Documentary Review – Little Richard: I Am Everything

“Don’t worry Richard. You will always be the true king of rock ‘n roll.” – Elvis, backstage to Richard

“Wop-bop-a-loo-mop, alop-bomp-bomp” – Richard Penniman

Little Richard: I Am Everything was released in theaters in 2023 and for all I know may still be playing in some of them. I caught it on Amazon Prime. I couldn’t wait to see it and the wait was worth it. It was excellent. If you are a rock and roll lover do not miss it.

This documentary not only deals with the flamboyant star we all knew and loved but its central theme is that he was not only a Black man in the segregated South but also a gay Black man in the segregated South whose father was a minister. (He also ran a nightclub and was a bootlegger. And threw Richard out of the house.)

We all kinda knew Richard was gay (but we had other less salutory words back then) but for a long time he didn’t come out. Oddly, for a documentary that deals frankly with his queerness, they never really tell you when he officially came out.

But that aside, in its 1 hour and 41 minute running time, it manages to provide a pretty good overview of Richard’s life and crucial importance to rock ‘n roll and to people who were different everywhere. If I have one qualm it’s that it makes it sound like Richard singlehandedly invented rock and roll. I think Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Bo Diddley and a few others might say otherwise. But hell, they have their own documentaries.

“I want you all to know that I am the bronze Liberace” – Little Richard. 

Richard was one of twelve children growing up in Macon, Georgia. He slept on pallets on the floor. Blues was everywhere, being played on the streets. But while he liked blues and his music was somewhat blues-based, by his own admission he wasn’t B.B. King or Ray Charles.

Among other artists, Richard was inspired by (now) fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Interestingly, she’s briefly portrayed in the doc by a beautiful musican named Valerie June whose music till now escaped me.)* In fact, he was backstage and she invited him out to sing. He caught the fever.

A few years later, Richard started playing with some snake oil salesman named Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. Interestingly, especially given that here in the States we’ve come to the conclusion that the worst thing you can be is a drag queen, Richard was for a while a drag queen named Princess Lavonne. Whe knew?

Richard’s first record was the 1951 single “Taxi Blues.” The song was a hit only in Georgia. He went on to record four singles (eight songs in total) for RCA. You can hear the Louis Jordan swing influence:

Two big influences on Richard at the time – a guy named Billy Wright and another one named Esquerita. Both gay, both out-there performers. Esquerita is the one who really taught him piano.

By the time 1953 rolled around, he had signed up with Specialty Records and had a band called the Upsetters. In New Orleans, Richard was trying to get it together with musicians including Fats Domino’s backup band. It wasn’t happening so they went to a local bar where he started pounding out a song he’d been doing called “Tutti Frutti.”

I knew the song orginally had some naughty lyrics but what I didn’t know was that it was about anal sex with a man. Sensing a hit, the producers found another songwriter to um, clean up the lyrics.

Wikipedia: “It became not only a model for many future Little Richard songs, but also for rock and roll itself. The song introduced several of rock music’s most characteristic musical features, including its loud volume, powerful vocal style, and distinctive beat and rhythm.**

In the 50s, songs Black artists were sold as “race records,” contributing to the long-standing embarassment of the United States being a harbinger of freedom to all but mostly to white men. But with independent DJs like Alan Freed, transistor and car radios, white teenagers heard this “devil’s music” and went nuts for it.

And so of course whitebread guys in sweaters like Pat Boone had hits with this and other Richard songs that can best be described as sad, pathetic, watered-down and, largely, complete shite. It wasn’t his whiteness so much as his style and persona. Elvis did a pretty good job with it but he got it.

Richard released a string of hits, the next one of which was “Long Tall Sally” and then later, “Good Golly Miss Molly.” As one woman said in the documentary, does anybody not know what it means when Richard says, “You sure like to ball?”

Richard was on top of his game. But while heading to a tour of Australia, he saw what he thought were flames on the engines and believed he saw angels holding the plane up. Later during a show he saw a fireball in the sky and was convinced it was a sign from God even though it was really Sputnik.

Richard quit rock n’roll, entered school and started singing gospel tunes. What’s that sound like? Well, lucky for you he recorded some of that stuff and (of course) called himself King of the Gospel Singers. Here’s [There Will Be] Peace in the Valley (for me):

After a long rock and roll drought, Richard got signed to a UK tour with Sam Cooke as an opener and with Billy Preston as one of his band members. He got booed when he sang gospel. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, he launched into “Long Tall Sally.” This sent the audience into full-blown hysteria with, according to one band member, riots every night.

This clip isn’t quite that hysterical but it shows the effect that Richard had on a crowd by doing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On:”

Brian Epstein brought Little Richard to Liverpool to meet his then-unknown band, The Beatles. The guys had seen Richard in a (sort of) rock and roll movie called The Girl Can’t Help It and just fucking worshiped the guy. You’ve likely heard McCartney do his best Richard impression. He learned how to go “wooo” directly from the man.(Director John Waters was a big Richard fan and swears his pencil-then moustache is a tribute to Richard.)

The Stones toured with Richard and suddenly Mick Jagger realized he didn’t have to just stand there but could move around and use the stage. Alas, Richard decided to revitalize his career at the exact moment his acolytes were “invading” America. His records no longer sold well.

Interestingly, Jimi Hendrix – fresh from his stint with the Isley Brothers – joined Richard’s band in 1964. Richard went into the studio and recorded a couple of tunes with Hendrix and Billy Preston. You won’t hear any flashes of genius from either of those guys here but it’s a pretty good tune:

Unfortunately, at some point in here Richard got involved with every drug known to mankind and fortunately, for his health, he went back to religion. Alas, he chose to repudiate his homosexuality. He sold Bibles for a time but that didn’t pay quite as much as he might have hoped. ATtone time, despite being ripped off on royalties, he was earning the equivalent of $5,000,000 a year. (And in fact, reportedly died with a net worth of $40 Mil.)

Richard eventually drifted back into rock but more as a nostalgia act than anything else. We all looked at him an an innovator but somewhat stone age by the time the Seventies and Eighties rolled around. (Though he did steal the show from Janis Joplin at the Atlantic City Pop Festival in 1970.)

Richard had also felt slighted by those who had the ability to bestow awards. The first time, I think, that he felt vindicated was when he received an American Music Award of Merit where he openly wept on stage. He, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers and others was one of the first inductees into the brand new (1986) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He missed the ceremony as he was in a car accident.

The film has an interesting clip of Richard appearing on some sort of Christian show as a fairly old man minus pompadour, makeup, etc. He looks his age but if you passed him on the street you’d never recognize him.

Little Richard, the architect of Rock and Roll, died just a few short years ago May 9, 2020 at the ripe old age of 87. I think he eventually got his due and by any measure he is clearly in the stratosphere of rockers. And as he himself would tell me, it’s time to shut up.

Except I can’t leave without playing “Keep a Knockin'” whose opening drum riff John Bonham played one day while just screwing around and which led directly to the Zep song “Rock and Roll.”

*As a side bonus, here’s Valerie doing a tune called “Shakedown.”

**In 2007, an eclectic panel of renowned recording artists ranked “Tutti Frutti” at No. 1 on Mojo’s “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World” and hailed the recording as “the sound of the birth of rock and roll”.

Here’s a Spotify list that should keep you busy for a while:

11 thoughts on “Documentary Review – Little Richard: I Am Everything

  1. Great gosh a’mighty, that voice, that piano, that energy – Little Richard was really something else!

    When he started hitting those piano keys and went “wooo”, there was just no friggin way you wouldn’t start moving’ and groovin’ – unless perhaps you were dead!

    I see the documentary is also available for rent on YouTube and definitely want to watch it.


      1. I know I will. Much prefer a doc rather than a bio pic. In my memory bank somewhere I have something kicking around with Jerry Lee and Little Richard getting interviewed and it turned into hell fire. Both off the wall. I’d pay to see or hear that again. Maybe Doc with his sources knows something about this.


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