(Pictured: Little Richard in the 1957 movie Mister Rock and Roll.)
Of the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class, only two are still with us: Jerry Lee Lewis, age 84, and Don Everly, age 83. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Phil Everly, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard are all gone now.
I cannot remember when I first heard, or heard of, these people. My parents’ radio stations might have played certain songs by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis, but I don’t recall specifics. When I first started listening to WLS in 1970, I might have heard them there. Whether I knew who they were and what they represented—well, it’s been too long for me to know. But as time went by, from radio, or TV, or reading, or whatever, I learned who they were, even if I didn’t yet fully appreciate Who They Were. My education didn’t truly begin until I got into radio and became responsible for running the syndicated program Sunday at the Memories. Host Ray Durkee loved 50s music and the stars who made it. He taught me a lot, and he made me want to learn and hear more.
I didn’t have to listen very long to understand that Little Richard’s energy was different. Where the pianos of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino rolled like a mighty river, Little Richard’s hit like a battering ram. Elvis sang, but Little Richard shouted. Ray Charles testified, but Little Richard came off possessed. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Keep a-Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and the others were wild in a way that the other iconic hits of the 50s were not, not “I’m Walkin’,” not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Johnny B. Goode,” not anything else.
Not since Glen Campbell died in 2017 has Twitter felt more like a firehose of information than it did after Richard’s death was announced on Saturday morning. Here’s some of what I saw, read, and heard:
—In 2004, Little Richard himself reflected on his career and influence for Rolling Stone.
—Bob Stanley, author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop, wrote about Little Richard and what he meant for The Guardian; his piece contained some insights I didn’t see anywhere else.
—Rob Sheffield described the remarkable range of Little Richard’s influence: everybody who was anybody.
—A couple of Twitter threads told some tales proving that of all the early rockers, Little Richard was the biggest character: this one, about an early 90s Little Richard/Jerry Lee double bill that was quite something; and this one, in which Richard made a big entrance and an even bigger impression.
—The original Ernie version of the Sesame Street song “Rubber Duckie” is a war crime, but Richard’s version is a big improvement.
Look over the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers beyond the 1986 inaugural class and you’ll see that only a few of the pioneers remain. In addition to Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly, Charlie Thomas, last of the original Drifters, is still here at age 83. Dion will be 81 this summer. Several of the Isley Brothers, who first hit in 1959, are still among us. If you want to count Tina Turner or Smokey Robinson, both 80 years old, working musicians in the late 50s who found their greatest fame in the 60s, I’m good with that. The greatest surviving stars of the 60s, several Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, the Rolling Stones, Paul and Ringo, are all on the far side of 70.
At a time when the oldest among us are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s natural to feel more protective of them than ever before. And not just musicians. One night last week, The Mrs. and I made a list of elderly VIPs we’re glad are still here: her Aunt Clara, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Bennett, Olivia de Havilland (who will be 104 this summer), Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear. And we mentioned Little Richard too, never knowing that he’d be in the news only a couple of days later.