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Chicago Sun Times

Little Richard's gospel truth

January 14, 2000


Little Richard Little Richard calls himself the architect of rock 'n' roll.

And every good architect draws from righteous angles. For Little Richard Wayne Penniman, few influences were bigger than Chicago gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

"She was my inspiration," Penniman said in a call from his Sunset Boulevard digs in Los Angeles. "She used to call herself Haley. I met her when I was a boy, before I made [his 1955 debut single] `Tutti Frutti.' She would come into Macon [Ga.] to sing at the City Auditorium. She wasn't just screamin' and hollerin'. She could sing." And in a tender, high-pitched sway, Penniman began singing, "Go tell it on the mountain. . . ."

It's doubtful that Penniman will cover gospel music Sunday night at House of Blues, but the sincerity and passion in his voice demand that he record another gospel album. His sterling 1959 gospel album "God Is Real" (produced by Quincy Jones) was recently re-released by Mercury Records. In 1958 Penniman was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister at Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, Ala.

Penniman has flirted with the church throughout his career. After studying at Oakwood, he discarded the secular world by tossing a lavish ring into the sea. And in 1981 he again returned to the church for a brief spell.

"I'd love to do an all-gospel show," Penniman said when broached with the idea. "I get chills in my body when Mahalia Jackson sings."

Nearly all of Penniman's dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel. The architect of rock 'n' roll mixed that ministry--not unlike the preaching Bruce Springsteen did on his 1999 tour--with theatrics he learned from the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.

Penniman's hard-driving piano rhythms came from two places. The late pompadoured piano player Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr., who was discovered by rockabilly hepcat Gene Vincent) showed Penniman how to go high on treble without compromising bass. Penniman met Esquerita when he traveled through Macon with a preacher named Sister Rosa.

Then, Penniman credits his technical force to East St. Louis, Ill., gospel singer Brother Joe May, aka the Thunderbolt of the Middle West. Penniman explained, "I used to get in a room and try to make my piano sound just like him. He had so much energy." May generated energy by moving from a subtle whisper to a thunderous tenor and back in a four-bar phrase.

Some of this will be covered in the NBC biopic "The Little Richard Story," airing Feb. 20. The two-hour drama stars Leon ("The Temptations," "Waiting to Exhale") in the title role and Garrett Morris as Penniman's preacher. "The Little Richard Story" is directed by Robert Townsend ("The Five Heartbeats," "Hollywood Shuffle.")

"I haven't seen the finished product," Penniman said. "They started the movie without us. We came in on it. We supervised the music, but we didn't do any new versions. [The film uses 10 original recordings.] I like the old versions better. You ain't going to do it as good as you did back then, so why bother?"

So Penniman is content to awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom around the country singing from his impressive catalog of hits: "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," just to name a few.

He may have one of the most diverse audiences in rock 'n' roll. Last summer Penniman endeared himself to thousands of kids and families in a marathon 2 1/2-hour concert at the Eyes to the Skies festival in west suburban Lisle. Some friends of mine brought their 3-year-old daughter Jessica to the outdoor concert. To this day, Jessica rocks around the house saying, "Shut up," which Penniman repeats like a mantra onstage.

Then, a few months after the Lisle gig, Penniman headlined Sun City West, a retirement community outside of Phoenix. "It was a bunch of old people--like myself," said Penniman, 67. "We were reliving our youth. It was fantastic. I thank God for longevity."

When he's off the road, Penniman enjoys appearing on the long-running "Hollywood Squares" television show. "Whoopi Goldberg is a good friend of mine," Penniman said of his fellow square. But she's not such a good friend that she would relinquish her middle square--Penniman's favorite. Of course, that square has its roots in the late comedian Paul Lynde.

Lynde brought the same flamboyance to comedy that Penniman does to rock 'n' roll. "You always get called on if you sit there," Penniman said with a chortle. "The outside ones are my second favorite, but if you sit inside, you don't get called on that much. I like Gilbert Gottfried on that show, too. I like the way he screams, `I'M OVER HERE! I'M OVER HERE!' "

But Penniman didn't like the hype over Y2K. In fact, he stayed home and went to bed early on New Year's Eve, even though his compatriot the Rev. Al Green was playing down the street at House of Blues in Los Angeles. "People were so crazy," he said. "Hiding water and hoarding sandwiches? Go ahead and eat your sandwich! And nothing happened. I knew the God that I serve was able to deliver me. And he didn't bring me this far to leave me."

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