They call him the architect of rock-and-roll, but when Little Richard was carried onto the Howard Theatre stage Saturday night, he looked like the king.
Sporting gold-rimmed sunglasses and an electric-blue suit twinkling with sequins, the 79-year-old was hauled over to his grand piano on a thronelike bench. Once he bellied up to the keys, he was all smiles, fluttering his fingers at his adoring subjects. “I am the beautiful Little Richard!” he declared.
The regal entry was a necessity because of a royal pain in the hip. The musician is recovering from a 2009 surgery that has made public appearances increasingly rare. “The hip broke inside of me,” he explained at the start of Saturday’s gig. “I’m in pain 24 hours a day.”
But his repeated pleas for sympathy were more playful that plaintive. And with a powerhouse 10-piece band behind him — which included two drummers and a four-man horn section — Little Richard was ready to get down to the timeless business of rocking and rolling.
His forearms and fingertips were clearly up to the task, punching out eighth-note chords and ascending triplets throughout a series of songs that helped form the DNA of rock-and-roll nearly 60 years ago. During the rollicking heights of “Bama Lama, Bama Loo,” he slammed down on the high ivories so hard that it sounded like a flock of birds chirping with the force of a machine gun.
His voice, however, couldn’t deliver those high notes with the same might. And so the blues that have always formed the base of his most jubilant songs came to the surface.
You could hear it best during “Goodnight Irene,” an American folk song first recorded by Lead Belly in 1934. Singing it slow and coarse nearly eight decades later, Little Richard made it sound like country, blues, gospel and rock, all at once. It was as if the architect wanted to show us the foundation of American music itself.
The setting was fitting. Since reopening this spring, the Howard has made a concerted effort to book artists with connections to its storied history.
“You know I played this place a long time ago?” Little Richard asked from the stage. “My God, my God. Play it again!” And then he stamped out the steady chords of “Blueberry Hill.”
His banter was less predictable. Dabbing his forehead with paper tissues between tunes, he responded to almost every holler from the audience with a playful “Shuddup!”
Halfway through the set he started asking, “Did you have a good time tonight?”
Was it about to end? “It was a quickie, but a goodie,” he concluded, with the concert’s final third still ahead of him.
And that homestretch looked like hard work. It included all the barnstormers: “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin’ ” and, finally, “Tutti Frutti.”
But by then Little Richard seemed a little wiped out and let his band members solo over the verses. There was no singing about girls named Sue or Daisy, no mention of how they knew just what to do or how they almost drove him crazy.
After the big finish, he sparked up a conversation with a front-row fan and delivered a statement that felt shocking: “Jesus, please help me. I’m serious. I can’t hardly breathe. It’s horrible.”
Then, inexplicably, he tore into another song. The band followed, but the three men who had carried him out at the start of the show soon materialized to hoist him up and carry him off. A night of exclamation points ended with a big question mark.
Was he really all there?
And then he was gone.