeous George, an early-1950s TV wrestler who certainly influenced James Brown and Muhammad Ali, but wherever he got it from, he definitely stole, to quote Oscar Wilde -- he didn't waste his time borrowing. With his imperious pompadour, his sequinned capes, his outrageous gestures, his shrieks, his full makeup and false eyelashes, he channelled a fun, furious, flaming effeminacy that bore down on the charts like a screaming, squealing steam train. And the charts surrendered unconditionally. From 1955 to 1957, he had no less than 18 hit singles and three number ones.

Unlike Gorgeous George, however, the queerness of Little Richard wasn't just a pose. According to Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, the producer behind Little Richard's first hit, "Tutti Frutti," the "minstrel modes and homosexual humour" of Richard's original lyrics had to be bowdlerized for the mainstream. For instance, "Tutti Frutti, good booty" was replaced with the slightly less sodomitical "Tutti Frutti, aw-rooty." (There is also some speculation that the hit singles "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" were about transvestites.)

Little Richard didn't bowdlerize his private life, though, at least not during the 1950s. According to his authorized biographer Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard, when on tour he would host swinging parties that were so swinging that they were orgies. He would often invite men back to his hotel and enjoy watching them have sex with his girlfriend. So when racist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council, alarmed by his enormous, unprecedented popularity with white teens, put out statements on TV warning that "Rock 'n' Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation," adding that it is "sexualistic, unmoralistic and ... brings people of both races together," they weren't entirely wrong.

Little Richard, like many people, had a complicated sexuality, complicated by both his self-described "ominsexual" tastes -- he has had affairs with both men and women -- and his devout evangelical Christianity, inculcated by his adored mother, which has led him to, ahem, turn his back on his homosexual side for much of his post-1950s life. Unsurprisingly, but rather unfairly, many gay people regard him with resentment as a result.

He gave an uproarious interview in 1987 to uberfan film director John Waters -- whose famous pencil mustache was inspired by Richard's own iconic lip fur -- in which he announced, not without foundation, that he was not only the architect of rock 'n' roll but "the founder of gay":

I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I'm the one who started to be so bold tellin' the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother's curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn't care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.

In the same interview he confessed the source of his inspiration for his unorthodox use of his mother's curtains -- not Gorgeous George but His Holiness:

I idolised the Pope when I was a little boy. I liked the pumps he wore. I think the Pope really dresses! ... There was Prophet Jones of Detroit -- he used to walk on this carpet. They would spread this carpet out of the limo and he would walk on it. When I got famous, I had the guys just spreading carpet for me to walk on, and they would kiss my hand ... and I used to like to live like that.

Happy birthday, your Most Royal Magnificent Rockin' Holy Highness!