[MUSIC - Little Richard: Good Golly Miss Molly]
Janae Pierre: This is The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, sitting in from Melissa Harris-Perry.
[MUSIC - Little Richard: Good Golly Miss Molly]
This is none other than the incomparable and larger-than-life entertainer, Little Richard.
[MUSIC - Little Richard: Good Golly Miss Molly]
Though we lost Little Richard in 2020, to bone cancer, his legacy as the architect of rock and roll, and showing us all what it means to be a rock star, lives on.
Little Richard: Michael was inspired by me. Prince James Brown, I discovered him. Jimi Hendrix was my guitar player.
Paul McCartney: I used to stand on the desk and do Little Richard.
Little Richard: I love you, Paul. Hello, Linda.
John Waters: Everyone was beholden to him. He spit on every rule there was in music.
Little Richard: I was unpredictable. They didn't know what I was going to do. No, you got it. God gave it. Show it to the world.
Lisa Cortes: My name is Lisa Cortés, the director of Little Richard: I Am Everything.
Janae Pierre: Lisa's new documentary about little Richard's origin story premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will premiere in New York and LA this weekend. I asked Lisa what drew her to tell the story of the complex and nuanced man known as Little Richard.
Lisa Cortes: It was the spring of 2020. We were in lockdown. It was a challenging, sad time, and Little Richard passed away. I started hearing his music everywhere, and it brought me a lot of joy and nostalgic memories of dancing around to Tutti Frutti with my cousins when I was a kid. I then saw a broad range of people who were celebrating him online. From Elton John to Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters.
Of course, my next step is, "Wow, I want to watch a film about this person." Then I discovered the only film that you could find was a fictional biopic where Leon played Little Richard. There was not a documentary on this incredible man.
Janae Pierre: Yes, which is very surprising. I do remember that movie, it used to air all the time on BET. It was really great. You're right, that was the only thing that was around, until now. One thing that I really love about your documentary is the fact that you use little Richard's voice throughout the film, and from various interviews that he's done throughout his career. Why was it so important for people to hear his voice?
Lisa Cortes: I wanted to give him agency to tell his story. We did a very big archival dive, to see if we could find all the instances of him narrating and taking us on this incredible journey, from cradle to grave. Richard, if anything I've learned in making this film, is you have to give him the mic. It was important to then build a second layer in the storytelling, of family, friends, musicians who worked with him, and are incredible Black and queer scholars, to give context, but also to be---
All of these participants are in conversation with Richard, because sometimes he's saying things that we as an audience question, and sometimes he is sharing things that, in the words of Lee Angel, are not exactly the truth. Even though Richard's voice narrates the film, we are in conversation with him as an audience.
Janae Pierre: You talked about that archival dive that you had to take, from cradle to grave. Let's go to the cradle part of that, because you take us all the way back to his origin in Macon, Georgia. What do we learn about how he was brought up?
Lisa Cortes: I think what's most interesting for me, this film looks at the roller coaster that Richard goes on, between his idea of what it is to be a saint, and what it is to be a sinner. A sinner, for him, was singing this rock 'n' roll music, and being queer. It's a pendulum that he is navigating throughout his life. We see that in his origin story, these seemingly disparate contradictions are there very early on.
His father is a Minister, owns a nightclub, and is a bootlegger. He goes to the Holy Roller church, he goes to the more sedate Baptist church. He is dressing in his mother's curtains and putting on makeup. So many of the things that, throughout the course of his life, he's trying to figure out how to hold on to all of these things. As Angela Robinson said, at times, it tore him asunder. This is a part of his origin story.
Janae Pierre: In some of the shows, early on in his career, from what was known as the Chitlin' Circuit, Little Richard actually performed in drag, as Princess Lavonne. Talk about that.
Lisa Cortes: That was a really interesting discovery, and it is a story that Richard narrates, of being kicked out of his home as a teenager, for being queer. He is taken in by the owners of a gay club in Macon, Georgia, Tic Toc, and then he goes on the road, on the Chitlin' Circuit. In this character of Princess Lavonne, he is performing in drag. The other thing, what came to mind, for me, was-- He's not the first.
There are recorded instances of people in drag, and drag balls in America, as early as the late 1800s. I think it's especially interesting, in a time when drag performers are being criminalized, for us to show in this film, this long tradition of people who are performing in this modality.
Janae Pierre: To put a timeline on it, when Little Richard was performing in drag, this was what? The late '50s?
Lisa Cortes: No. No, oh, no, the 1940s. Yes. He's born in 1932. It's early '40s.
Janae Pierre: He's fighting this contradiction from his childhood, and now on the road, into his career, in the '40s.
Lisa Cortes: Yes, his career takes off in 1955. The release of Tutti Frutti, he has regional hits before that. '55 is when the supernova that is Little Richard lands on Earth.
Janae Pierre: Land he did. When we come back, we'll talk about the rise of Little Richard and the battles he faced throughout his life and career. This is The Takeaway.
[MUSIC - Little Richard: Tutti Frutti]
We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, sitting in for MHP. We're continuing our conversation with Lisa Cortes, director of the new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything. I asked her to tell me about the origins of his hit Tutti Frutti.
Lisa Cortes: I don't want to give away too much, but I can share that the original lyrics began, "Tutti Frutti, good booty." He was recording in New Orleans, doing a very traditional sound, and then he goes to a club when they take a break, and he unleashes this whole other moment, and song. His A&R person, Bumps Blackwell, is like-- He just smells a hit, but they know that they have to clean up the lyrics.
Janae Pierre: I want to talk a bit about the separation of Black music from the mainstream, when Little Richard was first starting out. How did that affect his career?
Lisa Cortes: What's interesting about Richard is, he goes on the road. Black and white musicians, for the most part, were not performing together, and certainly, particularly in the south, but other places in the US also, Black and white audiences are not in the same venues, watching these artists, but they have-- I love the stories that we talked about in the film, where one night is for the Black kids, another night is for the white kids.
Then the white kids start coming, and they literally move these ropes that were put in place, to keep the kids from mixing together. It still takes a long time for Black artists to cross over to the pop side of things, but Richard is a part of the momentum of that change.
Janae Pierre: Talk about the white entertainers, like Elvis and Pat Boone, that literally copied Little Richard's work and profited off of it.
Lisa Cortes: Well, a lot of people might forget that Elvis covered Tutti Frutti, and then Pat Boone covered Tutti Frutti, with his special approach.
Janae Pierre: It was very laughable, yes. [laughs]
Lisa Cortes: It's an interesting time. Pat Boone covered other Little Richard songs, also. Little Richard started to get frustrated and he started speeding up his songs. He was like, "If I make it faster, then Pat Boone can't keep up." This idea that you can only go so far as a Black artist, then your music is rerecorded and it sells more, and has a broader appeal, is an unfortunate part of the history.
Janae Pierre: I want to speak more about Little Richard and his personality. Like we said, he was just so vibrant, but how was Little Richard able to navigate being so bold, Black, and queer, during a time when people like Emmett Till were being murdered?
Lisa Cortes: I always think of that comparison of 1955, where Emmett Till is murdered and Little Richard burst on the scene, with such boldness and exuberance. Certainly, Little Richard, he was arrested and beaten by the police, but it makes his arrival and the statements that he is making with his arrival quite remarkable, because those are statements about gender fluidity and queerness, that are still troubling to some people in this country.
Janae Pierre: It seemed to be eating away at Little Richard throughout his career, as he got bigger and bigger. At some point, he decided to actually do something about it, and he went to Oakwood College to study religion. Tell us what happened there.
Lisa Cortes: Richard has a moment that's very interesting, when he goes to Australia, and he thinks the world is coming to an end. He comes back, cuts his hair, and goes to Oakwood. I loved meeting with his classmate from that time, because the gentleman shared how Richard really wanted to save people. He would stop people on the campus and he would pray for them. He was very sincere. His connection to God was a constant in his life.
I think the complexities for Richard arose when he himself did not know how to reconcile that relationship and his understanding of the displeasure he thought God had with him for performing this devil's music, and for being queer.
Janae Pierre: Talk about his influence on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Lisa Cortes: In the film, you'll hear from Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney about their connection to his music, from when they were very young. They started listening to those early hits. In the case of Paul McCartney mimicking the "Woo," and Mick Jagger provides a list of so many things that he learned from Richard.
Janae Pierre: What is the takeaway you want folks to get from this movie, and about the larger-than-life Little Richard?
Lisa Cortes: That he is a king of rock and roll. He is an emancipator and a liberator, and that goes beyond the music. He is intersectional in his conversation with culture. His boldness, innovation, and style made a way for Prince, for Little Nas X, for Harry Styles, for people who are looking for freedom of expression in all facets of their life, and that he started that energy. Knowing this history of Richard, of the other queer African-American musicians who mentored him, is very important to know, recognized, and honor, when we think about rock and roll.
Janae Pierre: Lisa Cortes, director of the new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Lisa Cortes: Thank you.
Little Richard: Woo. Let it all hang out, with the beautiful Little Richard. Come down in Macon, Georgia. I want you all to know, that I am the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Let all the women folks say "Woooo!" Let all the men say "Uhhh!" Woo, my soul. We going to do a little thing for you.
[MUSIC - Little Richard: Rip It Up]
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