Once upon a time he was Little Richard. He was the Georgia Peach, the Crystal Closet Queen. He was the Greatest, the Handsomest, the Most Beeeoootiful Creature in Showbusiness-the raving, raunchy' 50s pioneer of rock 'n' roll.
These days he is Brother Richard Penniman, a born-again Christian in a three-piece suit and boutonniere, who keeps a businessman's hours and pitches Bibles for a Nashville publishing outfit.
Richard Penniman says he's done with playing Cosmic Chicken. For the second time - he says the last - in his 45 years, Richard has packed it in, gone the straight and narrow. For what does it profit a man, he intones, head nodding gently to the beat, if he gains the world but loses his own soul, that's the eighth chapter of Mark, 36th verse, God bless you, thank you, little darling.
And the world that Richard had gained once upon a time was nothing if not spectacular.
There was Little Richard with his famous foot-high pompadour, glittering suits, mascara eyes and split-apart grin. Richard vamping it up at the movies in "Mr. Rock and Roll." Richard at the legendary Apollo Theater, gyrating his hips all nasty-nice, pouncing on the piano, shouting "Saw Aunt Mary comin' and he duck back in the alley, ooh baby!"
The string of hits, rick 'n' roll classics that reverberate across two decades of music, have infiltrated their way into the works of the rock superheavies, from Elvis to the Beatles to the Stones. "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Jinny Jinny," "Baby Face." And on and on and on.
Now Richard sings gospel music and hymns - no more of Satan's music for him, he says. He turned down a substantial offer to appear as himself, the old way, in the movie "American Hot Wax." "God is my best friend," he declares affably. "I've traded rock 'n' roll for the rock of ages. For the night is coming soon, and we must preach the ligth while there's still time."
Nimbly he quotes chapter and verse from the Bible, as eloquently as he used to belt out a round of "a wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom!" Bible-quoting also serves as a splendid stone walling device to stave off unwanted questions about the bad old days.
"I always meant to be a gospel singer, anyway. But I took my eyes off Jesus is what happened, and things turned out different for a while."
The first time Richard got his eyes fixed firmly time Richard got his eyes 1957, a year and a half after he first hit the charts with "Tutti-Frutti." That year, at his peak, Richard shocked his fans by dropping everything cold to go study the ministry. Richard recorded nothing but inspirational hymns until 1964, when he launched a series of futile comeback attempts.There followed the dubious appearances on late-night talk shows with Richard mugging outragiously before the cameras, the string of Las Vegas bookings and the albums that never quite took off. Also, says Richard, there was hard-drinking and bad drugs and other desecrations of the Lord's temple.
There years ago he renounced all that for the second time. He joined the Seventh Day Advertists, an apocalipse-minded denomination with a born-again fervor and a bent for strict interpretation of the Scriptures.
Richard lives quietly these days, in Riverside, Calif., with his mother, and commutes to Nashville, where six months ago he accepted the vice presidency of Black Heritage. A wholesale Bible publishing company, Black Heritage deals in red-and-white leather-bound copies of the King James that feature a short course in black history and color pictures.
Inside the casual-plush offices, where the dress runs to polyesters and the talk to discotheques, Richard manages to look every inch the part of celebrity executive, settle back in a soft leather armchair. People assail him continously with their needs - form song pitchmen, to press, to one young woman selling suits for a Nashville tailoring company.
"But I just bought some suits," acocalyptic. The first time, so they me shake your hand, God bless you. . . . Ooh, that phone gain." He presses buttons desperately. "My Lord, my God, forgive me; I don't know how to operate this thing. Ooh!"
Pompadour or no, Penniman is still known to national acquaintances as Little Richard. He picked up the monicker, go the stories, as an 8-year-old kid singing for pennies on the street corner in Macon, Ga.
He crinkles up his face as if in embarrassment at being the subject of so many theadbare legends. "Wasn't really on the streets that much . . . It's really hard to remember all that.Those days . . . they were a long time ago. Things were different, then. You got to understand, back when I was a poor kid, coming up in Macon, there wasn't any such thing as rock. It was blues, then. And there were songs like "Pennies From Heaven." But I was the one who invented rock, don't you know? All that stuff Kiss and groups like that are doing nowadays. Well, I invented that."
He stops. "But that was wrong. It was wrong because rock glorifies Satan. The beat hypotizes people. And not only that - the lyrics take people's minds to places God don't want 'em to go."
"I gotta gal named Sue/She knows just what to do/I gotta gal named Sadie/She almost drives me crazy/Whoo Whoo, Tutti-Frutti."
Then, in 1957, goes the story, Richard enrolled in Bible school in Huntsville, Ala. and they had to move him off the campus so the star-strick kids could get some homework done.
"Why did I do it? Well, for one there was some money trouble - not bankruptcy. But my daddy was dead by then, and I was the onliest somebody to care for my momma and brothers and sisters (11 in all). Had I known then what I know now, why . . . the sheep and cattle and 1,000 hills belong to God. Why, He owns the whole earth. Why, the fishes in the sea, they got more water than you and me and they don't pay water bills. And the birds in the heavens, they fly and they don't have to call ini for altitude readings. But I was ignorant then."
"How could any man take my place?/Money honey, Money honey, money honey/If you want to come along with me."
"We're really proud of Brother Penniman," says one of the members of the Hillcrest Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Nashville, where Richard worships when he's visiting. "He tells us stories of how they used to hold him down in the motel room and stick the needle into his arm to make him an addict."
"Ain't nobody made me a addict," frowns Richard. "It was me doing it to myself. Sure, I was out of control but anybody who uses drugs is out of control. That's the way I see it . . . the whole world's out of control."
"She mesmerizes every mother's son/If she smile beef steaks come well done/She make old men feel like they're 21."
The stories surrounding Richard's first conversion are legion, perhaps apocalyptic. The first time, so they say, he had a terrifying dream of the end of th world. There was a harrowing plane ride over Australia. Or, it's said, it was the launching of Sputnik that came as a sign. He scoffs at mode fables. "We don't need to talk about all that stuff, again."
But three years ago, the second time around for the Lord, he'll tell the way it happened. "I went down to Miami to see Ike and Tina Turner. I got back home, went up to room to get drunk or whatever it was I was doing, and the very next day my brother died of a massive coronary attack. No, it wasn't my fault, but I knew it was a sign."
"Send me some a-lovin'/Send if I pray/How can I love you/when you treat me this way."
On Richard's agenda in Nashville for this trip is an appearance before the convocation of the National Council of Black Churches at the First Baptist Church downtown.
By noon, it develops that some mix-up has occurred between the Black Heritage people and the NCBC leadership. Richard can't go on after all they say. Richard manager, Laurin Garrison, the sales rep for Black Heritage, is incredulous.
"They claim they don't even know who you are. Can you believe that? Don't they read the newspapers? Do they ever watch TV? Maybe all they read is Playboy magazine" - a wink - "Ninety percent of all ministers read Playboy. Maybe you should do an interview with Playboy, Richard."
Finally matters are resolved and Richard steps onstage sweating profusely. The speaker introduces him: "I had my reservations, at first. He came in with a lot of white people and that always makes me suspicious. But then I thought better of it."
First Richard delivers a soft-sell pitch for Black Heritage Bibles. "You don't have to pay now, you can buy on consignment." Then he gets ready to sing.
There is an awkward pause. A loud thud comes from behind the curtain and then Garrison pokes his head through to explain that the backup tape won't hook up the P.A. system.
"I'm so sorry," Richard mumbles.
"Sing it, brother," cry some of the audience up front. "You can do it."
His voice dips hesitantly under the piano chords at first, summons up the old power. Some of the chorus members join on the bass lines. Heads nod in time. Toes tap. "Amen." The audience responds with grateful murmuring.
The kingdom of rock 'n' roll and the heavens of choirs and angels seem to make a fragile connection for three verses of the hymn singing.
Leon Russell once wrote a song about Little Richard and the same kind of fragile heroic vision, back when Richard was living a different kind of life, with a verse that went like this:
"Sticks can't burn me/fire can't turn me/Away from my rock 'n' roll road/There is a rainbow around my beautiful face/And I'm living in a pot of gold."