Being black in the USA was hard in the 1950s. In fact, it's been hard since day one and it's still hard to this day, as Ahmaud Arbery's shocking murder proves. But when looking back through the archives of American music, whether it be ragtime and Scott Joplin, the blues of the deep south and later rock 'n' roll, it becomes rather obvious that it all stemmed from the African-American community. Despite the constant atrocities and prejudices that it faced, Black America was undoubtedly the most creative community in the world for a number of decades. We owe almost our entire music industry to them; even the likes of House music in the 1980s stemmed from Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle.
Rock 'n' roll was pioneered by African-Americans. Chuck Berry, who we sadly lost in 2017, is known as "The Father of Rock 'n' Roll", and he was flanked by the likes of Fats Domino and, perhaps most notably, Little Richard. There were also white rock 'n' roll artists of course, the likes of Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and his Comets, but the most controversial of these is perhaps the most famous - Elvis Presley. Presley was white, but the timbre of his voice led many who only heard him to believe he was black. In fact, his career began when producer Sam Phillips wanted to introduce African-American music to a wider audience - and so chose a white man, who would avoid the racism, to emulate it.
The success of Berry, Domino and Richard, then, is all the more impressive when America's flagrant racism is considered. Little Richard's success, in fact, is surprising for a number of reasons. Not only was he black, he was also very effeminate and questions about his sexuality were asked throughout his career. His own answers didn't help the situation, saying things like "I've been gay all my life" but also simultaneously engaging in homophobic rhetoric that stemmed from his Christian faith. "I believe I was one of the first gay people to come out. But God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve" he once said, in a very contradictory moment. It's also worth nothing that the original chorus of his trademark hit 'Tutti Frutti' referenced homosexuality and anal sex.
There was certainly a constant question mark over his being gay and, coupled with his race and location in the south, almost everything seemed to doom him to failure. Instead, he became one of the leading figures of rock 'n' roll, emerging as one the first crossover artists in the country, able to draw in crowds of both white and black people alike. To do this in 1950s USA is some achievement, and really tells you everything you need to know about his talents as a songwriter and as a performer.
He influenced the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, AC/DC and even Lemmy of Motorhead. It wasn't just the songs; his onstage persona was like nothing else at the time, giving electric performances full of life and soul. The flamboyant nature of his performances certainly contributed to the rumours surrounding his sexuality too, and there was simply no-one else like him, inside or outside of rock 'n' roll.
And what of the songs? 'Tutti Frutti', 'Long Tall Sally', 'Lucille'...he released hit after hit and has left us with a stupendous catalogue of songs to listen to. Though the majority of his success came in the 1950s, he continued to release music until 1992, with his songs spanning well over 20 albums.
Little Richard helped to pave the way for black artists of the future, and influenced white and black music alike. In addition, he brought femininity to his performances and made it work, which no doubt made it more acceptable and allowed the likes of David Bowie to do the same later on. His legacy and influence is huge, and despite a few questionable views, he did a Hell of a lot of good for multiple communities and that should be commended.
He leaves this world having a led a life to the full, breaking down social and racial barriers to conquer America and the world whilst sticking a middle finger up at racism. We'll leave you with this hilarious clip from an interview in 1990, in which he says the spectacular phrase "I'm not conceited, I'm convinced!", following an explanation of the racism he faced in the early days. Enjoy, and RIP to the Innovator of Rock 'n' Roll. We send our condolences to his friends and family.
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