One Sunday afternoon when I was a teenager my Grandparents midnight blue Buick pulled into the driveway unexpectedly. I jumped up, took the Stones off the stereo and put on a Mozart symphony.
I thought no one noticed until my Dad teased me, “you don’t think Grandmother would enjoy Get Off of My Cloud?” It’s that type of abuse I had to endure throughout my entire childhood.
Rock ‘n Roll was the music of rebellion. But what fun is rebelling if there’s no one to react to it? Dad would occasionally have a comment but Mother, who had been on to me since conception, wasn’t taking the bait. She didn’t hate it but basically she flat-lined the whole experience.
Of the hundreds of thousands of times she heard me play Stones songs I only got an unsolicited reaction on two of them.
One was a cover of Under the Boardwalk on their second album. She mentioned more than once how much she liked it without ever elaborating why.
My guess was because she was such a good musician there was perverse glee in Mick struggling with the high note: “down by the SE–ea.” A few years later when I understood the sexual connotations of the piece I was appalled. My Mother? A sexual being? No way.
The other song she liked was Dear Doctor, their country spoof on Beggars Banquet. “Pull your sox up, put your suit on, Comb your long hair down.” It was that one phrase, “comb your long hair down,” that got to her. I don’t know why.
That sums up the extent of Mother’s appreciation for the Rolling Stones.
So I was surprised by her excitement one Saturday morning when I went into the kitchen. She’d been out with friends from work the night before and ended up at a lounge where there was live music.
The featured act was a rock ‘n roll pianist who had an afro bouffant almost to the ceiling, wore tons of makeup, a mirrored caftan and had a pleasing squeal that punctuated his performances. He was outrageous but his piano playing was superb. She said his name was Little Richard and his best song was Lucille.
When she mentioned that name we both laughed very hard. Aunt Lucille was one of Grandmother’s sisters and a favorite relative. She was intelligent and witty but isolated in rural Indiana.
The social changes of the mid-20th Century were happening in the abstract for my dear Auntie. She remained mired in the Victoriana of her youth. That some flaming black queen used her name as the title for his hit was inconceivable in her universe.
The excitement Mother felt that morning led to an interest in Little Richard’s music that has never waned. To me it’s his up tempo. There were a few rock songs before him but none had the pounding drive his did. And few have matched it since.
Equal to his musical ability was his showmanship. His preening style goaded and challenged the crowd into a frenzy. His methods were copied by most of the successful performers who followed him, reaching an apotheosis during the Punk Era. You haven’t truly experienced “audience participation” until you’ve been stuck in the middle of a mosh pit.
Little Richard’s TV talk show appearances in the middle and late years of his career were equally as fascinating. With an unnerving ability he’d turn sharply and volley a “Shut up!” at the crowd whenever he felt like it.
You never when it was coming. Amidst rapturous applause, silly giggles, roaring laughter, boring silence–suddenly there would be a “Shut up!”
It’s easy to typify this as the reaction of a defensive queen. You know people are thinking about putting you down so co-opt the agenda by bullying them first. Welcome to 1600 Pennsylvania.
But Little Richard’s understanding of the situation ran deeper. “Shut up!” was his mechanism for maintaining control. Too much applause was as bad as too much silence.
In the business of show his job was to manipulate. He created senses of exhilaration, sadness, lust, power and made it seem like everyone was in it together. He also established a trust with the audience so they felt they knew him personally.
I’ve never understood how someone could be considered a friend if you’ve never actually met them.
But I love him still. So, SHUT UP!