Back in my early days as a music critic, I violated a cardinal rule of journalism. But Little Richard made me do it.
I was interviewing the architect of rock ’n’ roll, as he liked to be called, in his hotel room after a concert at the St. Paul Civic Center in early 1976. I asked if it was OK if my buddy and his girlfriend waited outside in the hallway; Little Richard insisted they join us. A journalist is supposed to do interviews by himself. However, inviting my friends into the session turned out to be a brilliant move because Little Richard — who died Saturday at age 87 — loved an audience.
And perform he did. Flamboyance was his style in music, dress and conversation.
“I walked into the hotel lobby this afternoon and I was dressed in gold and white and all that stuff. I became the focus, as usual. So I had to glorify and satisfy. I was beautiful.”
In ’76, Little Richard was two decades past his heyday of “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” trying to see how a new generation of fans reacted to his music. “It’s just plain rock ’n’ roll. Old down home, soul cooking, rat racing, running, roping rock ’n’ roll.”
Turn on the tape recorder, ask a question and Little Richard babbled on like a fire-and-brimstone preacher on a mission to save your soul even without pounding on his piano.
“Rock ’n’ roll is inspiration with power. It’s a force. It’s healing music that lifts your soul. It makes you wanna tap your feet between time, on time, or some time. Am I right? That’s very satisfying. And I never put a question mark where God has put a period. Man’s extremities is God’s opportunity. Which, of course, has nothing to do with rock.”
His conversation was filled with non sequiturs, incongruities, aphorisms, outrage and invocations of the Lord. With him verbalizing at 500 words a minute, it was difficult to separate the jabber, jive and jokes from the real Richard Penniman.
He asked my zodiac sign even though he admitted he wasn’t fluent in the lore. “You’re a Cancer,” he proclaimed. “You grab like a crab.”
He talked about writing an autobiography called “From the Womb to the Tomb” and recording with then-hot rocker “Bob Segal” (meaning “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” hitmaker Bob Seger). Neither project ever happened.
Even though there were no lines on his heavily made-up face and his energy onstage and off was unstoppable, the young whipper-snapper critic couldn’t resist asking the old-time rock ’n’ roller if he was considering retirement.
“Retirement kills people. The older I get the more I like entertaining. I like good music no matter who plays it if it makes you dance. Keeping up with the trends keeps you young and beautiful.”
As an experienced critic, I encountered Little Richard up close again in 1999 at the most unlikely of places — We Fest, the long-time country music and camping festival in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
"I'm just an old country boy from Macon, Georgia, yes, yes, yes," the rock pioneer proclaimed to 37,000 country music fans.
His black pompadour was higher than any of Tammy Wynette's wigs. He wore more makeup than Dolly Parton. And he was attired in maize, all the way down to those lizard-skin shoes. Aware of the context, Little Richard threw in such country favorites as "I Saw the Light" and "Jambalaya" between “Lucille” and "Tutti Frutti."
Backstage, he said he’d enjoyed himself. I didn’t bring an audience with me this time, but he already had one, Fancy Ray McCloney, the Twin Cities comic who started as a Little Richard acolyte and became his friend.
At 66, Little Richard wasn’t as wildly flamboyant as he’d been that night in St. Paul. He was almost down to earth, humble and sincere.
"I've been country all my life," he said. "I felt right at home."