In 2004, for a dizzying five minutes, I spoke on the telephone with Little Richard. BBC Radio Four had commissioned me to make a short feature on his roots as a performer, and I was hoping that he would agree to be interviewed. I had a phone number – I think it was a Holiday Inn in Los Angeles – and had managed several times to reach his personal assistant, until the day when the call was picked up by someone with a lilting Georgia accent, and I realized with a shock that I was speaking to the man himself.
I wish I could say that the conversation that followed was as memorable as his appearance at the 1988 Grammy Awards, when, appearing alongside Buster Poindexter (aka the New York Dolls’ David Johansen) to present the award for Best New Artist, he lit into the audience for never awarding him anything, declared himself “the architect of rock and roll”, and proceeded (three times) to give the accolade to himself. The Richard Penniman I spoke to was subdued, courteous, and unforthcoming. He gave me the number for his attorney, who would make the decision about “whether this is good for me to do.” Eventually my producer, Tim Dee, received an email: Mr Penniman would agree to be interviewed if we paid him $64,000. It was unfortunately more than we could afford, but far less than he deserved, after decades of exploitation by bad record deals and years of neglect by historians and critics, who never really knew what to do with his flamboyant rock and roll standards, each as exhilarating and electric as his trademark falsetto whoop.
In my 1998 article in History Workshop Journal, on which the Radio Four feature was based, I set out to redress that neglect. Titled “Sexual Politics and African American Music; or, Placing Little Richard in History,” it examines the skewed visions of “authenticity” that helped push Little Richard to the margins in histories of black music. In the process, it explores Richard’s roots in the tradition of female impersonation that was a ubiquitous part of mid-twentieth-century African-American entertainment. Taking the minstrel show stage at age fourteen as a pompadoured hussy called Princess Lavonne, Richard honed his craft on the black tent show and nightclub circuit by learning from the “freakish” singers and drag queens who performed alongside him. Among them were Esquerita, Billy Wright, and Patsy Vidalia (born Irving Ale), who hosted New Orleans’ annual drag ball and who served as compere at the city’s top black nightclub, the Dew Drop Inn, where Little Richard performed regularly in 1953 and 1954.
Most of those performers are now forgotten, along with the black showbiz circuits that shaped and sustained them. The Dew Drop Inn is currently for sale: badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, it was belatedly recognized as a site of significance by the New Orleans Historic Landmarks Commission, but the attempt by its owner’s grandson to restore it as a combination landmark, nightclub, and educational centre ultimately failed for lack of funds.
And now Little Richard is gone too, though in his case the commemorations have been loud and enthusiastic. Undeniably, much has changed in the twenty years since my article was published: the public visibility of queer and trans identities gives a new heft and resonance to Little Richard’s story, as does the notable success of black queer artists like Frank Ocean and Lil Nas X. Yet placing Little Richard in history still remains a problematic endeavour. Even some of the most heartfelt tributes have praised him in ways that somehow diminish him. As the critic and historian Tavia Nyong’o has argued, as a black queer performer he’s too easily framed as “fabulous but disposable”, a loveably outlandish oddity. Fabulous he indisputably is, but he is by no means disposable. His very outlandishness marks him as the bearer of forgotten histories – of sex, race, identity, and gender fluidity – whose unearthing remains no less critical today.