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Happy Birthday, Little Richard
Tuesday, December 05, 2006   By: Juan Paxety

The wild man of rock 'n roll is 74

Scott over at Powerline sends birthday wishes to Little Richard Penniman.  Scott has some good material about the inventor of Rock 'n Roll, but doesn't seem to know Richard's early history.  Here's the email I sent him:

Dear Scott,

I'll call this an expansion, rather than a correction.  Your reference to Little Richard's music as a cross between New Orleans rhythm and blues and the gospel of the deep south is not quite accurate.  Richard is a native of the hotbed of music, Macon, Georgia.  Richard's music grew directly out of the music he grew up hearing and playing in that town - a sound of it's own.  It wasn't just Richard.  Guitar player Johnnie Jenkins, who inspired and taught Jimi Hendrix, lived in and played in Macon at the time.  Otis Redding came along just slightly after Richard's first hits, as did James Brown.  There were clubs and other African-American businesses at the corner of Broadway and Mulberry Street, and Richard was a well know figure there - and just up Broadway at the Douglass Theater.  The intersection has undergone urban renewal now, but the Douglass is still there - and restored.  Nearby is the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

A little later, with the entry of Phil Walden into the music business, most of the soul singers of the 60s came to town - Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Carla Thomas, etc. Then the Allman Brothers, but that's another story.

Anyway, back to Richard.  He told me his first recording was actually at WBML radio, an AM station in Macon that actually played rather middle of the road music in the 50s.  It was much more well known for news than music. Richard said he really made the women at church mad - he'd take gospel melodies and changes, and adapt them to secular songs.  The original versions were much more raunchy than the versions eventually released on records.

I was very surprised the first time that I met Richard.  It was off-stage at a Georgia Music Hall of Fame event. He was a soft-spoken, calm, almost shy man - very much unlike his stage persona.

Back in the 80s, Macon was looking for a point-of-destination tourist attraction.  I got Richard on-board for a campaign to claim Macon as the birthplace of rock 'n roll - after all Richard claimed to have invented the music style.  While the claim can be argued, I think he has a legitimate a claim as anyone.  Anyway, the powers that be in Macon, thinking small as they usually do, didn't buy into the idea.  They chose to try to draw people to historic (i.e. old) homes - something many towns can claim.  They passed up celebrating something truly unique - the life and accomplishments of a world famous native son, Richard Penniman.

I join you in wishing him Happy Birthday.


(c)1968- today j.e. simmons or michael warren