“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a documentary from Lisa Cortes, premiered at SXSW on March 13th.
I’ve saved the best for last, because this was genuinely one of the best documentaries—if not THE best documentary—-that I saw this year (and I saw a lot of them).
There are extensive clips of Little Richard, the flamboyant showman from Macon, Georgia, one of twelve children of Leva Mae and Richard Penniman, a minister who ran bootleg on the side.
Richard was born somewhat crippled (one arm was longer than the other) and queer and his father kicked him out of the house because of his sexual orientation. He found a place to stay at Ann’s Tic Toc speakeasy, where he sang blues and gospel and listened to Sister Rosetta, the Mother of Black soul.
We learn that Billy Wright helped Richard get a record deal and that Esquerita, a musician, taught him to play piano. The technique was boogie woogie on the left and Ike Turner with the right hand. However, the music that Richard was making was considered “race music” and was only allowed on Black stations. The documentary is right when it says, “It says something profound when Black music is the wellspring” for rock and roll. Of course, record producers tried to steal the sound and put white singers like Pat Boone on vinyl.
Little Richard was not much of a businessman and was paid only half a cent a record, which was a very low return. He played to segregated audiences, but he was so popular and so electric that white teenagers broke the color barrier to get into his shows in Black clubs. As Richard said, “My music broke down the walls of segregation.” He mentions Fats Domino and Blueberry Hill, as well as Bo Diddly and B.B. King and others who followed.
Little Richard used make-up and said “I don’t give a damn what they think.” But, ultimately, he lived in a constant state of contradiction because of his religious upbringing and would try to go ‘straight’ multiple times. These were the days of Emmet Till (Sept. 2, 1955) and Richard wanted “the capacity to own the right to be in the world.”
As Bo and Richard said, “We built a hell of a highway and people are still driving on it. And they ain’t paying for it!”
Various singers like Tom Jones, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards pay tribute to Little Richard, who also helped the Beatles out when they were just starting out.
Then, Richard withdrew from rock and roll and enrolled at Oakwood College, a Black conservatory. He thought his music was the devil’s music, and a comet or Sputnik going overhead made him think the world might be coming to an end. He even married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow student, in Los Angeles. She described him as “positive, loving and caring” as a husband.
Richard toured in 1962 on a bill in London with Jet Harris and Sam Cooke. It was in Liverpool that he would meet the Beatles and Billy Preston in Hamburg at the Star Club. English bands, at that time, were very static, but Mick and the boys learned from Little Richard.
In 1964 Little Richard was on “American Bandstand” and, in fact, Dick Clark would organize the only testimonial awards tribute to Little Richard very late in his career, after he returned to music from spreading the word of God. Richard was described as “generous” and “so real” and he spoke up and told the world, at the 1989 induction of Otis Reddng into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “He’s the root of all this.” Richard would also say, “I feel so real. I feel so unnecessary.”
It can truthfully be said that Little Richard paved the way for everything that followed.
The documentary director previously worked on “All in the Fight for Democracy,” a documentary about Stacey Abrams. She said she wants to “Explore figures and people who move things forward and are a continuation of how change is possible.” She gave credit to Gus Wynner (“Rolling Stone”) for their partnership and said that the documentary took 18 months to make.
For instance, Ernestine Penniman, Richard’s one-time love, was said to be dead, but came forward when the film was in post production. The family, when they finally saw the finished product, said, “You did Richard right.”
She sure did. It’s a terrific documentary and one of the best things at SXSW this year.