While watching John Waters’ controversial movie Pink Flamingoes for this course, one thing that lingered in my mind was how important the film, and its creator, ultimately were to queer culture. Despite what you may (and let’s be honest, will) think about it by its conclusion if you can stomach it, it is a cult classic still talked about today with fans similar to those of Rocky Horror, and there was nothing like it or him at the time of its theatrical release. I consider Little Richard in the same way I consider John, because even today it is hard to state there was anything, or anybody, quite like Little Richard at the time.
Little Richard in my opinion is not just an important part of music culture, but queer culture as well. For one thing, the subject of his sexuality was a mystery throughout his career, and that mystery continues to this day. Whether it’s intentionally vague or not can also be debated, but what is known is he’s admitted to having sexual relationships with men and women, had drag queen stints, married a woman, told his biographer in 1984 he is omnisexual, told both his biographer and Penthouse magazine in 1995 he is homosexual, and authorized Mojo magazine calling him a “bisexual alien” in 2007. Who knows? The only thing that seems crystal clear amidst all the confusion is he does not identify as straight.
Little Richard was like nobody else on the planet at the time, in more ways than his sexual orientation. He broke barriers for both sound and skin color that were unheard of in his heyday. He was one of the first popular black crossover artists in music, selling out stadiums filled with black fans and white fans, appealing to minorities while being embraced by the majorities. He combined elements of different music genres like gospel music and the blues into rock and roll music everybody could not help but love, even if they did not want to; they usually did not want to, because of both his questionable sexual orientation and his androgynous appearance. And his voice. Holy shit, his voice! Drag queens in the ’50s who wore long wigs or had long hair like him, and who ever sounded high pitched like him (singing or just talking) were usually banished to the darkest recesses of street corners or bars with very low attendance, but in that same time Richard was selling out major stadiums and earning the respect of all who viewed his performances (spoiler: there were a lot of viewers). His flamboyance was never seen before from a major musician of the time, let alone a singer in as high a profile as him. His high pitch vocal style still resonates in gay bars in California, where “Tutti Frutti” can commonly be heard on the same night on the dance floor as Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” and Adele’s “Hello”.
Every single thing that made Little Richard Little Richard was odd, weird, and was not seen before he entered the stage, entered the public eye, entered people’s thoughts, hearts, and minds, and blew it all away with good catchy music you could not help but dance to, even if you had nobody to dance with. His influence and excellence inspired generations of straight, queer, and questioning individuals alike to get into music, while simultaneously inspiring musicians of his same generation to improve (as both musicians, and people). There was never anybody quite like Little Richard before he started, and I cannot say there has been anybody quite like Little Richard ever since.