Little Richard interview: 'If I had been white, there never would have been an Elvis Presley' (2023)

At the Hollywood hotel where he lives all year round, Little Richard twists excitedly in his chair, does a few dance steps, thrusts and arm heavenwards and squeals: "O Lord, honey, you tell those English people to come see their Little Richard do his stuff on the concert stage. I will ah-maze and astound. They will see history come to life."

Trained, as a boy in Macon, Georgia, to sell snake oil in Dr Hudson's Travelling Medicine Show, Richard Penniman can still do a very convincing sales pitch. He will tell you that God Almighty so blessed this poor boy, the son of a bootlegger, that he rose from rural obscurity to become the Father of Rock, the Master Blaster, the Innovator, the Emancipator, the Black Angel of Soul.

And, good golly Miss Molly, he will tell you from the bottom of his heart: "If only I had been born white, there never would have been an Elvis Presley."

When this holy rolling spirit is in full flight, Little Richard will burst into song: a little Tutti Frutti here, a bit of Long Tall Sally there. In a voice that is still amazingly smooth and perfectly pitched, he launches into Slippin' and Slidin' (Peepin' and Hidin'), and then abruptly stops to hold out his arms and announce triumphantly: "The world never heard nothing like that until I came along. They was all singing slow things like Pennies from Heaven, and you know there weren't no pennies falling from heaven in my neighbourhood. I was singing a different tune, darling."

Yes, at 66, Little Richard is still crazy after all these years, and boasting that he will leave everyone in awe when he brings his act to Britain in May. As he sees it, the new tour will be 1962 all over again, when the Reverend Little Richard caused riots in London and Bristol and headlined a bill featuring some eager lads from Liverpool named John, Paul, George and Ringo.

"The only mistake I made was when Brian Epstein offered to give me a half interest in the group if I took some of their records back to American and got them a recording deal. I turned him down."

How could you do that, Richard?

"Well, with all those harmonies they were doing, I thought they sounded like the Everly Brothers. And I just figured the last thing the world needed was four more Everly Brothers."

In love with his own magnificence, Richard has often been underwhelmed by the promising talents who have gathered at his feet over the years. He remembers a skinny guy with a tambourine who used to follow him to parties in London, and says: "So, one day, I told this kid that he could stand at the side of the stage and play along with us on his little tambourine. And now, you look at him, my old friend Mick Jagger, and what do you see? You see him strutting down the stage just like I used to do. Isn't it obvious that he's doing my old act?"

Then, there was the young soul singer he met in a Georgia prison. "That's right, I discovered James Brown when nobody knew him but the warden." And the limo driver whose looks left him cold: "I thought Sonny Bono had a face that only a mother could love, and I wasn't even sure of that."

And the young black guitarist who kept pestering him for advice. "What was Jimi Hendrix calling himself in those days? Oh, yeah, it was Maurice James. I never thought he would amount to anything. He was always mumbling something about trying to make his guitar sound like my voice, and then I saw him trying to play the guitar with his mouth. That boy was wild."

When Hendrix later confided to his reluctant hero that he was hoping to have a hit with a song called Purple Haze, a bewildered Richard asked: "And how purple is it?"

Of the four Beatles,he liked Paul best and fondly remembers the young man's ambition to become a star in America. "Paul was always the nicest one, and when we were playing the Star Club in Hamburg, he used to hang out with me and ask questions about America. He'd say, 'Richard, is it a very big country?' and 'Tell me what American girls are like.'"

(Video) Little Richard interview: If I had been white, there never would have been an ...

But John Lennon was nothing but a thorn in Richard's side. "Heavens, that John was pure misery. If I would have had a stick, I think I might have beat him with it. He would do horrible things, like get you in a little room, pass gas and run out and lock you in. Oh my, I can still smell it."

You mean he liked to play a lot of practical jokes?

"Practical? What do you meanpractical?There wasn't anything practical about them. They were terrible."

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So how did the star of the great and glorious Richard become eclipsed by all these younger rivals? Why doesn't everyone agree that he is the grand architect of rock?

"Now, that's an easy one to answer, because you know a lot of people don't want to give Little Richard the credit he deserves. Some of it is just plain racism. They resent a good-looking black man who goes from having nothing to being rich and famous.

"My oh my, I was so poor that I couldn't have afforded a turkey sandwich if the turkey had brought it to me. And then, because I was a little flamboyant, some people thought I was Alice instead of Richard."

Alice? You mean, they didn't like you because you're gay?

"Well, I may have acted like Alice, but I was still Richard. I had to be Alice or the white folks wouldn't have let me play their clubs back in the Fifties. They were afraid that all the young white girls would take one look at this beautiful suntan and fall in love. If the older folks thought I was Alice, then it was safe to have me around.

"But the girls fell in love with me anyway. They took one look at this bronzed beauty and lost control. They had to tie the socks on me. Otherwise, those girls would have stripped me clean."

In his golden years, Richard has apparently decided that he was never really homosexual, and that neither sex nor drugs interest him today. He says: "I'm clean now, totally clean. Of course, I was never really dirty. But now, I don't even drink wine. Can you imagine that some folks even drink it for Communion?"

Richard appears to be shocked by this fact, but at the peak of his popularity, a sip of wine would have been the least of his vices. He had a reserved spot in the fast lane, cruising Los Angeles in his custom-made gold and white Cadillac, with its leopard skin interior and a boot full of loose cash.

He struggled with cocaine and alcohol problems, and never seemed to lack companions of both sexes. For a short time, he was married to a woman named Ernestine, but the most interesting of his girlfriends was a stripper who called herself Angel.

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"Oh, I was out and about with her, but I wouldn't say she was ever my girl. She was a lot of people's girl. She went out with everybody. She was a clothes-dropper. She liked to get naked."

When I ask whether the rumour is true that Angel was blessed with a 50-inch chest, Richard looks at me mischievously and says: "I never measured it. But I guess every bit of it must have been real in those days. These days, people got a lot ofthings they put up there to make themselves look big. But, you know, Richard always says, 'Watch out: every hill isn't necessarily a mountain.'"

The singer's own appearance is still rather youthful. He's lean and his face is almost wrinkle-free. But his brown complexion and long black hair, which he now keeps at shoulder length, make him look a little bit like an Apache warrior on speed. When he gets excited and starts talking rapidly, his eyes become huge and he waves his arms and kicks his feet.

He likes to point to Prince and Michael Jackson as examples of popular black artists who have followed his lead, but he doesn't feel that he has much to offer the current music scene. "With black audiences, you're only as popular as your last hit record. Black people tend to set trends, so if you're not in thecurrent trend, you are out. And, anyway, I don't care much for this music that's not really music. All the rappers are just copying the old beats and pretending to make something new. I'm like the old cook who could say that she made everything from scratch. Now, ain't nobody making anything from scratch."

Recently, a black admirer stopped Richard on the street and told him: "Stay chocolate." But he replied: "Suppose I feel like being pineapple tonight?"

It is clear that his ego is the size of Jupiter, but he is right about being one of the truly original voices of rock music. Before 1956, when Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally soared to the top of the record charts, the only composer who was doing similar work was Chuck Berry. In part, Elvis launched his career by doing a successful cover version of Tutti Frutti.

There is considerable justification for Richard's view that his music was given greater play when white singers put out their cover versions. Pat Boone had the greatest success with Tutti Frutti, and many other white entertainers, including the Beatles, did well with Long Tall Sally and other hits introduced by Little Richard. Forty years on, it is not easy to look back and see how radically new this music once seemed.

"I was afraid to play my tunes when I first went into a recording studio. I was just going to give them some old-fashioned rhythm and blues numbers because I thought the record company would laugh if I sent them tunes like Tutti Frutti.

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"So I sat in the corner of the studio and played some of the music for myself, and the producer heard it and said, 'What is that?' It didn't sound like anything he had heard. And we recorded it and, sure enough, the kids loved it. We knocked their toes out of their boots."

When his early recordings began to be played on popular radio, many of his friends and family had no idea that their Richard Penniman was the new sensation Little Richard.

"I came home one day and told my mother, 'Hey, Mom, that's me on the radio.' She didn't believe and told me not to be lying to her about such things. And she went on not believing that it was me until one of my Cadillacs showed up in the front yard."

When his career went through its inevitable lows, he was forced to sell the fancy cars and houses. Over the years, he has seen his reputation go up and down many times, and has had to fight to regain lost royalties and other legitimate income owed to him from past recordings.

Today, he lives reasonably well in his Hollywood hotel overlooking the seedier side of Sunset Boulevard. He's not rich and he's not poor. And he insists that what he wants most is to secure his rightful place of honour in rock history.

"At the recent inductions to the Rock Hall of Fame, Billy Joel said I was one of the true pioneers. It was nice to hear that, but even when people were ignoring my contributions, I always knew that there was a pillar in the house of rock that I had put there and that wasn't going to be moved. Nobody can change what I created all those years ago."

No, but Richard's massive ego and erratic style have often driven even his most ardent admirers to distraction. When I left him last week, he could not stop raving about how much he would impress "those English people" on his new tour. But, now, on the eve of his much-anticipated return to Britain, the concerts have suddenly been cancelled.

The promoters insist Richard is to blame. He says he is the innocent victim. He wants to play the concerts, but claims the promoter has inexplicably pulled out.

It's a shame that this difficult wonder of living history can't cross the Atlantic and strut his stuff one more time. Whoever is at fault, Richard is bearing this latest disappointment as well as can be expected.

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As he likes to say, life, with all its ups and downs, is "a blessin' and a lesson."

Interview by Michael Shelden. This interview was first published in The Daily Telegraph on April 19, 1999

FAQs

Was Elvis inspired by Little Richard? ›

Thornton's story is not unique, as Elvis was influenced by B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jackson, Tharpe, Big Boy and more. Little Richard argued that he was the rightful heir to the king of rock 'n' roll title, with Berry up there with him.

What did John Lennon say about Elvis? ›

'John Lennon said, 'I didn't have the nerve to tell Elvis last night, but when I was in high school I wanted to do everything I could to look like him. I almost got kicked out of school for it. Tell Elvis, without him, we'd be nothing'.

What Little Richard songs did Elvis sing? ›

Elvis Presley version
"Tutti Frutti"
Single by Elvis Presley
Length1:57
LabelRCA Victor
Songwriter(s)Little Richard, Dorothy LaBostrie
9 more rows

When did Wanda Jackson date Elvis? ›

There were other girls in Elvis Presley's life when Wanda Jackson dated him in the mid-1950s.

Who was Elvis Presley's favorite singer? ›

Elvis held Roy Orbison is very high regard, publicly stating that Roy had ' most perfect voice' and referring to him as the 'greatest singer in the world' during one of his Vegas concerts.

What did Chuck Berry say about Elvis? ›

Chuck Berry

"I identified a lot with Elvis, yeah. I love his style of singing, he was a very loyal guy - he was a little misled, but in the big picture he was a good guy." "Elvis Presley is like the 'Big Bang' of Rock 'n' Roll.

What did paul McCartney think of Elvis? ›

We all loved Elvis – he was so hot,” Paul McCartney gushed years later. “We were just so in love with him. He was just the greatest idol, always hamming it up, always doing a little funny thing. He was so great.”

What does Mick Jagger think of Elvis? ›

Mick Jagger on Elvis Presley (1974): “I never really liked him. Presley hasn't got anyone to tell him what to do and really that's what he needs more than anything else. His trouble is that it was always a question of making money.

Who was Elvis Presley's favorite female singer? ›

Elton John once said, There are only two things I know about Canada: hockey and Anne Murray." In a recent interview, Linda Thompson, a friend of the late Elvis Presley said, "Anne Murray was the King's favorite female singer and he used to listen to 'Snowbird' more than any other song.

Was Wanda Jackson the female Elvis? ›

She then began touring the following year with Elvis Presley. The two briefly dated and Presley encouraged her to record in the Rockabilly style. In 1956, Jackson signed with Capitol Records where she was given full permission to record both country and Rockabilly.
...
Wanda Jackson
Instrument(s)Vocals guitar piano
10 more rows

How old is Wanda Jackson now? ›

What was Wanda Jackson's biggest hit? ›

1. "Let's Have a Party"

Did Little Richard get royalties from Elvis? ›

His contract was typical for black musicians of the time—while white artists would enjoy a cut of between 3% and 5%—and Little Richard also reportedly received no royalties when his hits were used in movies or covered by white singers, a common practice in the music industry at the time.

Did Elvis wear makeup? ›

During a special appearance on The Hallmark Channel in 2019, Priscilla Presley, Elvis's former wife, revealed that the late performer relied heavily on makeup to give himself the signature eye look that he has been known for over the last half century-plus.

How much did Lisa Marie Presley inherit? ›

With Minnie Mae Presley's death in 1980, Lisa became the only surviving beneficiary. On her 25th birthday in 1993, Presley inherited her father's estate, which, thanks largely to the stewardship of her mother, had grown to an estimated $100 million.

What is the hardest Elvis song to sing? ›

One of Presley's biggest hits was the melancholy tune “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” but according to 710 Keel, he couldn't sing it correctly in a live performance.

Which singers did Elvis like? ›

Elvis enjoyed plenty of popular artists as well, like the Bee Gees, Tom Jones, Neil Sedaka and Peter, Paul & Mary. Ray Charles is an artist whose music pops up repeatedly in his collection.

Did Elvis Presley have perfect pitch? ›

He pointed out that despite an impressive vocal range of two and a half octaves and something approaching perfect pitch, Elvis was perfectly willing to sing off-key when he thought the song required it.

What did Sammy Davis Jr think of Elvis Presley? ›

Sammy was Elvis's biggest fan in Vegas

After the show, Davis went backstage to congratulate Elvis. “Sammy gave Elvis a big hug and told him how great he was,” recalled Joe Esposito. His enthusiasm, along with that of many other celebrities, made Elvis “incredibly happy,” noted Joe.

What did Sinatra say about Elvis? ›

Speaking about the "King of Rock and Roll" after his death in 1977, Sinatra said: "There have been many accolades uttered about Elvis' talent and performances through the years, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly. I shall miss him dearly as a friend. "He was a warm, considerate and generous man."

Why Elvis Presley is not the king of rock and roll? ›

A couple of reasons why Elvis WASN'T "The King of Rock & Roll: While Elvis is definitely a pioneering artist in rock music, his Influence isn't as directly heard in rock music as Chuck Berry and Little Richard's influence is. Elvis HATED the nickname "The King of Rock & Roll". Elvis was a deeply religious man.

What did The Beatles think of Elvis? ›

As teenagers, The Beatles, especially John Lennon, were strongly influenced by Elvis Presley. They started wearing their hair slicked back like Elvis. They admired his rebelliousness and his appeal to women, not to mention his musical talent. “Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis,” John Lennon said.

Did Michael Jackson ever meet Elvis? ›

The future King of Pop had met the King of Rock and his daughter in late 1974 while performing with the Jackson Five in Las Vegas. Michael, 16 then, was on his way up; Elvis, pushing 40 and terminally addicted, was on his way down.

Did John Lennon idolize Elvis? ›

'There's only one person in the United States we ever wanted to meet', said John Lennon. 'We just idolized him so much. The only person we wanted to meet in the USA was Elvis Presley'.

Did Keith Richards meet Elvis? ›

In an episode of "Ask Keith" (via Keith Richards on YouTube), he was asked whether he ever encountered Elvis, and his answer was tragically blunt. "He just fell down into ... the hole," Richards reflected. "I didn't want to know. I didn't want to meet a fallen idol, maybe."

Did The Beatles and Elvis get along? ›

Nothing personal in Elvis's dislike of The Beatles

At that point, Elvis apparently had nothing personal against John, Paul, George, and Ringo. He actually liked some of their songs, including Yesterday and Hey Jude. Billy Smith contends that Elvis actually felt a musical connection with The Beatles.

Did The Beatles ever meet Elvis Presley? ›

A secretive meeting between the Fab Four and the King. On August 27, 1965, a turning point in pop culture occurred at 525 Perugia Way in Bel Air, California, one that few knew about while it was taking place: the meeting between the four Beatles and Elvis Presley, in Elvis's home.

Did Priscilla go to Elvis funeral? ›

Priscilla noted that Elvis' funeral procession reminded her of how iconic the singer was. "Going out the gates in the limo and seeing the streets lined up on both sides all the way to the cemetery. You'd see glimpses, you'd see people crying, hysterical, fainting, and that's how impactful it was," she said on TODAY.

Did Ann-Margret and Elvis love each other? ›

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret's affair was more than just a display of Hollywood lust. The actress later described the pair of them as "soulmates," and it's easy to see why.

What was Elvis favorite food? ›

The peanut butter and banana sandwich has been referred to as a favorite of Elvis Presley, who was renowned for his food cravings such as the Fool's Gold Loaf, a loaf of French white bread filled with a pound each of bacon, peanut butter, and grape jelly.

How many Little Richard songs did Elvis cover? ›

Elvis notably recorded covers of four Little Richard tunes, “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip It Up,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Ready Teddy,” for his first two RCA albums in 1956.

How much did Lisa Marie Presley inherit? ›

With Minnie Mae Presley's death in 1980, Lisa became the only surviving beneficiary. On her 25th birthday in 1993, Presley inherited her father's estate, which, thanks largely to the stewardship of her mother, had grown to an estimated $100 million.

Is Elvis the film accurate? ›

Baz Luhrmann's hit biopic Elvis replicates in such detail so many scenes, events and wardrobe — the frilly shirt the singer wore when his mother died; the stained tablecloth the Colonel uses as a Las Vegas contract — that it's easy to believe everything in the film is accurate.

Did Austin Butler sing in Elvis? ›

Yes, Austin Butler did sing in Elvis. However, for certain parts, the real Elvis' voice was thrown in too. The actor watched multiple videos of Elvis performing, studying footage of films and concerts to perfect the legendary singer's voice.

Did Little Richard get royalties from Elvis? ›

His contract was typical for black musicians of the time—while white artists would enjoy a cut of between 3% and 5%—and Little Richard also reportedly received no royalties when his hits were used in movies or covered by white singers, a common practice in the music industry at the time.

Did Elvis wear makeup? ›

During a special appearance on The Hallmark Channel in 2019, Priscilla Presley, Elvis's former wife, revealed that the late performer relied heavily on makeup to give himself the signature eye look that he has been known for over the last half century-plus.

How old was Priscilla Presley when she married Elvis? ›

May 1, 1967: Elvis and Priscilla Presley get married in Las Vegas. When she was 21 years old, Elvis and Priscilla got married on May 1, 1967, in a Las Vegas ceremony that lasted just eight minutes.

How much money did Priscilla Presley get from Elvis? ›

The couple divorced on October 9, 1973 and agreed to shared custody of Lisa Marie; Priscilla also received a $725,000 cash payment, child support, spousal support, 50% of the proceeds from the sale of their home in Beverly Hills, and 5% of the royalties from Elvis' publishing companies.

Does Lisa Marie still own Graceland? ›

Lisa Marie Presley retains 100% sole personal ownership of Graceland Mansion itself and its over 13-acre original grounds and her father's personal effects - meaning costumes, wardrobe, awards, furniture, cars, etc.. She has made the mansion property and her father's personal effects permanently available for tours of ...

Why is 2nd floor of Graceland locked? ›

THE UPSTAIRS IS OFF LIMITS

It was there, in his bathroom, that Presley's body was found on Aug. 16, 1977. After the home was opened to the public in 1982, the second floor was sealed shut out of respect to the family — and also to avoid any macabre attention at the scene of his death.

Did Elvis actually fire his manager on stage? ›

No, Elvis didn't fire the Colonel from the stage at Las Vegas in real life. While the film shows Elvis firing his manager during a show after realising he's being deceived by the Colonel, this is not what happened in real life.

What does Priscilla Presley think of the Elvis movie? ›

Overall, although Elvis was hard to watch at times, Priscilla loved the film. And she thinks the King himself would've approved, too. “It was perfection,” she told Good Morning America in June. “This is a movie he really would have loved, showing who he was, what he was striving for, what his dreams were.”

Did Elvis have brown or blue eyes? ›

While his gorgeous locks of jet-black hair that perfectly complement Elvis Presley's eye color of striking ice blue helped him seduce any woman possible, it's surprising to know that The King of Rock' n' Roll was actually born a natural blonde.

Did the actor who played Elvis do his own singing? ›

Is Austin Butler really singing in 'Elvis'? The short answer is, yes, that really is Austin Butler's voice you hear in Elvis – with snippets of the real singer blended in later on.

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