Good morning, it's Monday, May 11, 2020. Yesterday was a glorious day on the East Coast, and Americans who've been in lockdown for nearly two months flocked out into the sunshine. The most recent science suggests that this horrid virus doesn't like the sunlight, and we hope that's true, but we aren't out of this yet. By the time the sun sets this evening, the death toll from the new coronavirus will have surpassed 80,000 -- and that's only in the United States.
Among those who went over to the other side this weekend, although not from COVID-19, was "Little Richard," one of the 1950s pioneers of a new, authentically American form of music called rock 'n' roll.
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As word spread Saturday that Little Richard had succumbed to bone cancer at age 87, testimonials about his great influence were reprised for a generation of Americans who had little exposure to his persona and probably never heard "Tutti Frutti," "Lucille" or "Good Golly Miss Molly." Even for those who did know his music, the snapshots of his complicated life served as a reminder that in human affairs, things are not usually just one way or the other.
When the Beatles opened for Little Richard at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, the lads from Liverpool were so eager to hear the man's voice that they sat around with him backstage while Richard read his Bible. For Elton John it was the piano playing. "I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it," Sir Elton told Rolling Stone magazine many years ago. "I didn't ever want to be anything else."
Nearly from the start, Little Richard exhibited misgivings about the music he'd helped create. He'd renounce it in favor of the church music of his youth, only to return to it again and again as those he inspired embraced the form with messianic fervor.
Writing in the New Yorker this weekend, David Remnick put it this way: "Despite Little Richard's own ambivalence about rock and roll, his influence spread quickly, and it ran deep. In the Iron Range town of Hibbing, Minnesota, a high-school kid named Robert Zimmerman listened all night to faraway radio stations playing country music, blues music, and the first rock-and-rollers: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, and, the one he loved the most, Little Richard."
The Minnesota student wrote in his high school yearbook that this ambition was "to join Little Richard," the way some kids wanted to join the Army or the circus. He did it, too. The young man set out for Greenwich Village with a new hair style -- a Little Richard-inspired pompadour -- and a new name: Bob Dylan.
Like most lasting cultural phenomena, rock 'n' roll did not spring into being one glorious night. It evolved, with help from many people and numerous musical influences. Yet, we like to catalogue progress, if for no other reason than to know when to celebrate it, and that was the impulse at play in 2004 when the powers that be decided to honor the "50th anniversary" of the creation of rock music. This nice idea morphed into one a little more problematic: It became something of a tribute to Elvis Presley.
To say that Presley "invented" rock 'n' roll is not like saying that Abner Doubleday invented baseball: Elvis was definitely there for the founding. And he knew more than most how the new form was influenced by rhythm and blues, gospel music, and the mountain fiddling tunes of Appalachia. Elvis knew Chuck Berry's music and riffed off it -- and didn't shy from sharing the credit. In later days, Little Richard would say in concert: "The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock 'n' roll."
Picking up on that idea in The New York Sun, Jack Newfield observed in 2004: "This is a fair and clever summary of what happened between 1949 and 1954, when black and white musical traditions cross-educated each other, and then disc jockey Alan Freed popularized the phrase ‘rock and roll,' which was black slang for having sex."
Ah, yes, sex. Here, too, modern culture must tip its hat to Little Richard. He was (unsuccessfully) propositioning Chuck Berry in the 1950s when the word "gay" still meant "happy." Little Richard was struttin' on stage clad in purple before Prince was born, as he himself noted. He was gender-bending when David Bowie was a toddler: As a teenager in the Deep South, he sang in a red evening gown as "Princess Lavonne." But back to the music.
"No one person started rock 'n' roll," Jack Newfield added. "It was a black and white alloy of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Ike Turner, Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly -- and Elvis Presley."
Actually, it was more than black and white. As a native Californian, I'd never slight the contributions of Los Angeles-raised Dick Dale (nee Richard Anthony Monsour), who combined the Arabic scales he learned from his Lebanese American father with the rapid-fired guitar-picking style he developed to emulated the sound of the Pacific Ocean. Or the Mexican mariachi music and Spanish flamenco guitar that infused the work of Northern California prodigy Richard Steven Valenzuela, whom you might know as Ritchie Valens.
"To dance the bamba," he sang in Spanish, "you need a little grace." And although he wouldn't live to see the 1960s, or even his own 18th birthday, this other little Richard – "Little Ritchie," his mother called him -- may have had the simplest summation of the new music: "Let's Go!"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.