Sunday 26 February 2012

Little Richard

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia in December 1932. He’s a bit famous for being a pioneer of rock ‘n roll. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

He claims to be “the architect of rock and roll,” and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer - save, perhaps, Elvis Presley, Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll. Onstage, he’d deliver wild, piano-pounding epistles while costumed in sequined vests, mascara, lipstick, and a pompadour that shook with every thundering beat. His road band, the Upsetters, has been credited by James Brown and others with first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.

Little Richard started recording in 1951, although he didn’t gain great commercial success until 1955. “Tutti Frutti” was his break-out hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. Sixteen more top hits followed (three of which reached #1) in less than three years. Interestingly, in October 1957, when his fame was in its full glory, Richard quit the music industry and became a born-again Christian. From 1957 to 1962, Richard engaged in evangelical ministry work (such as helping people on skid row in Los Angeles) and attended a seminary in Huntsville, Alabama. He did not completely abandon music at this time but instead recorded gospel music.

In 1962, Little Richard went to Hamburg, Germany to teach his techniques to a little British band that was covering some of his songs in a club. Apparently things went well because Richard was then booked to tour England with this band (the Beatles!) as his opening act. Seriously – in 1962 the Beatles opened for Little Richard! Little Richard had originally intended to sing his gospel songs, but the crowd was begging for his classic rock ‘n roll tunes. He capitulated to the pressure and received a standing ovation when he was finished. I guess this began his return to secular music.

From 1962 to 1977 Little Richard was back in the recording and performing circuit. Although he continued to make gospel records, he also made new rock ‘n roll and experimented with country, blues, funk, and soul. Apparently, there’s almost no variety of popular music Little Richard didn’t try his hand at, which speaks well for his musical abilities.

In 1977, though, Richard again jumped ship and returned to Christianity. Like so many ‘60s and ‘70s musicians, he had been dabbling with drugs and was almost shot by a close friend (also addicted to drugs), who claimed Richard owed him money. Luckily, Richard happened to have enough money on him to satisfy the debt and his life was spared. Following that wake-up call, he went back to evangelizing. He even went so far as to claim that one could not serve God and perform rock ‘n roll music simultaneously. He has, however, since changed his tune.

Since 1984, Little Richard has managed to combine evangelical Christianity and rock ‘n roll. He promised his dying mother he would remain a Christian, so Little Richard has remained clean of drugs and had combined his faith with rock ‘n roll. One of the first results of this was the theme song for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, so his blend of faith and music has been successful.

Little Richard performed in various concerts throughout the 1980s. As in the early 19060s, he tried to stick with just singing his gospel songs, but he eventually gave in to the pressure to sing his old hits. In 1986 he was one of the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because of a broken leg. In the 1990s he appeared in several movies and made a number of cameo appearances on television. These included spots on: The Muppet Show, Full House (I’ve actually seen this episode; he plays the uncle of a friend of the girls, and she calls him “Uncle Little Richard”), Martin, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  

As an ordained minister, Little Richard’s other big activity has been officiating at celebrity weddings. He married Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, as well as Cyndi Lauper, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and a buddy of Michael Jackson’s. Little Richard performed at a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims, had hip surgery, and performed at the 2011 “A Capital Fourth” in Washington, D.C. He currently resides in Tennessee.

Although Little Richard has been pretty mellow since 1977, he previously did have a little repenting to do. According to his authorized biography (so, yes, he gave the green light to the author sharing this information), Little Richard participated in quite a few orgies in the mid-1950s (I can’t believe people in the 1950s even knew what orgies were!). In 1956 he met a sixteen-year-old college student who became his girlfriend. Sometimes, though, he would invite attractive men back to his hotel room and watch them have sex with his girlfriend. Weird. Plus, there were all the drugs and hard living of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ahh, the life of a musician.

Little Richard’s sexuality is also up for some debate (not that I think that requires repenting, but he did at one point in his life). His father apparently kicked him out of the family home for having odd sexual mannerisms; the two started to reconcile after Richard began his recording career, but his father was fatally shot outside a bar not long thereafter. He has had sexual relationships with both men and women (he was even married from 1959 to 1963). He had a number of homosexual experiences in his younger days (so the 1950s), but he put the kibosh on that when he became born again. He told his biographer, however, that he was “omnisexual” (this was in 1984) and Penthouse (in 1995) that he was homosexual. He has been single for many years, though, and is sometimes seen in the company of his old girlfriend from the 1950s (the one who he watched have sex with other men). It seems that Little Richard could almost be a poster child for the problems of defining sexuality too narrowly. It sounds like “omnisexual” could be a good fit for him, although he seems not to be convinced (as shown by his 1995 interview). This really shows the problem with trying to fit sexuality into neat boxes: sexuality isn’t always neat and it doesn’t always like to be boxed in. I, however, digress. I am glad that Little Richard seems to have reconciled his evangelical Christianity with homosexuality enough to admit he was homosexual in 1995. Given the way he had bounced back and forth between “secular” and “religious” lifestyles, this was probably a big step.

Anyway, that’s the Reverend Little Richard. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop-a-lop-bam-boom!”  

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Monday 20 February 2012

Richard Pryor (1940-2005)

The great stand-up comedian Richard Pryor was born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (that’s as many names as a member of the Royal Family!) in Peoria, Illinois. I didn’t know much about Richard (aside from him being an extremely influential comedian), and after reading his Wikipedia entry, I have one thing to say – his life was crazy!

Apparently, Richard grew up in his grandmother’s brothel! Seriously (I read this in more than one place). His family owned a brothel, where his mother was a prostitute and his grandmother was the madam. His father was a bartender and boxer. After his mother skipped town when Richard was ten, his grandmother took over raising him. She was not a nice lady (hard to imagine; I always thought brothel owners were so kind!) and beat him frequently. Richard was expelled from school at age 14; at 18 he joined the army. Most of his time in the Army, however, was spent in jail, punishment for beating and stabbing a racially-insensitive asshole.

Richard performed his comedy routines in clubs during much of the 1960s, before he moved to California in 1969. In the 1970s he released several influential comedy albums and wrote for several television shows. He also appeared in quite a few movies, ranging from popular comedic films to Superman III. He co-wrote the great Mel Brook’s movie Blazing Saddles and was going to star as the black sheriff, but he had to be replaced when the studio refused to insure him. He was also going to play Josephus in Mel Brook’s History of the World Part 1, but was unable to because he was recovering from his freebasing accident (more on that later). Instead, Gregory Hines played the role. Despite missing out on those fabulous roles, Richard Pryor had quite the career. He is one of the most influential modern American comedians, revolutionizing comedy with his extreme use of profanity and willingness to tackle controversial topics (such as racism). He won the first Mark Twain Award for American Humor and Comedy Central ranked him number 1 on its list of Greatest Stand-Up Comedians. So it’s official – Richard Pryor is the best!

Despite being damn funny, Pryor had a lot of personal problems. He was married seven times to five different women (with a lot of girlfriends interspersed); the longest any individual marriage lasted was four years. Accusations of domestic violence and spousal abuse plagued his marriages, which probably accounts for why they never lasted very long. Most of these accusations were linked to Pryor’s drug abuse. He had six children; some with his wives and some with girlfriends. Interestingly, his eldest child (Richard Jr. – holla!) was born around 1961, while his youngest child was born in 1987. What a gap! His eldest son was old enough to be having children by 1987. Anyway, having children is not necessarily a problem, although I do not know what kind of father Richard was. Since most of his marriages lasted about two years, he might not have been around much for his children. According to other actors (such as Gene Wilder), Pryor was pretty difficult to work with, often showing up late and making ridiculous demands (such as asking for a helicopter for his commute). Some actors have also suggested that Pryor would claim there was racism on-set in order to get a larger paycheck. Rather sad for a man who made such insightful comedy.

One of Pryor’s lowest moments, though, has got to be his freebasing incident. While freebasing cocaine and drinking high-proof rum, Pryor managed to set himself on fire. He ran from his home, was subdued by police, and taken to a hospital to be treated for burns on over half his body. He spent six weeks recovering just at the hospital; it was this accident that prevented him from acting in History of the World Part 1.

Richard had health problems beginning in the 1970s. He had a heart attack in 1977 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. He had another heart attack in 1990, and shortly thereafter had to start using a wheelchair or motor scooter to get around on account of his MS. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in December 2005.

Pryor sounds like a very interesting guy. Given his horrible childhood, his fame, and his residence in California during the 1970s, it’s no surprise he abused drugs. However, drug abuse is no excuse for spousal abuse or generally acting like an asshole on movie sets.

Richard Pryor: great comedian, flawed man.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Richard and Mildred Loving

I really couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do this entry; it’s a perfect storm given that today is Valentine’s Day. It involves a guy named Richard, black history, and love. Bam! It had to be today’s story.

Richard and Mildred Loving were the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court Case Loving vs. Virginia, which declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. With the help of the ACLU, these two people ensured that inter-racial marriage was legal throughout the United States.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were natives of Central Point, Virginia. Richard was white; Mildred was part African-American and part Native American. Richard was a family friend of the Jeters, and he and Mildred first met when Richard was 17 and Mildred only 11. They began dating several years later and got married in June 1958 when Mildred was pregnant. The couple got married in Washington, D.C. because inter-racial marriages were illegal in Virginia. At the time, Mildred did not realize her marriage was illegal (she was, after all, only eighteen), but she believed that Richard (who was twenty-four at the time) knew. I have to say, this really speaks well of Richard. Sure, the two got married because a baby was on the way, but it probably would have been fairly easy for a Southern white man to abandon the black woman he had impregnated (actually, didn’t Strom Thurmond do that?). Richard must have really loved Mildred to knowingly go through with an illegal marriage. After the wedding, however, they returned home to Virginia because that’s where all their friends and family were.

Trouble began five weeks later when the Lovings were arrested in the middle of the night in their own home by the county sheriff (who had received an anonymous tip). As Wikipedia so nicely puts it, the “Lovings were charged under Virginia's anti-miscegenation law with ‘cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.’” Well done, Virginia – marriage is so undignified. The two spent some time in jail (Richard a day and Mildred a few days), and then pleaded guilty and were sentenced in January 1959. Although each received a sentence of one year in prison, it was suspended on condition that the Lovings leave Virginia for a minimum of twenty-five years. The couple moved to Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t until 1963 that Mildred decided she had had enough. Annoyed at being unable to live close to their families and irritated that she and Richard could not travel together to Virginia (since the two had agreed to not return together to Virginia for 25 years, they had to visit their families separately), Mildred wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general. He suggested she get in contact with the ACLU. The ACLU filed to vacate the Lovings’ sentence on the grounds that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the Lovings’ conviction. Consequently, the ACLU appealed the decision to the United States’ Supreme Court.

The case of Loving vs. Virginia was decided on 12 June 1967. The court unanimously ruled for the Lovings: their convictions were overturned and the anti-miscegenation law was deemed unconstitutional because it violated the due process and equal protection clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment. With that decision, inter-racial marriage became legal in all fifty states. The Lovings returned to Virginia after the decision, presumably to live near their families.

Mildred and Richard had three children: Donald, Peggy, and Sidney. Sadly, after the Supreme Court’s decision, the couple didn’t even have another ten years together. Tragically, Richard Loving was killed in 1975 (at age 41) when a drunk driver hit their car. Mildred was also in the car, and she lost her right eye in the accident. She never remarried.

Mildred died of pneumonia in 2008, aged only 68. Just the year before, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia she had issued a statement. In it, she spoke the importance of everyone having the freedom to marry, concluding with, “I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” You go, Mildred!

Mildred and Richard sound like they were pretty awesome people. I’m actually kind of sad that they both died at such young ages (while 68 is older than 41, it certainly isn’t old). It’s especially sad that Richard was killed by a drunk driver after he and Mildred had only been married seventeen years. Given what they did for the rest of us, they deserved to grow old together.

In order to perk us all up a bit, don’t forget to listen to Count Basie’s version of “Open the Door, Richard!” It was tearin’ up the charts in February 1947!

*One final note: Happy Birthday (tomorrow) to a devoted reader! Holy 19 years old, Batman!

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