Waking up to the death of Little Richard is not how I wanted to start my day. I know he lived to the grand old age of 87, giving us heaven and hell for all those years, but I still feel this one in my gut.
I know people think of Elvis as the king of rock and roll but it’s always been Little Richard for me. I like Elvis just fine, but the unbridled spirit of rock and roll was first found in the wild-eyed hoops and hollers of Richard Penniman.
You can still watch clips of him in the ’50s banging away on his piano and letting out savage “wooos” (that seemed to straddle both the sacred and the profane) and be knocked out by the sheer unguarded vitality of it all.
There was nothing like him before. I don’t think there’s been anything like him since.
I’m not a believer in premonitions, but I do find it interesting that I was compelled yesterday, for reasons unknown, to look up this track he recorded for the Paul Mazursky film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I don’t know why it popped in my mind, but it did.
“Great Gosh A’ Mighty” was the last single of Little Richard’s career to hit the Billboard charts, peaking at number 42. It had been a very long time since Richard had been in the game. He was hardly retired (he toured like mad well into his 70s), but as a recording artist, he was practically a non-entity.
Director Paul Mazursky didn’t just ask Richard for a song for Down and Out, he cast him in a supporting role (basically playing a version of himself). He was so delightful in the part that you wish he would have made more movies. I can’t think of any comedy his presence wouldn’t have improved.
Down and Out was released way back in 1986—a comedy about class, in which the life of a wealthy married couple (Richard Dreyfus and Bette Midler) gets turned upside down when they take in a homeless man played by Nick Nolte. It’s damn funny, and I wish more people remembered it so I could talk about it more often.
Little Richard plays one of their well-to-do neighbors (the improbably named “Orvis Goodnight”) and in a wild party scene, he jumps on the piano and provides the soundtrack for the festivities. It’s a jolt of lightning in the movie. “Great Gosh A’ Mighty” may have been recorded in the ’80s, but it sounds like a lost hit from Richard’s peerless ’50s heyday. It’s all there: from the barnstorming piano rolls, to the gospel backing vocals, and of course, those sky-scraping wooos that sounded like nothing less than a man losing his mind and finding that he likes it.
It had been a long time since we’d heard that, and great gosh a’ mighty, it had been a long time coming.
Little Richard died today. He was 87 years old.