Good golly, Miss Molly, did we love the music of Little Richard, who died on Saturday at 87 of cancer. So many people, either in the Seattle music community or outside of it, had a story to tell about how much the music pioneer meant to them.
For some, it was the power of hits like “Lucille” or “Tutti Frutti”; for others, how his groundbreaking style helped open the eyes of the world to an acceptance of queer culture, even if he accomplished that with a quiet subversion (if anything about Little Richard could ever be called quiet).
Many of the stories were Seattle-centered: Of the time Richard headlined Bumbershoot in 1989, and put on a surprisingly energetic show though he was already nearly 60. Or his 1995 Washington State Fair bill in Puyallup with Chuck Berry, where Richard only sang a few songs but gave out signed Bibles. There were also stories of the several times Richard came to Seattle simply to preach, including another Puyallup visit in 1981, where Richard spent hours preaching at the fairgrounds to some 3,000 believers. And finally, there was one momentous 1957 visit that might be the single most important day in Northwest music history.
Anyone who heard Richard’s music, or preaching, likely came away changed. “His savage, bell-like yowl made my hair stand on end,” Heart’s Ann Wilson said Saturday. “He escaped the prison of gender paradigms, long before anyone else dared. He brought rock into the middle of white America while preening.”
“He was the very definition of the hippest cat that ever wore fancy pajamas,” said Heart’s Nancy Wilson. “One big bright star on his way to a heaven of stars.”
Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell told NPR in 2009 that seeing Richard on TV, and then later the Beatles’ mimicry, made him realize that “these things don’t come from thin air. Everybody’s influenced by someone.” Cornell was explaining part of the reason Richard was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
There are only two other inductees — Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly — from that inaugural class of the Rock Hall who are still alive, but to me, Richard was always in a class by himself. I was somewhat late to the party, since like many Baby Boomers I first discovered him through Beatles albums. They had opened for him in Hamburg, and on Sunday, Paul McCartney posted on social media that he had learned “everything he knows” from Richard.
Bob Dylan, in his 1959 high school yearbook, wrote that all he wanted in life was to “join Little Richard.” Vashon Island singer Danny O’Keefe got to see Richard in 1957, when Richard was still essentially inventing the genre of rock ‘n’ roll, and he never forgot it: “It was like he was from another planet,” O’Keefe said.
That year 1957 was the seminal one in Richard’s history — when he released “Lucille” — and it’s also when one of the greatest Seattle music stories of all time happened. Richard had briefly quit music for the church and came to Seattle to preach at the Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church in Seattle’s Central District.
Richard’s appearance was a bit of a surprise, even in the close-knit Black Seattle community. The afternoon of his first preaching stint, a kid named Leon was running an errand on his bike and was shocked to see Richard. He ran, got his brother, and they met Richard, told him their mother was named “Lucille,” got his autograph, and later that night, went and saw him preach.
The other kid in this story, of course, was 14-year-old Jimi Hendrix. His brother Leon Hendrix said Saturday that for Jimi, “it was the greatest thing ever.” Jimi would also see Elvis Presley that year at Sicks’ Stadium, but it couldn’t match Richard.
Just a few years later, Hendrix left Seattle to perform on the Chitlin’ Circuit of Black clubs in the South. Jimi phoned Leon one day “out of his mind with excitement,” Leon recalled. “He’d been hired to be in Little Richard’s band!”
Richard would brag during most of his Seattle concerts that he’d given Hendrix his first big break, which he had. But it didn’t turn out to be an ideal relationship, as Richard had a routine for his band, and Hendrix didn’t like rules. “Jimi told me that Richard hired him on Friday, and fired him on Sunday,” Leon joked. Actually, Hendrix stayed for six months (then joined Ike and Tina Turner). Still, much of Hendrix’s stage act, and even his mustache, came from Richard’s influence.
One of Jimi’s bandmates, Johnny Jones, once said the relationship soured after Jimi wore a fancy shirt onstage, and Richard blew up:
“I am Little Richard,” the singer shouted backstage, sounding like a preacher again. “I am the only Little Richard! I am the King of Rock and Roll, and I am the only one allowed to be pretty. Take that shirt off!”
Jimi Hendrix complied, an acknowledgment that Little Richard was right, and that there was only one Little Richard.
He was the prettiest. He was the true King. And now he is gone.