I remember being pretty young, maybe 4 or 5 years old, when my mom took tap dance lessons. Her and a few other stay-at-home moms would get together once a week in the basement of a downtown Warsaw, Indiana home. It had been renovated into a dance studio, complete with a wall of mirrors, wood floors, and a small basket of toys in the corner where the children of these Midwestern ladies with Gwen Verdon dreams could congregate as “Shuffle ball, shuffle ball, shuffle ball, change-turn-reverse” would blast out of a reel-to-reel.
My mom had taken lessons long enough that the dance school had a recital at the high school auditorium in town. Her routine was being done to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes”. I can still very vividly see my mom practicing the routine in our basement. I’d crack open the basement door and sneak a few steps down and watch her going through her hops, shuffles, and turns as I sat on the basement stairs gripping the banister for dear life. I was impressed with mom’s tapping, but was equally impressed with the Presley 45 single that spun on the console stereo. Long after the Gwen Verdon dreams faded, replaced with a Thursday night bowling league, I was sneaking downstairs to play that damn 45 single. I loved the aggressive rhythm of “Blue Suede Shoes”, but it was the madness of the b-side “Tutti Frutti” that really got me. It was gibberish to my 5-year old brain. A manic display of rock and roll aggression but also a silly string of words, rhythm, and delivery that kept me at bay as the song played. Of course, Elvis Presley’s version was child’s play compared to the original by Little Richard.
Little Richard sang it like a man on fire, inside and out. An alien from Macon, Georgia that took Gospel music, repression, and a need to entertain and created something called rock and roll along the way. Presley may have been “controversial”, gyrating his hips on live TV, but Richard brought flamboyance and fabulous to the popular music stage. He brought an air of elegance and royalty, along with a visceral nature, to rock and roll. It’s as if rock and roll had always existed, we were just waiting for Little Richard to show it to us.
I won’t sit here and write about how Little Richard was a huge influence on me. He wasn’t, not in the forefront at least. He was the origin DNA that made some of my biggest influences(The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, David Bowie, The Kinks) possible. In my early teens I did get into this oldies kick when a classic rock station went on the air out of Elkhart, Indiana. 97.7 played classic rock, but in 1986 classic rock was from the 50s and 60s. I was getting into bands like The Animals, early Bee Gees, Buddy Holly, and the Zombies. There was plenty of Little Richard playing on Saturday nights and I found myself fascinated by songs like “Rip It Up”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Tutti Frutti”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Lucille”, and “Keep-A-Knockin”( that last one thanks to John Carpenter’s Christine.)
Several years after my mom stopped tap dancing we’d go to the grocery store and one of the cashiers was the woman that ran that basement dance studio years prior. My mom and I would go through her aisle and they’d both talk a little, laugh loudly, and seemed to have a very fond connection between them. It was as if they were laughing and joking about a whole other life as our Cheerios and Kraft Mac and Cheese ran through the scanner. I feel that way when I hear songs like “Keep-A-Knockin”, “Long Tall Sally”, and “Tutti Frutti”. I go back to lonely Saturday nights listening to oldies on my AM/FM. Those songs kept me company in the quiet of my Midwestern bedroom; an awkward teenager living vicariously through the very beginnings of rock and roll. A smile comes to my middle-aged face every time I hear that incantation being sung, the one one that goes “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom.”
RIP Little Richard.