In 1986, I was sitting in the mayor’s office in Macon, waiting to see the mayor’s press representative. The phone rang and I noticed that the receptionist seemed . . . flustered and out of sorts. “Yes, Mr. Richard,” she said, her words stumbling out. “Let me put you through to his assistant.”
She punched a couple of buttons, then reached the person I was waiting to see. “Uh, I don’t know how to say this, but Little Richard is on the phone,” she said. “Yes, that Little Richard. He said the mayor called him a few months ago, and he was returning the call.”
When she hung up, I walked over. “That was Little Richard? Seriously?”
“It was,” she exclaimed. “And I didn’t know what to call him. ‘Little Richard’ seemed too casual. But ‘Mr. Penniman’ seemed way too formal.” She laughed and said her compromise was “Mr. Richard.”
When I was sent back to see the press rep, he was still on the phone. “I’m talking to Little Richard,” he silently mouthed to me, a look of joyful astonishment on his face. I sat there for a couple of minutes, and he never said a word beyond “right” and “wow” or “yes, sir.” He held the phone out so I could hear Little Richard, whose voice was racing with excitement. A couple of minutes later, the press rep mouthed to me, “He’s playing me his new record.”
He held the phone out again so I could listen in. And I heard that classic Little Richard boogie boogie piano on a song called, “Great Gosh A’Mighty” that he had recorded for the soundtrack of the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It would become the last great Little Richard song.
I thought about that moment Saturday morning when I heard news that Little Richard Penniman had died at the age of 87.
Whether Little Richard invented rock ’n’ roll is open to debate, but he was certainly one of the head chefs. And without a doubt, he set the prototype for what a “rock star” would become — he was flamboyant, loud and impossible to ignore. Mick Jagger, Elton John, Prince and many others carried a part of Little Richard in their look and attitude. He was one of the original inductees into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and other pioneers. And in 1989 he returned to induct Otis Redding, another Macon native who had grown up idolizing Little Richard.
When I researched my book on Redding (Otis! The Otis Redding Story, St. Martins Press, 2001), most of the people in Macon who had known Otis had also known Little Richard. And they regaled me with stories about both of them. What follows is an excerpt from that book which traces Little Richard’s formative years in Macon, and how a trip to the Royal Peacock club on Auburn Avenue changed his life.
Why Macon? Maybe it was something in the water
It’s impossible to explain how little Macon, Georgia, became an epicenter of influence on modern pop music. There were cities that produced more successful musicians in raw numbers but, aside from Memphis and Detroit, it would be difficult to find one city that has produced more groundbreaking musical figures in the 20th century. Every single star who rose out of Macon was a visionary, someone who changed the basic equation and redefined the way people looked at popular music. If Little Richard didn’t invent rock ’n’ roll, he certainly joined Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley in setting the parameters. James Brown soon followed Richard and created what became known as funk. And Otis Redding embodied the very essence of soul music. Then, as if to prove it was no fluke, a few years later the city produced the Allman Brothers Band, which emerged out of Macon with a fusion of blues and rock and jazz and country that became known as Southern rock.
“Why Macon? I used to say it was the water, something in the water,” said Hamp “King Bee” Swain, who was a guiding force behind the R&B scene in Macon. As a bandleader, Swain gave Little Richard one of his first full-time singing jobs. As Macon’s most popular disc jockey at WBML-AM and later WIBB-AM, he introduced James Brown to the world and then, later, Otis Redding. “I think it had to do with religion and gospel music, which had a lot of influence on Otis; the same with James and the same with Richard.”
Clint Brantley moved to Macon in 1922, a semi-professional black musician who opened a barber shop. By the late ‘30s, he ran a little club downtown on Fifth Street called the Two-Spot. Then, during the height of segregation, he somehow persuaded city officials to let him use the 2,700-seat City Auditorium for black-oriented entertainment. From there, Brantley became a local power, booking the hottest R&B acts in the business: Fats Waller, Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, Sam Cooke and many others. Whites were allowed to see the concerts, but they were restricted to the balcony where a string was usually placed at stage center to divide the seats — whites would sit on one side of the string, blacks on the other. “Man, them white people would be jumping upstairs,” said Jessie Hancock, a local saxophonist who performed with Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding. “They’d be dancing up there; I didn’t know they could dance like that!”
With Brantley’s Two-Spot doing big business, it didn’t take long for juke joints featuring live music to spring up all over Macon. “At that time, they had what they called ‘party houses’ down on Fifth Street,” said Hancock. “You know about party houses — prostitutes and gambling and stuff. It was just like it was up in Memphis and Kansas City, right here in Macon. The police were being paid off and they wouldn’t bother you about nothing. They had gambling houses down on Broadway and the police would be sitting up there gambling. The musicians had it made; we could start playing at one in the afternoon, and go from club to club until way after midnight.”
Like many of the best musicians who came from Macon, Jessie Hancock got his start playing with Gladys Williams. She’d studied music at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, on a scholarship provided by an anonymous white donor. She was a pianist who led her own band. “Unfortunately, Gladys came along when female musicians and bandleaders were rare; otherwise, she would have been a big, big star,” said Hamp Swain. “For Jessie and myself, and a lot of others, she was kind of like a momma figure. She kept everybody straight, and she would lay out a few choice words at times. But she took care of us and taught us a lot, not only about music but also about life.”
Williams recognized raw talent and enjoyed nurturing it. She acted as a mentor for a long line of budding musicians, including Lena Horne, Otis Redding and Little Richard. Her band was versatile enough to perform square-dance music at the white V.F.W. clubs and country clubs, then head over to a black club for some get-down blues. “Gladys could play that piano, man,” said Hancock. “And sing like a bird. She could sing them blues, then turn right around and play a waltz or sing a song like ‘Stardust.’ She had a talent for cussing and drinking that liquor. She’d get drunk. But the drunker she got, the more she could play.”
Hancock said Williams turned down offers to make records because she didn’t want to go on the road. “She stayed right here in Macon and made her living — a good living, too. Clint, most of the time, was booking her. Between Gladys Williams and Clint Brantley, they were everything in Macon. Everything.”
Little Richard’s early career in Macon
It seems fitting that someone as flamboyant as Little Richard didn’t sit around waiting for fate to find him; he went out and tracked it down. He was 14 years old in 1947 when Brantley promoted a show that starred gospel singer and guitar icon Sister Rosetta Stone at the City Auditorium. Richard had a part-time job selling concessions during concerts, and before the show, Richard found Brantley in the lobby and marched right up to him. “Mr. Clint,” he exclaimed, “Sister Rosetta said I could open the program.”
Brantley chuckled at the kid, then dismissed him. “Boy, go on,” he said. “You can’t open no program.”
When the curtains opened an hour later, Brantley was shocked to see Little Richard standing in the spotlight. “There he was, singing like hell!” Brantley said. “And I thought, ‘Well, this damned boy can sing.’”
Richard Penniman was born in 1932 and grew up in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood of Macon, one of 12 children. There was always something odd about him, something radically different from the other kids he grew up with. In high school, he was prissy and feminine to the point that he’d show up for class wearing girls’ pedal-pusher pants. He’d visit friends at the Tindall Heights housing project and be chased out by a gang of mocking boys.
Richard began his show business career singing with Gladys Williams. Eventually he put together a group with Percy Welch, the drummer from Gladys’s band, and they worked the “chitlin’ circuit” of clubs across the Southeast. He moved to Atlanta for a time, where he saw a singer named Billy Wright walk onstage at the Royal Peacock club wearing wild, brightly colored clothes and hair stacked in a high pompadour. Richard looked at Billy Wright and saw a vision for himself. He came back home, adopted the look, and then took it to the extreme. He’d walk into a joint in Macon in his full regalia — pancake makeup, feather boa, flashy suit — and people would stop in their tracks and stare. See Little Richard once and you never forgot him.
By 1953, Richard’s persona was in full bloom. Clint Brantley was his manager and he had hooked up with Hamp Swain, singing with the Hamp Tones all over the Southeast. Everywhere they went, Little Richard shocked and dazzled the crowds. “If you played a place once, a city once, and the audience saw him, if you advertised that you were coming back, then they would be there six on a horse,” said Swain. “They didn’t want to miss that show. He was a showman; he was quite the showman. All the guys around Macon, they knew him and knew what to expect. But go to a strange city and Little Richard would shake ‘em up, man.”
“Tutti Frutti / Good Booty”
Richard’s hottest tune was a wild jump blues called “Tutti Frutti” that he’d performed around Macon. It brilliantly captured the essence of Little Richard — brimming with youthful energy and verve, racing at a breakaway pace, and it featured what are still some of raunchiest lyrics ever conceived. Years later, Hamp Swain still remembered them well enough to sing them: “Tutti Frutti / Good booty . . . Miss Lucy / Is juicy . . . Miss Tight / Is all right . . . You can grease it / Make it easy . . . Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-awop-god-damn!”
In 1955, Richard sent a demo recording to Art Rupe at Specialty Records — the home of such R&B stars as Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Art Neville and Roy Milton — and he went to New Orleans to make a record. Legend has it that the first session was a study in frustration; nothing Richard sang caught their ear. Everyone broke for lunch and headed to a place called The Dew Drop Inn to eat. Richard spied a piano in the corner and performed an impromptu version of “Tutti Frutti.” Rupe wasn’t sure what it was, but he was sure that it was a hit. A local songwriter was commissioned to sanitize the lyrics and Richard was brought back into the studio to record the new “cleaned up” version.
A tape of the song was sent to John R. (Richbourg), the famed late-night disc jockey at Nashville’s WLAC, a 50,000-watt AM radio station that could be heard up and down the Eastern Seaboard once the sun went down. Not long after the recording session, Percy Welch was driving Richard to a gig and the radio was tuned to WLAC. “Here’s a young man you ain’t never heard before,” John R. announced. “I don’t know what he’s sayin’ and I don’t know what the song’s about. But you listen to it and you tell me. Call me if you like it.”
With that introduction, John R. cued up “Tutti Frutti.” As soon as Little Richard heard his own voice singing on the radio, he began bouncing up and down in the passenger seat like someone having a seizure. “O-oo my head! O-oo my head!” he shouted over and over in a high-pitched effeminate voice. “My record! It’s on the radio! O-oo, I’m gonna get me a Cadillac! I betcha I get me a Cadillac! My record, man! It’s on the radio!”
By the time “Tutti Frutti” finished playing, the switchboard at WLAC was lit up with callers and John R. played the song eight times in a row. “Tutti Frutti” hit the R&B charts in late 1955 and rose to No. 2. It was soon followed by “Long Tall Sally,” which shot up the R&B charts to No. 1. “Little Richard started rock ’n’ roll,” said Jessie Hancock. “I don’t care what nobody says; he started rock ’n’ roll. I know because I was there and I saw it. Nobody else was doin’ that but Little Richard.”
The debt to Clint Brantley
That same year, just before “Tutti Frutti” was released, Richard went to Toccoa to perform at a little joint called Bill’s Rendezvous Club. During an intermission, a group of kids took over the stage, uninvited, and began to sing. They called themselves “The Flames.” Luke “Fats” Gardner, Richard’s road manager, was impressed and gave them Clint Brantley’s phone number.
They came to Macon to audition for Brantley, who was hungover that morning. He asked them to sing him a song that would make him feel better. The group huddled for a moment and their lead singer began a song called “Looking for My Mother.” Brantley was shocked by what he heard. “Goddamn, man, they looked for her, too. All under the tables, all under the damned seats. Everywhere. When they got through, I said, ‘Boys, y’all can sing!”
The leader of The Flames was a kid not long out of reform school. His name was James Brown and Brantley brought the group to Macon.
The Flames recorded a song called “Please, Please, Please” in the studio of a Macon radio station, and the record made its way to Hamp Swain, who was a disc jockey at WBML. He gave it a listen, then cued it up. “It was one of those acetates like we used to cut commercials, and it played from the inside out,” Swain said. “I put it on the air and we got a tremendous reaction. Immediately. The phone lines just lit up.”
The arrival of James Brown was a godsend for Brantley, who was about to have a falling out with Little Richard. “Richard, he was gonna [mess] with you,” Brantley said. “That’s the difference between he and James Brown. I told James one time that I needed two thousand dollars; I owed it to a cracker. And a few days later, that two thousand dollars was here. That’s how he would do. James did everything he could for me; I didn’t have to ask him to do it, he did it. Richard didn’t ever do a damned thing. All I got out of Richard, I took it.”
Brantley was known around Macon as a nice guy, a slick talker who knew the entertainment business inside out and knew how to play the angles. But he also wasn’t somebody to cross. He usually had two or three huge bodyguard types hanging around with him to provide muscle when he needed it.
When he split with Little Richard, Brantley used a lawyer to get a court order to collect $1,200 he said Richard owed him from advances. Days later, at a concert in Augusta, Richard was served papers that repossessed his new Cadillac Eldorado to pay off the debt. Initially Richard ignored the deputy sheriffs and wouldn’t accept the papers. After the show, they confronted him in an alley behind the auditorium and demanded the car keys. Richard refused.
When he saw a deputy pick up a brick to break a side window on the locked Cadillac, Richard lost it. He started to scream and ran over and kicked the cop in the butt, an almost comical gesture that resulted in Richard getting pummeled by the deputies with fists and blackjacks. “They beat the shit out of him; they liked to have killed him,” Brantley said with a light chuckle. “A lot of folks have said I did it, but I was home in bed.”
About a year after that, Little Richard would survive a crash scare on an airplane during a tour of Australia and announce his intentions to give up his music career to enroll in the seminary. When a member of his band voiced skepticism, Richard tossed four diamond rings into the Hunter River in Sydney to prove his sincerity. “If you want to live for the Lord,” Richard told reporters, “you can’t rock ’n’ roll. God doesn’t like it.” In October of 1957, Richard flew back to Los Angeles, was baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist. He began to study for the ministry and “prepare for the end of the world.”
Little Richard would return, but he would never again be a force in rock ’n’ roll.
In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to highlight Atlanta’s creative community.