Humanity has done plenty of wailing since the industrial revolution, but two screams ring out louder than the rest. The first one came in 1893 when Edvard Munch captured the fundamental loneliness of the human condition in a silent slurry of oil, tempera and crayon. Munch titled his horrific little painting “The Scream” and we’ve since memorialized it by emblazoning it on our coffee mugs for all eternity.
Then, in 1955, Little Richard came along with something called “Tutti-Frutti.” He was offering a different kind of existential scream: one that funneled physical lust and spiritual transcendence into one scalding shriek. For Little Richard, existence was a ticklish torture. Temporality was a perpetual anticipation. He had discovered the meaning of life and he spelled it right out for us: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom.”
Throughout the late 1950s, the young maestro remained the most thrilling voice on the planet, teaching his students how to howl into the universe. He taught Paul McCartney and John Lennon how to scream. He taught James Brown and Mick Jagger how to look great doing it. He was David Bowie’s idol and Prince’s prototype. Some even tried to channel his scream without oxygen, including Jimi Hendrix, who once said he wanted to transpose it into electricity: “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
Little Richard — born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932; and who died of cancer on Saturday morning at 87 — may not have invented rock-and-roll, but “Tutti-Frutti” sure felt like the music’s big bang. Like many of his peers, Little Richard was funneling gospel and blues into a new black art form that would change the sound of the world, but his voice is what made rock-and-roll explode. In her hallowed “Rock Encyclopedia,” critic Lilian Roxon begins Little Richard’s entry like this: “His pompadour was high and his hip action wicked when Elvis was still a pimply kid mowing lawns in Memphis.” She ends it like this: “He did it all first.”
Don’t pay too much attention to that word “first.” Chuck Berry had already been vrooming up and down the charts when Little Richard first appeared in the greater public consciousness. The more important word is “all” — which, in addition to the vitality of Little Richard’s singing, includes the nuclear radiance of his songwriting, the pummeling tenacity of his piano playing, the playful heat of his lyricism, the otherworldly flamboyance of his live show and the brilliance required to pull all that delirious charisma into fist-tight focus.
As his legend grew, Little Richard would describe himself as rock-and-roll’s originator, architect, king and queen. Reporters pestered him about his sexuality for decades, but whenever he described himself as an “omnisexual,” he seemed to be describing the music, too. In a Little Richard song, desire gushes in every direction. At first, his impassioned “bama lama bama loo”s make him sound like he’s jumping a censor’s hurdles to get on the radio. But ultimately, Little Richard’s hypersexual nonsense lyrics show us how lust defies language, how our most intense desires can become wild abstractions.
That’s the paradox encoded in Little Richard’s indelible wail, too: Our bodies never stop yearning for out-of-body experiences — except for the final one. Now that this colossus of human song has been released from this rocked-and-rolled world, we can only hope he finally found what he was screaming for.