In this story, there is only one true King of Rock 'n' Roll and his name is Little Richard, ne' Richard Penniman, also known as the Bronze Liberace, the Georgia Peach and, as he himself sometimes declaimed, the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll as well.
Just now, the King, at 51, is ordering steak and eggs from room service, with instruction to burn the steak and send up bottles of ketchup, steak sauce and tabasco sauce.
"It's for Little Richard, thank you." He says his own name quite reverently.
Yes, Little Richard, whose outrageousness and frenetic energy snagged a nation's attention starting back in 1955 with "Tutti Frutti," "Lucille," "Rip It Up," "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Slippin' and Slidin'."
Little Richard, whose progeny ranged from James Brown and Otis Redding to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.
Little Richard, who established the salability of a bizarre image, who in fact cut the mold years before Prince had his first diaper changed.
"That's all I know," he insists. "The other name bothers me sometimes. Don't nobody know it. I'm used to hearing Little Richard. I been hearing it all my life."
He is distinguished, this man. In his striped three-piece suit, he looks much more the preacher that he is now than the wild-eyed raver he was back then. The foot-high, pound-of-oil pompadour is gone. The mascara has run off with the last of the sweat. The Day-Glo mirrored costumes, now too small at the waist, are packed away, at least those that survived the old days when rock 'n' roll fans would swarm at the foot of the stage for the shreds of his discarded outfits.
The extraordinary eccentricity is quieted, too. The face seems broader, almost puffy. The eyes, once devil-fired, are merely restless. The voice, once raspy in its sly fury, is deeper, huskier, though the native southern exuberance and the decades-old homosexual mannerisms make even casual conversation fly.
"Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Eskerita, Otis Redding, Roy Brown, Ruth Brown, Brother Joe May -- they was builders," he says. "They had something to do with the building of rock, but I was the architect. You got to remember that when I came on the scene, it was swing and sway with Sammy Kaye. I couldn't swing and I couldn't sway, so I rocked. When I came out, Chuck Berry was playing low-down blues, Fats, too. Even before 'Tutti Frutti,' I was singing rock. They just didn't know what to do with it."
What's left intact after a quarter of a century is the neon grin, the nearly painful smile that sometimes flashes irony. It's less devilish now, because Little Richard is, after all, a man of God, an evangelist, a preacher against his own past.
He has no desire to perform in concert again, even though he did just that on a recent David Letterman show, rehashing "Joy, Joy, Joy," the gospel song he performed on the Grammy show two years ago with Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and Count Basie. "But the other night I was so hoarse. It's hard to make notes. I really wished I had just talked. But the rhythm was fantastic."
Little Richard may record again (he'd been in the studio with his longtime friend and producer Bumps Blackwell), but it will be "gospel only. I don't care to do the other music. I'm just not into that now. My life has changed and developed into another direction."
But he's still Little Richard.
It doesn't matter that Little Richard is an evangelist preaching against the sins of rock 'n' roll, because what we are talking about now is history. Though the reverend in him wants to change your future, the rocker in him is not about to let anybody mess with his past.
He's especially happy because now there's a book to tell his side of the story: "The Life and Times of Little Richard -- The Quasar of Rock." Woven by British deejay Charles White from the praise of rock luminaries, the insights of compatriots and family and a slew of ribald anecdotes from the old Quasar himself, the book makes a convincing case that the Macon Whoopee is responsible -- at the very least -- for the currents of outrage that have fueled rock 'n' roll for almost three decades.
"It's nice to see all the testimony," Little Richard says, not at all humbly. "It made me want to cry to see what people think about you and you still alive. People give you all kinds of flowers when you die and when you alive they never gave you one.
"My place was denied before. I have read many rock books where my place was not right, they never put it in the right perspective. A lot of black people haven't been talked about right in those books. I'm glad to be documented in a fair way where I can read it before I go."
In "The Life and Times," Little Richard goes into excruciating detail about every evangelist's gripes -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Mostly, Little Richard tells on himself, though he names names and shatters at least one myth, placing Buddy Holly at one end of a hastily arranged me'nage a trois in the dressing room of the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn just as the Crickets were about to go on stage.
"Buddy HOLLY! It's the TRUTH," Little Richard exclaims gleefully. "I was right there and I saw it with my own eyes and this ain't no LIE. I was looking right at him and it was something else to see. I ain't ever seen nothing like it in my life. It was TERRIBLE," he chortles. "It was something else! They were yelling 'Buddy Holly and the Crickets.' He had to FLY to get down to the stage, he was fixing up all the way down. I didn't say this to destroy him, I love him, we're good friends," he says, as if Buddy Holly had not died in 1959.
"That was one of the funniest things I could think of," Little Richard says defensively. "I wanted to be truthful, I didn't want to be no liaaaar."
He doesn't mind being repentant, but don't expect him to be apologetic. "I don't apologize for anything. The things that I've done, when I did it, I loved it. If I had my life to live over again, there are some things I've done that I'm not too proud of . . ."
He mulls it over a moment, then retraces his thought. "I wouldn't try some of those things again, I may not make it through it. But what I did, I did. It was honest and it was real and I loved every minute of it. I enjoyyyed it. Now, I couldn't tell nobody else to do it, you understand me. That's the reason I wrote the book, so people could profit by it. It tells about sex, drugs, rock and religion," the last word rolling off Little Richard's tongue with a little more class than its predecessors.
"This is my life story and I ain't ever read a book like it in my life."
One of 12 children born to a Macon, Ga., family, Richard Penniman came into this world with an oversized head, uneven legs, one eye bigger than the other and, apparently, more spunk and rebelliousness than his 11 siblings put together. Some of his growing-up stories are utterly bizarre and it's little wonder that his father, a part-time bootlegger who was shot to death in 1952, disowned him as "half a son."
"I used to get a whuppin' when I was a little boy," he says brightly. "My mother would say 'Who cut the cake?' and I'd say 'IIII DIDDDDD! I was always the one who said 'I DIDDD.' And I DIDDD. I don't like to be no phony. The sex that I've had, even in the gay life, it's there. I didn't hide it because it was an experience that I'll never forget because I needed help. I was going through trouble . . ."
The dichotomy of sin and salvation was sketched early on by a grandfather and two uncles who were preachers. Little Richard's first musical experience came in the church, where he played piano and sang gospel. By the time he ran off to join a traveling medicine show and started his career in Georgia roadhouses, his piano playing had acquired a decidedly haphazard edge.
Little Richard's exaggerated pompadour and early style were adapted from Billy Wright, an overlooked Atlanta vet who had scored a number of R & B hits between 1949 and 1951. Still, Little Richard's initial recordings were undistinguished variations on jump and hard blues in the manner of Ray Charles and B.B. King. At the tail end of a recording session in 1955, there was a little extra studio time to fool around. The rest is history.
The "Tutti Frutti" that launched his career, Little Richard points out, is not even the same one he recorded at the tail end of that session. That version had lyrics that were far too vivid for the '50s. But Richard remembers. It began:
"A wopbopaloobop alopbamboom
Tutti frutti, good booty . . .
And so on into a litany of seamy double entendres.
"I'm sure Prince would love that today," he says, "but back in that time it was risque', they called it dirty music, lewd, so a young lady fixed it up . . . 'got a girl named Daisy/almost drive me crazy . . .' " Even now, Little Richard seems sad at the bowdlerization.
For a while after "Tutti Frutti," the hits kept coming, and 18 million singles were sold. But in 1958, while on tour in Australia, Little Richard suddenly quit, entering an Alabama Bible school, studying to be a preacher. At the behest of Mahalia Jackson, he made a few gospel records but it seemed he'd hung up his rock 'n' roll shoes for good.
Until 1964, when he went to England for what he thought was a gospel tour. "If I had had known I was going to sing rock 'n' roll, I would've took a band and I wouldn't have went at that time," he says. "I took Billy Preston because he was an organist that played songs of gospel. We got there and Sam Cooke's name was up there on the marquee with mine. He tore the house up, and so my ego got into this thing. I couldn't stand to see Sam Cooke tear that house up and take the show fom me, I couldn't stand it. I went out there and started singing 'Lucille' and there was a standing ovation. I was relieved that Sam Cooke couldn't take the show but I was really despondent inside because it went against what I felt. That's when I started into drugs, after that."
The descent into drug addiction, coupled with a no-holds-barred attitude toward sex and the frustrations of a career relegated to the oldies pile, made the '60s and early '70s a testing time for Little Richard. Though he remained a transcendentally vibrant performer, the music seemed dated, nostalgic. It didn't seem to matter that the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix and a whole school of performers before and after them owed Little Richard an enormous debt for borrowing aspects of his idiosyncratic style.
"They didn't want me to be in the white guys' way," he says testily, not naming them. "I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of the rockers' way, because that's where the money is. When 'Tutti Frutti' came out, Elvis was immediately put on me, dancing and singing my songs on television. They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer 'cause they liked my version better, but the families didn't want me because of the image that I was projecting. Later on, I looked back and I thanked Elvis and Pat for doing my stuff because they really opened the door for me into the pop market."
He was, of course, the first androgynous superstar. "Michael, David Bowie, Boy George, they've got my spot now," he beams.
Actually, Little Richard was the first homosexual rock star, but words like homosexual and gay weren't part of the rock lexicon until recently. Little Richard had started his career performing in drag at southern roadhouses, and everything about his dress and demeanor was flamboyantly, blatantly gay, even if it was left unsaid. "They was whispering," he says, smiling.
Little Richard has no major problem with it now: it's almost ancient history, though he says it's only in the last six years that he's been comfortable talking openly about his homosexuality. "Most entertainers would not do what I've done, they'd deny it," he insists, sliding into a mini-sermon.
"In my church, it's not acceptable at all, you cannot be gay in my church. In the religion of my family, it's not acceptable, in the Ten Commandments-keeping church, it's not acceptable. But in the Little Richard Evangelistic Association, I accept gay people, I believe that gay people can be saved, that straight people can be saved, that bisexuals can be saved. A lady said it right to my face: 'You ain't never going in the Kingdom.' I said, it don't belong to you, darlin'. You ain't got no keys to heaven. You can give me hell, but you can't give me heaven."
Asked if he's still an active homosexual, Little Richard does some rare waffling. "Me, myself, personally, I'm 51 years old. I'll be 52 December 5. At this age and stage, I'll be looking like a fool going out on the streets looking for somebody like I used to do years ago. I wouldn't dare to that. I'm not against that, but I don't go around anymore. I wished I had a wife and kids at this stage of my life, but fate didn't work that way for me."
Fate, however, has brought him a life in which "I don't get high no more. I don't do cocaine no more. My life now is dedicated strictly to my Bible-studying and doing good for others."
And, of course, promoting the book.
"This will be the first royalties I've received" in a long time, Little Richard claims.
In fact, most Wednesdays he can be found at lunch time picketing the Los Angeles offices of ATV Music, which owns the rights to his songs. He is suing ATV for $112 million, trying to regain those rights and share in some of the royalties they have earned over the last three decades.
"I wish they'd look at those signs and do what they say: Pay me, so I can touch it with my hands while I'm still alive and direct it in the right direction."
"It's been a long time, and I'm not the only person owed money like that. A lot of black people have been exploited -- white people too, but more black people in the entertainment world as far as record royalties. Esther Phillips and Jackie Wilson and Joe Tex and Big Mama Thornton -- some of those people couldn't be buried, they didn't have no money, couldn't even be buried in a $200 casket and they've sold millions of dollars worth of records and didn't get no money."
And Little Richard mentions a dream, not an immodest one, considering his outsize achievements in the past. He wants to see a royalty-built home for entertainers "so that when they get old and sick and afflicted, they have a place to stay and won't have to pay and when they die, they can be buried with dignity and with class," he says. "That's my desire and my determination." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Beatles with Little Richard in the 1960s. Copyright (c) Peter Kaye Liverpool. Picture 2, Little Richard. By Bill Snead -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Little Richard and Billy Haley in 1956. Copyright (c) Michael Ochs Archives