Winter 2009

Keep It In The Closet?

Little Richard: The Very Best Of Little Richard
Specialty Records
Release Date: July 29, 2008

Back in the mid 1950’s and just a few months before the world ever heard of the name Elvis Presley, there was an effeminate African-American man that hailed from Macon, Georgia, named Richard Penniman. He was making noise in the popular music scene much louder than anyone who had preceded him. Of course, the country came to know him by his stage name, “Little Richard.” He began burning up the charts with the new sound of rock & roll and a song aptly titled “Tutti-Frutti” that seemed to address his own sexuality as well as many others who played the song endlessly in underground gay establishments. The irony was, of course, this song and performer weren’t just big in the secrecy of the gay clubs, the country accepted him as a trailblazer and trendsetter with a fresh new sound.

By the mid-80’s, Little Richard described himself as “the architect of rock & roll,” and felt largely responsible for the sight and sound of Prince and Michael Jackson. In part, he’s right. If you’ve ever seen footage of Richard performing, it seemed to serve as a template for these artists and, most especially, the late Sylvester. Even The Beatles had commented in countless interviews that Little Richard was one of their true inspirations. There will always be someone first. In this case, it’s Little Richard.

Homosexuality then: Even Liberace, with his gaudy candelabras, floor-length fur coats and sequined pantsuits (that Liza would’ve sacrificed her Oscar for) got away with middle-aged women drooling at his feet. Either they were truly unaware, or just plain in denial – or both. The fact is, Little Richard’s music was so original and the man was so talented that the public in general didn’t see what was right in front of them. Question: How many “stars” were getting away with this facade? Answer: Many. Including Tab Hunter, George Maharis, Sal Mineo and the granddaddy of them all, Rock Hudson. All were matinee and television idols, and with the exception of Hudson, all found success with record sales as well.

Homosexuality now: we still have our rumored matinee idols and singers such as Barry Manilow, Kevin Spacey, John Travolta and Tom Cruise (oh, please!) and many more high-profile performers. Those outside of Hollywood are still unaware or in denial (or both) of their favorite movie star (mostly middle-aged heterosexual suburban women) who could never imagine seeing their idol saddling up beside another man, let alone “getting it on the side” at Crunch and Equinox steam rooms, as well as picking up the occasional hustler or having an intimate affair with the most discreet escort agencies west of the Mississippi.

In a recent interview with George Michael, before he set out on his first U.S. tour in seventeen years, he was asked several questions about being out and whether he thought an artist could succeed from the beginning of their career. He said, “It’s happening in Europe – Will Young was out from day one and it didn’t hurt him at all – but it’s still very tricky in America, where you’re so categorized as soon as people realize you’re gay.” The most important and interesting answer George gave was to the question, Is a career worth living a life in the closet? He said, “Absolutely not. There is no career that’s worth that. I’d just say, come out and accept that you’ll lose some of your audience.”

For all those entertainers who’ve remain closeted for one reason or another, mostly fear of losing their career and their audience, there’s a bevy of artists that have shaken this paranoia that has rocked Hollywood since its inception. The brave men and women who decided for one reason or another (usually, their sanity by being true to themselves) to come out, regardless of how it will affect their careers. I’m speaking of the Eltons, the k.d.s, the Melissas, the Rosies, the Ellens, the T.R. Knights and the Neil Patrick Harrises of the industry. If it weren’t for them, and a score of many more, we, as a community, might still be batting zero.

Why? Because of celebrity. They say celebrity doesn’t matter. Who are “they” and where did “they” get their misinformation? Of course celebrity matters. Just take a look at the latest attack television advertisement placed by the John McCain campaign comparing Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Why do you think The National Enquirer outsells every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.? People are obsessed with celebrities, especially celebrities with a supposed secret.

Thankfully things are changing and the east and west coast of America is finally catching up with the fact that gay people and straight people share the same common bond – to love and be loved in return. We still have quite a way to go between the two coasts, but we’re making progress.

Now that I’ve let you in on my latest discussions with the media, as well as my friends and neighbors, back to Little Richard and the fabulous release of  “The Very Best Of Little Richard.”

Between 1955-1958, Little Richard racked up twenty hit singles with his heavy-handed rock ‘n’ roll piano-playing and saxophone-laden songs, including “Lucille,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Keep A Knockin’” and his biggest hit, the gold certified “Long Tall Sally.” Even Fergie recently sampled Little Richard’s hit “The Girl Can’t Help It” on her smash record “Clumsy,” proving that even after five decades, the significance of Little Richard’s music holds steady.

Luckily, all twenty-plus charted hits are represented on this digitally remastered collection, and even after a half-century of being off of mainstream Top 40 radio, these songs symbolize the very essence of pop music and why we owe a great deal of gratitude to the self-proclaimed “architect” of rock & roll.

In retrospect, after the four huge years of success on the airwaves in the late 50’s, a religious Little Richard turned to the church to help him repent his sins. As a result, the hits dried up as fast as his guilt caught up with him. Was he happy? I don’t know, but it’s doubtful. How is anyone happy not comfortable being true to themselves? To the world, it was a loss of a brilliant man and his ingenious music.

By the 1980’s, Little Richard reemerged in film and song in the hit movie Down And Out In Beverly Hills and is still visible today in the entertainment industry. He seems much more comfortable in his skin than he did five decades ago. Whether he is truly at ease with himself today, only Richard Penniman knows for sure.

© 2009 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.