He quickstepped up and down the long church aisles like a man in a frantic race against time, a handkerchief in one hand dabbing at his brow, a microphone in the other.
And as Rev. Richard Penniman told his story, fast and funny, the shouting lady in the tan feather hat tapped her tambourine and from the audience added her own "You tell it, tell the truth," to the chorus of "Amens" and "Thank you, Lords."
"I want to sing a song for you now," said Rev. Penniman, as the crowd of nearly 600 in the packed church settled back in the pews to listen, some rocking, some clapping.
"I'm thinking of a beautiful city, a city far behind the sun," came the familiar voice sliding from a rich baritone into a cool, clear high falsetto.
A man in the back row nodded his head and said, "My, my, my."
"My Jesus is waiting for me," Rev. Penniman continued, "for I know he's coming very soon."
At the moment, in his gray three-piece suit, he looks like a politician that a former rock 'n' roll king.
Yes, he still wears a wafer-thin mustache. Those large, rolling expressive eyes that entertained hundreds of thousands of screaming teen-agers since 1957 have never dimmed. Expressions like "darlin'" and "God bless you" -- all said with inflection -- still sugar his talk. Inside, however, says Richard Penniman, a.k.a. Little Richard, now Rev. Penniman, he is a new man.
He's gone the way of some other popular musicians, Al Green, Bob Dylan, B. J. Thomas and disco's Donna Summer, wading in the wafers of religion. But he'll always be remembered as that flamboyant, hands-a-flitting Little Richard, rock's crown prince, if not its king. "Queen Juliana don't hinder Queen Elizabeth," he said, when it was offered that it was Presley who was known as The King. "My fans called me King. He was a white artist and they [whites] didn't want me to be king, no way. I was before Elvis."
With his unprecedented "A Wop Bop Aloo Bop A Wop Bam Boom," Richard camped his way into music history in the '50s and '60s, guiding the course of rock 'n' roll with classics like "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "The Girl Can't Help It."
Richard, called "Little" because he was small and skinny as a rail, started his musical career pounding out gospel tunes on a rickety old upright piano in the late '40s. In his early teens he quit school and left home when his bootleg-whiskey-selling daddy said he had to work. He joined Dr. Hudson's snake-oil medicine show, touring rural southern communities as Hudson's star attraction, drawing crowds of poor blacks to make-shift stages in overgrown lots so Hudson could sell his cure-all. The only song Richard knew then was "Caledonia, What Make Your Big Head So Hard."
As a child he listened to Mahalia Jackson, the Clara Ward Singers, Dinah Washington and Fats Domino; by age 15 he was recording blues songs in New Orleans, but no one seemed interested. During one of those sessions, as an afterthought, he recorded a throw-away tune called "Tutti Frutti." A year later, and back in Macon after unsuccessful attempts at stardom, he was washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station and making $15 a week when he heard a Nashville radio station play "Tutti Frutti." His career took off in 1957.
Those were the old days. Today, Rev. Richard is in Washington to help save souls. Thirty years of world-wide fame, frustrating periods of obscurity he blames on racism, battles with drugs and a religious experience that he said changed him from being homosexual -- Little Richard has traveled full circle. cHe's riding a whirlwind gospel circuit on a 20-city tour which stops in Washington this weekend with a three-day performance at the First Seventh Day Adventist Church, 810 Shepherd St. NW.
"God brought me from rock 'n' roll to the Rock of Ages," he says, almost too fast, almost from memory. "I'm going to be a part of the new history that won't be burned up in flames, a history with God. I got my BA and my PhD -- Born Again, and Pure Heart Divine. Praise the Lord."
He works for God, goodwill and love offerings, also called whatever is left in the collection plate -- a far cry from the $10,000 an hour as a performer he says he used to command more than a decade ago. Richard said he made millions of dollars but never was a millionaire. His early fortune squandered in extravagance and bad management, Richard lives in a five-bedroom house in Riverside, Calif., with his mother, and says he's comfortable and happy, despite being in debt.
Today, Rev. Richard is a vegetarian, the caretaker of the "temple" of his soul. This Georgia boy, raised on the chitterling circuit on collard greens, fat-back pork and cornbread, sipped tea and nibbled avacado, yogurt and bean sprouts in pita bread in a bustling downtown Washington restaurant. He's still a man with a message to sell, and they still come to hear him -- a lot of them because of history.
Between mouthfuls he told his story of the birth of rock 'n' roll, the starry dreams of a nearly illiterate, effeminate Georgia boy, at times lonely, insecure and misunderstood. Always, he was searching, for fame, for attention and a quick ticket out of a rural dirt-scratching, three-room, shotgun shack of an existence in Macon, Ga. One of a bircklayer's 12 children, he found God at the end of a glittering rainbow.
"Oh, I was a flaming child -- you can call me the living flame," said Richard, grinning now, eyes flashing, not a menace but a tease. His keen features have softened into middle age -- Richard will talk about everything but his age, but history says he's 46. "I would put my mother's robe on and run down the middle of the street. Daddy tried to wup that femininity out of me, but Mother understood. Whatever you are, she said, be the best at it."
In his heyday he was outrageous, doing what no entertainer had ever dared to do publicly before. Richard said he used his flamboyance as a defense and as a way to broaden his appeal. "They didn't mind the little white girls screaming and kissing all over me because the men could dismiss me. wThey'd say, 'Look at that crazy Little Richard.'"
Little Richard was wearing lipstick, nutbrown facial powder, mascara and pencil-drawn eyebrows two decades before groups like Queen, Kiss and even David Bowie gained notoriety for cosmetic and musical eccentricity, not to mention his influence on New Wave music and dress.
His foot-high, greased-back pompadour hairdos and suits of rhinestones, sequins and glass made him glitter on stage like the star of his boyhood dreams.
"I used to imitate the queen of England, you know," he said. "I had seven guards with those little hats on that they wear, and rode in limousines and walked on red carpets to my door."
Little Richard was an early idol to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "Paul [McCartney] used to sing my 'Whoos' all night long," Richard said, and Beatle songs like "I Saw Her Standing There, reflect his methods. Jimi Hendrix once played guitar in Richard's band, "Little Richard and the Upsetters."
When rising stardom came, Richard took a little bit of Macon with him, proving to his hometown skeptics that the sissy they scorned would be a success. One high school classmate became his chauffeur, another his road manager. He gave away money freely and when he finally settled in Riverside, he invited his family to live there too.
Richard's early songs came from farmhands in Georgia fields, from silly little childhood ditties he made up like his musical rhythms. The song title "Bama Lama Loo" actually came from an old guy named Bama Lama who used to come around playing the washboard with thimbles on his fingers, singing, 'Bama Lama, you shall be free in the morning,'" Richard said. At the peak of his career, about two years after the success of "Tutti Frutti," Richard quit rock 'n' roll and attended Oakwood Bible College in Huntsville, Ala. Rock music critics said the move pushed him into relative obscurity for nearly a decade. He reappeared, they say, after the rise of the Beatles, more than a little jealous that they were getting famous on his musical style.
Richard begs to differ. He says he never stopped playing rock 'n' roll, but wasn't prompted by white record companies pushing white artists. "When whites played the music, it was current," Richard said. "When blacks played it, it was revival."
Black record companies such as Motown mainly wanted to record soul music but nonetheless shied away from his flamboyant style, which many blacks believed reflected badly on black manhood in an era of black pride.
But always, Little Richard only represented himself. "God rains on the just and the unjust. We are all his children. That's the message I want to bring -- hope for us all."
"The way I move my hands, the way I walk and talk, how can you change all that after all those years," he said. "You don't have to change the paint of car to change the motor. God changed my heart and I'm struggling to be on his Roll of Glory."