Who is the King of Rock’n’Roll ? The answer to this question amongst rock’n’rollers is not universal, but of course most will come up with the name of the boy from Tupelo, Elvis Presley.
But not according to one of the wildest icons in r’n’r history. Little Richard claimed he was the brightest star of them all. But more of that later. On 23rd February we organised a tribute concert here in Moscow, to celebrate the legend that is Little Richard and his great music.
I began the evening with a rock’n’roll dance class. During the evening we played Richard’s most famous songs. And before the band came on stage, I gave a brief speech celebrating the legend. We all gave him a big cheer and round of applause in his absence !
Then on stage, legends from Russia; the one and only Coral Reefs (“Korallovie Reefiy” in Russian), one of the most famous music bands in Russia. Regular readers of this column will know something about them from my previous articles; their style is rock’n’roll with a dose of swing. They predictably put on a superb show, rocking the joint from their first number to their last. Overall, a great evening !
Now back to the Man himself. I confess to a bias here. Little Richard was my first ever rock’n’roll hero. I thought (and still think) he was magnificent. There was also something different about Little Richard, compared to the other top iconic legends of rock’n’roll. I’m talking about Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. In previous “Russia’n’Roll” columns in this magazine, I’ve documented how in their different ways these 3 legends had a dark side; in addition to detailing more importantly why they were truly Great. But Richard, in addition to being in my opinion at least equally as great, was also essentially a nice guy. And also to say eccentric would be putting it mildly; he was a real crazy banana ! But the history shows he did not have the skeletons the others had.
I saw him live more than once in my youth. My biggest memory of him was at the London Rock’n’Roll Show in 1972 (again, I wrote about this fantastic event in a previous column). For me, he should have been top of the bill that night – he was brilliant, performing “with all the brakes off” !
Film clips from the 1950s indicate he was even greater then, when he was in his prime. At that time he always seemed to be wearing suits 2 sizes too big for him with an outrageously huge pompadour on top – fantastic ! I mentioned in a previous article the role of Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the 1950s, in helping to bridge the racial divide socially with their rock’n’roll successes. Although neither were overtly political, they are to be congratulated for their contribution in this area.
And it was in the 1950s, in 1957 at the height of his fame and popularity, that Richard took the most fateful decision of his life:
He quit rock’n’roll. Legend has it that while travelling on a plane in Australia during his concert tour there, the aircraft was hit by lightning. The pilot had to make a forced landing. Richard believed this was a message from God. His next step was to stand on the Sydney Harbour bridge and throw all his expensive rings (which have always been a trademark of his) away. For him this was an act of ridding himself of the devil.
Yes folks, he got religion big time. And let’s face it, there are many, many worse things one can choose to do. He dedicated his life to Christianity, not only preaching but also making many gospel albums.
But he did make a comeback a few years later, albeit the music continued to take a back seat to his religion. His music became mixed with other influences, not just rock’n’roll and these were the kind of concerts I saw him perform live in. But as we say where I come from, he was still the business.
Oh yeah, one more thing about that 1972 concert …………
I’ve heard more than one rock’n’roll purist from that time being very critical of his performance at Wembley stadium. I totally disagree. He was a bit different from the Richard of old for sure, but the outrageousness on stage only added to the act for me. But that’s one other great thing about our great r’n’r culture – we can have different opinions !
Elvis is frequently referred to as “the King”. During his comeback years, Richard labeled himself the “Quasar”. Quasars are the brightest objects in the Universe, so the implication was that HE was the real King of Rock’n’Roll. Many would disagree with this – but I’m not so sure.
And surely all of us can give him credit for being the original singer of the most memorable line of lyrics in r’n’r history – “A WOP-BOP-A-LOO-BOP, A-LOP-BAM-BOOM” !
Finally, all you guys and gals have been seeing and hearing a lot about Russia in the media lately. Well, here’s a message from we rock’n’rollers here in Russia: We support our rockin’ brothers and sisters in the Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine. We support rock’n’roll and not pro-fascist governments like the one in Kiev, Ukraine !