By NATALIE JAMES

I recently attended a rehearsal for a queer, Black gospel choir here in New Orleans. From the moment I walked into rehearsal and all throughout our singing, Little Richard permeated my mind. The rehearsal space was at a community center just five minutes from The Dew Drop Inn Hotel & Lounge—the famed gathering spot where Little Richard first sang his hit record “Tutti Frutti” in 1955.

Little Richard’s work embodies what it means for queer Black spiritual freedom to thrive through the creative process. That’s why when I watched HBO’s documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, I was not surprised to learn that Little Richard is indeed the architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll music worldwide. His style and energy, undeniably manifestations of his unapologetically Black, queer, and deeply religious identity, laid the blueprint for the anatomy of Rock ‘n’ Roll iconography and continues to influence some of the biggest names in music of all kinds to this day. The origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll are inherently Black, queer, and churchy, and we have Little Richard to thank for teaching us that.

Richard Wayne Penniman grew up as a queer, Black, preacher’s kid in 1930s and 40s Macon, Georgia. One of twelve children raised in Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches, Little Richard was deeply entrenched in the Black religious tradition and was a church kid that loved to sing and bang on the piano. He had such an ‘anointing’ on him that folks in his community often asked him to sing and pray for them — that same anointing made him an undeniable progenitor of Rock ‘n’ Roll culture.

After being thrown out of his home for being a gay child, Little Richard launched his career singing blues and gospel at Ann’s Tic-Toc, a gay speakeasy in his hometown. This led him to sing “Strange Things Are Happening Everyday” for Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium. Singing on stage for his idol steered him firmly in the entertainment direction and from there, he leapt at opportunities to perform.

According to the documentary, he performed in Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show playing piano and singing Louis Jordan’s tune “Caldonia”; and he performed a drag act as Princess Lavonne and made his way through the so-called ‘chitlin circuit’, playing at small clubs in Black towns throughout the South. This primed Little Richard to meet Billy Wright, a Blues musician whose hair and style of dress transformed what he knew to be possible. Little Richard soon began to wear a pompadour, exaggerate his makeup, and dress flamboyantly–becoming as pretty, queer, and irresistible as possible!

After learning how to play the piano in a free and frenetic style from musician and performance artist Esquerita, Little Richard assembled the group Little Richard and The Upsetters, leading to their 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti”. The bold eroticism of “Tutti Frutti”, a song that alluded to sex and sounded like nothing else while embodying the essence of unbridled desire, set the stage for Little Richard’s fervor and intensity to become powerfully infectious to young people across the world. In the United States, the power of teenage frenzy (especially white teenage frenzy) has always generated fear in those who tow the line of repression, puritanism, and conservatism. Rock ‘n’ Roll developed as the antithesis to this fear and shifted Black music from being siloed as ‘race music’ ushering in the public experimentation and freedom of a generation. In a nutshell, the power of Little Richard’s queer Black musical style and image pushed the confines of delight and terror in our social system and led to a cultural evolution. This power informed the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, and more; and it continues to inspire every contemporary Rock ‘n’ Roll idol to this day.

Little Richard is the architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll and his legacy is present everywhere. It’s the reason why, when I hear Hezekiah’s Walker’s “Lift Him Up”, Prince’s “Adore”, and David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie”, I witness Little Richard’s spirit pushing through the vibrations of their instruments, voices, and bodies. Little Richard gave us permission to court danger and enticement and left us with more access to freedom than ever.

Little Richard is what rock stars are made of and if we want to be free then we must allow ourselves to dabble in danger and delight too.

About Natalie James

About Natalie James

Natalie J. James is a writer, Black life archivist, narrative builder and storyteller based in New Orleans, LA. Her writing work seeks to highlight the modalities of Black life as sacred while honoring the essential truth at the center of each of our stories. Through her Substack blog ‘The Source of Light’, she documents the work of Black artists from around the country and connects the works to some of life’s most tangible and intangible questions. Raised on the Eastside of Indianapolis, Natalie is always finding ways to elevate the story of Naptown wherever she goes. You may find her in her favorite New Orleans coffee shops drinking honey matcha or walking barefoot on the bayou before the break of dawn.