Been meaning to do a portrait of Little Richard, since hearing about his death. Earlier last month, one of the founders of a musical genre we all know as Rock n’ Roll passed away on May 9, 2020. He was was 87 years old.
Rock and Roll would not exist if it wasn’t for both black and white musicians, both coming from poor backgrounds. It was created by combining country, bluegrass, swing, and blues. Thus creating America’s most famous bi-racial child. We often hear about Elvis. Don’t get me wrong – watching early footage of Elvis before the ’70s, you can see Elvis’ natural charisma shining through. Elvis had that superstar quality. But there were others in the early Rock and Roll game. One of best from that era was Little Richard.
Heavily influenced by Esquerita, Little Richard was one of the first crossover artists with integrated audiences during the segregation era. Despite many venues having segregated entrances – i.e., separate entrances and seating for white attendees, and for black attendees. His songs topped the charts in both the U.S, and the U.K. Later on many of those same songs were covered by white performers. Among his peers were Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent , Eddie Cochran and yes, even Elvis Presley himself.
My mother would occasionally tell me what a huge fan my aunt was back in Liverpool, England. Needless to say, my mother NOT being a rock and roll fan, was annoyed by my aunt constantly playing “Lucille.” In my mother’s defense, her tastes were more aligned with Roy Orbison, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. My mother accidentally got caught up in music history, when she was dragged by her friends to see a certain band called The Beatles. That’s another post altogether.
Speaking of which, Little Richard’s influence was felt by such acts like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Little Richard himself had a ’60s comeback after having a turn at evangelism. (Little Richard would also flip flop on sexuality) He would go back and forth from music to religion, then back again. During 1964, Little Richard hired a then unknown musician named Jimi Hendrix to play in Little Richard’s backup band, World Famous Upsetters. Unfortunately, Little Richard and Hendrix clashed a bit, over matters like lateness, wardrobe, Hendrix’s stage antics, and money. It worked out for Hendrix in the end, as he later became one of the most famous guitarists of all time.
Little Richard kept on performing throughout the ’70s, up until his final concert in 2014. He also made appearances on talk shows, award ceremonies, and film. In the end, he was acknowledged as “The Innovator, The Originator, and The Architect of Rock and Roll“.
Wrapping up this blog post, here’s an illustration I did earlier tonight. Done in pen, ink, watercolor and shimmer watercolor. Although the scan never picks up on the shimmer. Here’s Little Richard during his iconic heyday during the 1950’s.
One of my own heroes, filmmaker John Waters, discusses meeting Little Richard: