On bended knees, I beg you not to go

Richard Penniman, known worldwide as Little Richard, “The Architect of Rock and Roll,” died May 9 in his Tennessee home of bone cancer at the age of 87.

Unknown-325He spent his whole life as a deeply conflicted man.

Gospel or rock and roll?  Straight or gay?  Clean living or addicted to drugs?

In each case, he went back and forth over the course of his life between the differing lifestyles, apparently drawn in opposite directions with equal fervor.

As a child, he was strongly influenced by gospel music and the charismatic worship services of the Pentacostal churches his family attended.  Gospel recording artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson inspired him to eagerly belt out the songs in a loud, strong voice in church.  He developed a deep faith in God and even spent time as an evangelist preaching the gospel.

At the same time, he was inexorably drawn to the seductive rhythm and blues music of secular artists of the 1940s and 1950s, people like Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and a young Fats Domino.  He learned to play piano so he could imitate the intro to Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” often regarded as the first rock and roll song.

Penniman was also in conflict about his sexuality.  He found both women and men sexually appealing but kept his feelings secret as best he could to avoid the wrath of his father at home and the bullies at school.  Still, when his father kicked him out at 17, he a2c18bbd7ffd54ab08930dcd9d7b700djoined Doctor Nubillo’s Traveling Show, and took to wearing capes, turbans and makeup.  He was married once for five years, but also came out as gay.  He would denounce homosexuality, then turn around and embrace it, and eventually considered himself “omnisexual.”

Little Richard was also caught in the 1950s conflict between the races.  He and fellow rock pioneer Chuck Berry were black men trying to appeal to white audiences at a time when much of the country was still segregated.  White mothers and fathers felt threatened by “the devil’s music” and forbade their children from listening to it, but the kids responded enthusiastically to it anyway.

Consider his first hit single, “Tutti Frutti.”  In its original form, it was a risqué blues tune with lyrics about gay sex, an absolutely taboo topic at the time.  Here’s how it went:  “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it’s tight, it’s all right, Tutti Frutti, good booty, and if it’s greasy, it makes it easy, Tutti Frutti, good booty, a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a good goddamn!…” Little Richard sang it this way at a blacks-only lunch spot one day, and while his producer loved the song’s energy, he knew the lyrics had to be cleaned up if they had any hope of getting airplay on radio.

Unknown-322The version everyone knows was recorded and released in late 1955, and sure enough, it became a big hit, reaching #21 on the Top 40 charts (and #2 on the R&B charts).  It was popular with both white and black record buyers, which established its reputation as one of the landmark songs that launched rock and roll as a new musical phenomenon.

As a sign of the times, though, a sanitized rendition of “Tutti Frutti” released simultaneously by squeaky-clean Pat Boone eclipsed Little Richard’s original, peaking at #12 and selling well over a million copies.  It was one of many instances when a white artist would steal the thunder from the black artist who first created the work.

Penniman had this to say about that:  “When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out, I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner.  They needed a white guy’s version to block me out of white images-184homes…but it didn’t really work.  The white kids would have Pat Boone on the dresser and me in the drawer.  They liked my version better but kept it hidden from their parents.”

He persevered, and enjoyed an impressive run of eight more Top 40 hits over the next 18 months:  “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin'” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” which firmly cemented Little Richard’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

In England, several future rock stars were going crazy over the tunes of Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and others.  “(Little Richard) was the biggest inspiration of my early teens,” said Mick Jagger last week.  “His music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid ’50s.  When we were on tour with him in 1962-63, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience.  He was always so generous with advice to me.”

safe_image.phpPaul McCartney, who belted out a superb cover of “Long Tally Sally” in 1964 for The Beatles’ second U.S. album, said, “Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager.  I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style, and he knew it.  He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows.’  I had to admit he was right.”

I have my own admission to make.  Growing up with The Beatles and Sixties music, I knew next to nothing about Little Richard and his fellow rock and roll pioneers.  It wasn’t until the ’70s that I became interested in rock music’s roots and gained an appreciation for the trailblazing the practitioners had done that made The Beatles even possible.  It’s frankly embarrassing for a rock music aficionado like me to admit such a dereliction, but it’s the truth.

Younger generations of musicians and music lovers seem far more willing to recognize the debt they owe to icons like Little Richard than my generation was.  “Elvis may have popularized rock & roll, and Chuck Berry was its storyteller, but Little Richard was the archetype,” tweeted Steven Van Zandt, who chooses to call himself Little Steven in tribute to Penniman.

Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys wrote, “If you love anything about the flamboyance of rock & roll, you have Little Richard to thank.  Where would rock & roll be without flamboyance?  He was the first.  To be able to be that uninhibited back then, you had to have a lot of not-give-a-fuck.”

After those first several years, the hits stopped because Penniman chose to call a halt to images-189his burgeoning career.  After a harrowing plane ride and a couple of other incidents he took as omens, he claimed spiritual rebirth and went to college to study theology.  He met and married Ernestine Harvin, began preaching, and recorded gospel music which found a small audience but made little impression on the charts.

He returned to secular music by the mid ’60s, both recording and performing, but the music world had moved on to other artists and other styles.  For the next 25 years, neither his albums nor his singles made a dent in the charts, which is one reason why Little Richard was involved with more than a dozen different record companies as either he or the label severed the relationship.  It was in the early ’70s when he became a heavy alcohol drinker and developed a debilitating addiction to cocaine that took him many years from which to break free.

His last moment in the sun came in 1986 when he contributed to the soundtrack of the hit comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” starring Nick Nolte and Bette Midler.  His song “Great Gosh A’Mighty” was Little Richard’s deliberate attempt to at last make peace with his inner conflict by merging a secular song with spiritual lyrics:  “I’ve been tryin’ to find peace of mind, tryin’ to search all the time, I’ve been looking, I’ve been wandering, have you heard the written Word, Great Gosh A’Mighty!…”

Penniman was shown the respect he deserved when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the very first group of inductees.  Despite this honor and inductions into numerous other Halls of Fame over the years, he conceded that he harbored some resentments about how his career turned out.

images-186“I appreciated being picked one of the top fifty performers in rock,” he said, “but who is number one and who is number two?  It doesn’t really matter anymore because it won’t be who I think it should be.  It’s never going to be any of the entertainers from the beginning.  The Rolling Stones learned from me, but they’re always going to be in front of me.  The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made a record — but they’re always going to be in front of me.  James Brown was in my band.  So was Jimi Hendrix.  These people started with me.  I encouraged them, I talked to them, and off they went.  Good for them.  They’re going to always be in front of me.”

And by the way:  Just what does “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom” mean?  Nothing, really.  It’s merely Little Richard’s vocal imitation of the drum part he thought would work there.  But he ended up using the vocal part instead, and it became one of the first detonating blasts of the rock and roll explosion.

R.I.P., Little Richard.  We rock and roll fans owe you so much.




Ah, things ain’t what they used to be

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists whom I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of a man with one of the most stunning voices the world has ever known, a man who played a pivotal role in defining the Motown Sound, a man troubled by inner demons and a broken relationship with his father that ultimately killed him:  Marvin Gaye.


220px-Marvin_Gaye_in_1973The lively world of popular music — rock, rhythm & blues, country, jazz, you name it — has been plagued by intermittent chapters of tragedy.  Abuse of drugs and alcohol have caused the self-destruction of far too many talented musicians; plane crashes have prematurely taken a dozen or more giants from us; cancer and other diseases have claimed the lives of a few major artists as well.

Among the most tragic deaths are those involving violence.  Most prominently, John Lennon’s death was especially shocking for many of us because it was essentially an assassination.  The gruesome end of the great Marvin Gaye came just as suddenly, and just as shockingly:  He was fatally shot by his own father.


To try to make some kind of sense out of such an unconscionable act, you have to understand the complicated mind of Marvin Gay Sr.  A preacher in the Hebrew Pentacostal Church, Gay was a strict disciplinarian who ruled his household with an iron fist that included regular incidents of physical abuse of his four children.  Gay was also known to be a cross-dresser with repressed homosexual feelings, and his inability to deal with this apparent contradiction was often taken out on his wife and children.

Gay was a heavy drinker and eventually lost his preaching position, ending up chronically unemployed.  He never approved of his son’s decision to become a singer, and when Gaye became successful, he emerged as the de facto breadwinner in the family, making the father-and-son relationship ever more tense and uneasy.

Gaye had his own problems, including depression, paranoia, cocaine abuse and an addiction to various kinky sex activities, all of which exacerbated the lifelong psychological battle between the two men.  Insiders say they felt it was only a matter of time before the father or the son would do irreparable harm to the other.


In between the stormy childhood and horrendous end, Marvin Gaye achieved dizzying heights that won him international fame as a recording artist and performer.

He first sang publicly in his Washington, D.C. church at age four, where he developed a images-155deep love of singing gospel music.  He was encouraged to think about pursuing a career as a professional singer when, at age 11, he brought the house down at an elementary school play with a exhilarating performance of Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love.”  He was a featured soloist of his junior high glee club and also sang in several doo-wop groups during his high school years.

When life in his parents’ home became unbearable, Gaye left school and enlisted in the Air Force, but his refusal to follow orders made him a poor candidate for military life, resulting in a general discharge.  Upon his return to D.C., he formed The Marquees, a vocal quartet with his friend Reese Palmer, working periodically with rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley.  The Marquees were then hired by Harvey Fuqua to be his backing group in Harvey and the New Moonglows, relocating to Chicago in 1959, where they


Gaye (second from left) with The Moonglows

recorded several tracks on Chess Records, including “Mama Loocie,” Gaye’s first lead vocal recording.  He also sang backing vocals on a few Chuck Berry records including “Back in the U.S.A.” and “Almost Grown.”

Gaye had also learned drums and piano, which won him some session work, and he began dabbling in songwriting as well.  In 1960, he moved to Detroit with Fuqua and ended up singing at a party at Motown founder Berry Gordy’s house, which resulted in Gordy offering Gaye a contract.  (It was around this time the singer officially added the “e” to his last name, to silence the rumors of his sexuality and to further distance himself from his father.)

Gaye, blessed with a four-octave vocal range, envisioned himself a singer of jazz and Nat King Cole-type standards, with little interest in the R&B music Gordy wanted him to sing.  They eventually negotiated a compromise, and his 1961 debut album, “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye,” contained both genres.  Nothing came of his first few singles, and he soon concluded that R&B would in fact prove more lucrative for him.  His first hit was not as a singer but as co-writer of The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789.”  That same year, he had his own first chart hits with the prescient “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike” (#8 and #12 on the R&B charts) followed by his first Top Ten pop hit, “Pride and Joy,” in 1963.

images-156For the next seven years, Gaye enjoyed a nearly non-stop residence at or near the top of the R&B charts, scoring 25 singles in the Top Ten and earning the moniker “The Prince of Motown.”  He was a major presence on the Motown performing circuit, sharing the stage with Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and others.  He did almost as well on the pop charts during this period, securing 13 Top Ten hits between 1964 and 1969.

Gaye’s voice, which songwriter-producer Eddie Holland called “one of the sweetest, most versatile I’ve ever worked with,” was perhaps the most distinctive of the many soul artists to dominate the pop airwaves, vying for chart success against The Beatles, The Beach Boys and a multitude of imitators.  His biggest single yet, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” was in regular rotation across the country in 1965, as were “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.”


Gaye and Terrell

I think my first exposure to Gaye’s music came in 1967 when he began recording duets, first with Kim Weston and then Tammi Terrell.  My older sister bought all these 45s and played them incessantly:  “It Takes Two,” “Your Precious Love,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and, most notably, Ashford & Simpson’s brilliant song/arrangement “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  I was only 12 then, but that marvelous tenor voice, alternately smooth and gospel raspy, grabbed my attention and held it for years to come.

My family always had “The Ed Sullivan Show” tuned in on Sunday nights, and I have a vivid memory of being completely floored as I watched Gaye, in a voice almost desperate with angst, sing a riveting rendition of his 1969 #1 hit “I Heard It Through the Unknown-279Grapevine.”  Holy smokes, what a performance.  The record held a vise grip on the #1 slot for six weeks, and its followup, “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby,” proved to be another classic.

This kind of success, curiously, didn’t sit well with Gaye.  He loathed touring but was required to be on the road constantly, which triggered what became a long struggle with cocaine.  He also grew disillusioned with Gordy and the business side.  “He felt like a puppet in the Motown circus, and he wanted more freedom in determining his creative direction,” said his late brother Frankie Gaye in his 1998 memoirs.

Gaye thought the next single, “That’s the Way Love Is,” was way too derivative of “Grapevine,” but he was intrigued when Gordy approved his release of a cover version of Dion’s socially relevant “Abraham, Martin and John.”  When it reached #4, he had something of an epiphany.  The time had come, he determined, to make a major shift in his perspective.

The world was in a period of profound upheaval in 1970 and Gaye wanted to be part of the growing voices of dissent and commentary.  “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” he asked.  Gordy, who had little use for material with a political edge, was angry when Gaye told him he wanted to make a protest record.  “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous.  That’s taking things too far.  Your fans aren’t going to like it.”  Gaye held firm. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.  I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Otis Benson of The Four Tops had collaborated with Al Cleveland on a powerful piece called “What’s Going On,” and when the other Four Tops said no thanks, they offered it to Gaye.  He put his own stamp on it, adding a few lyrics, modifying the arrangement, and ended up producing the song himself, with bassist James Jamerson and percussionist Eddie Brown from Motown’s Funk Brothers and recruiting a few others like sax man Eli Fontaine.  Gaye also invited a few friends to the recording sessions, giving the place a chill party vibe that was recorded and used in the background.

Unknown-278Gordy’s reaction to the finished track was blunt:  “It’s the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”  When he declined to release it, Gaye went on strike, refusing to record any other material until Gordy relented.  Gaye enlisted the help of sympathetic sales guys, who forwarded copies of “What’s Going On” to key radio stations and record stores in defiance of Gordy, and the result was almost immediate.  It vaulted to #1 and became Motown’s fastest selling single ever at that time.  Convincingly persuaded, Gordy gave the green light to the album, and Gaye and company assembled eight more tracks written or co-written by Gaye, including the pointedly political hits “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler).”

To say it was well received is a gross understatement.  If you look it up today, you’ll find Gaye’s “What’s Going On” LP is ranked in the Top 100 Albums of All Time in numerous publications and websites.  Some rank it in the Top Five.  Reviewers were and still are rightly ecstatic about it.  Critic David Simon called it “a creative and commercial triumph images-158and one of the greatest albums ever attempted by a popular artist.”

Having won creative control, Gaye grabbed the brass ring again in 1973 with the suggestive “Let’s Get It On,” another #1 smash commercially and critically.  Almost concurrently, he gave in to requests for “Diana & images-159Marvin,” a more conventional collection of Ashford & Simpson songs on a duet LP with Diana Ross.  By 1976, when disco began influencing just about every artist who put out a new record, Gaye countered with “I Want You,” which rivals anything Barry White ever released as a soundtrack for lovemaking.  “Gaye seems determined to take over as soul’s master philosopher in the bedroom,” said Rolling Stone‘s Vince Aletti.  “This is an adult album of private intimacy and sensuality.”  Cliff White of New Musical Express called it “a voyeur’s delight… like peeking through the windows of the Gaye residence in the wee hours.”

His private life, meanwhile, was unraveling.  He endured a messy divorce from his first wife Anna, who happened to be Gordy’s daughter, and dove ever deeper into drug abuse to help him with crippling stage fright and periodic suicidal tendencies.  The stress of a Unknown-280huge tax debt to the IRS also weighed heavily on him, eventually causing him to relocate to Europe for a spell.  Although American listeners started to look elsewhere for new sounds, British audiences still clamored for Gaye, which resulted in a timeless performance and hugely popular concert LP, “Live at the London Palladium,” and yet another #1 hit, the influential “Got to Give It Up.”

During his European stay, and with the help of his mother Alberta, he made significant progress in curbing his addiction issues in 1981 and earned some renewed confidence and self-esteem from the rabid response to a tour of Europe.  He turned in his final album owed to Motown and promptly severed ties with Gordy.  Approached by several labels, Gaye went with CBS Records, who agreed to settle his back debts and heavily promote his next LP, “Midnight Love” (1982).  The platinum, Grammy-winning single, “Sexual Healing,” put him back on the radio in a big way.

images-165Now back in the States, he appeared in high-profile events like the “Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever” TV special, and sang an iconic rendition of the National Anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in L.A.  After one final U.S. tour, marred by illness and drug-fueled attacks of paranoia, Gaye moved into his parents’ L.A. home to care for his mother, who was recovering from kidney surgery.

Gaye and his father struggled to keep their distance from one another, but the writing was on the wall.  Gay and his wife had been estranged for years, sleeping not only in separate bedrooms but separate houses located a few blocks apart.  He resented the fact that his son was much closer to his mother and had also become their primary source of financial support.

Gaye, meanwhile, had continued to contemplate suicide and, perhaps to that end, he gave his father a .38-calibre pistol as a Christmas gift, ostensibly for his own protection.  To his sister, it appeared more like a way to provoke his father into doing what Gaye couldn’t bring himself to do on his own.

On April 1, 1984, after Gaye shoved his father into a wall to prevent him from approaching Alberta, Gay took out his pistol and shot Gaye twice in the chest at close range.  As he lay dying in his brother Frankie’s arms, Gaye whispered, “It’s good.  I got what I wanted.  I ran my race.  There’s no more left in me.”

He would have turned 45 the next day.


images-154Despite his inner struggles, despite the hideous way his life ended, Gaye’s musical legacy remains intact.  All those Motown classics, the brilliance of “What’s Going On,” the provocative music that followed and, most of all, That Voice are what we all want to remember about this man.  His reputation as a maker of sensual bedroom songs earned new life when, in 2015, award-winning pop singer-songwriter Charlie Puth made his debut with the single “Marvin Gaye,” with these lyrics:  “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on, you got the healing that I want, just like they say it in the song, until the dawn, let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on…”