Little Richard

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 10, 2004, in Los Angeles.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today our very special guest, the one and only Little Richard—welcome.

Little Richard: Thank you, Ken.

Paulson: Great to have you here.

Richard: Glad to be here.

Paulson: This show is about free speech in America and celebrates artists who have used free speech to make a difference. And you’re pretty much the personification of free spirit. You have always sung the way you wanted to, dressed the way you wanted to, said what you believed, and yet, that couldn’t have been too easy at the beginning of your career. You were really one of a kind.

Richard: Well, you know I’m from Macon, Georgia. At the time, it was a little country town. It’s still a small place, but it was a little-bitty place then. And I always—I didn’t like to sing like nobody else, I didn’t like to play like nobody else, and I was considered as crazy and stupid and backwards because of doin’ that. And so when I would come down and sing, by me having the gravel-type voice, with a gospel twist to it, I was condemned quite a bit. And then the way I dressed back in the time, you was considered somethin’ else if you dressed— looked the way I’m lookin’. You know, my mother is Indian. She’s Mohican tribe, out of Virginia. So I looked the way I look, you know. And so, but—and everybody—my brothers and sisters would feel bad about it, because everybody—you know, I would go to places, and they would laugh at me, they would make fun of me, and—but it still didn’t stop me. I was determined to play the piano; I was determined to sing; I was determined to dress different and look different. And so that’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s been very, very rough. It’s easy now, but back in that day, it was rough.

Paulson: So when you began playing piano—and in the first place, what got you into music? Where did that path lead you?

Richard: Well, gospel. All of my people—most of my people are preachers; my grandfather was a minister, a Methodist minister. My cousin was a Pentecostal minister. I had a cousin that was a singer, a gospel singer, and I was a very good friend of Mahalia Jackson. [Coughs] She was a good friend of ours, and so I admired her, and I loved her so much. And then that’s the way I start takin’ piano lessons. My sister did, and then I wanted to do what she was doing. Then I start takin’ it, and she stopped, and I kept on.

Paulson: You couldn’t have a much better role model than Mahalia Jackson.

Richard: Oh, I love Mahalia Jackson. I just, if you listen at me closely, you would hear her turnsin my voice. Her gospel singing wasn’t that screaming like people are doin’ now; it was different. She had a thing like,[singing like Mahalia Jackson] “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hill and, everywhere, lord. Go-oh…” You know—

Paulson: That was beautiful.

Richard: She’d do a little thing

Paulson: Do the whole thing! That was great.

Richard: [Laughs] Oh, no! [Laughs]

Paulson: That was terrific.

Richard: And that’s the way she did that, and so I idolized her from a child, and I just really—she inspired me. Her and a lady, another lady, named Marion Williams. They was really an inspiration to me, and it made me—really helped me—my mother had 12 children, so that helped me quite a bit.

Paulson: You know, your love of God is clear, and it’s been reflected throughout your life, and I’m a little surprised that you didn’t, from the very beginning, become a gospel singer. Instead, you—you were this, this—I mean, you originated rock and roll in many respects. How did you get off the path of gospel and onto the path of “Tutti Frutti”?

Richard: All my life has been really with the gospel, but “Tutti Frutti” came from nowhere. It came from nowhere, and it was a strange situation with that. I really didn’t, I didn’t realize what was goin’ on back in that time. I really didn’t know what “Tutti Frutti” was, to be truthful. I was sayin’ it, but I didn’t know what it meant. I was singing it, I had made it up in my mind, but I didn’t know—and you’re talking about freedom of speech. I went to New Orleans, and they stole everything out of the song. They—next thing I looked on, I saw everybody’s name on the record but mine.

Paulson: And it wasn’t the original record—it wasn’t the original song you sang, either. Didn’t they change the lyrics on “Tutti Frutti”?

Richard: Some of them, not all of them. What they did, they did enough to say that they wrote it.

Paulson: I see.

Richard: You know, the field—you got to remember that the field has been so crooked, so wrong—I wish that we could’ve got some other people to be on here with me today that took my money. They’re sitting upon big hills and on the mountains, and although I’m on one too, but I took ‘em a long time for me to get up on one.

Paulson: [Laughs]

Richard: But they been on one a long time. So one guy, he took all of everything, and he just really did me up. But he ended up with his family with Alzheimer’s disease. You know, when you do wrong, God don’t bless you.

Paulson: And that happened to a lot of people…

Richard: Well, you know, he wanted to go on a big vacation. He had all of this money that he didn’t share and didn’t distribute it, and when time to go on this vacation, he went in, and his wife didn’t know who he was. [Chuckles uneasily] You know, because, you know, you reap what you sow, you know. I’m a southerner in this sense: I believe that you reap what you sow, and I believe that you got to have God to maintain and sustain and to make it. And if you can’t take it, you can’t make it. You got to know it to show it; you got to live it to give it. I believe that from the bottom of my soul, you know. And that’s what have happened in my life. Even when people start to calling me—I remember when I first played with Liberace in Philadelphia for Mike Douglas’ show, who was doin it—I had on a glass suit, made of glass,

Paulson: [Chuckles]

Richard: And Liberace, at the time, he was wearin’ tuxedos with the bow tie, and he would the candelabra on the piano. When he saw me, he say, “Ooh.” [Chuckles] I didn’t have the money to do what he did, but when he saw me, he said, “Man…I had on all these mirrors that my little friend had glued on the outfit and made them, and so he looked at that thing. Then next thing I know, he was dressin’ the same type thing. Not takin’ nothing away from Liberace—he’s a good friend of mine—but when he passed—and he’s still a good friend of mine, although he’s dead and I just, I pray that his name was on the Book of Life.

Paulson: The—well, you have inspired a lot of people, and from the very beginning, a song like “Tutti Frutti”, which some people thought was too wild, especially from a black man in 1956. And then Pat Boone records the song and has a hit that’s actually bigger than your hit. How did you feel about that? Did Pat Boone do you a favor? Or did he do you an injustice?

Richard: Well, Pat Boone is a friend of mine also. I, I felt—at the time, I wish that freedom of speech was present for me. I wish they had known that I could speak and say what I want to say, but I—my hometown was a little under the apartheid system at that time, you know. Black people stayed over here, white people stayed over there, and they didn’t have nothing to do with each other. You know, when I go into a restaurant to eat, I had to go through the kitchen door to eat. I had, you know—it was really different.

Paulson: And this was when you were a performer.

Richard: Yes, even when I—way before that, before that. It was—you know, I was dealing—I was dealing with everything way back in that. But, I think that Pat Boone was what was a really—I think he called hisself doing something to help. I really do believe that. I don’t think the record company’s plans was that way, but I believe that Pat’s plans was that way. I believe that by Pat Boone recording it, it made it bigger because black records was only being played on black stations at that time. And they called it “race music.”

Paulson: Yes, they did.

Richard: And I remember when Elvis came out, they said that—that “This boy gonna take this-this-this ‘nigger music’”—that’s they word they used—”over here, and ruin our kids, make ‘em go crazy with that ‘jungle music’.” You know—so it was a thing—bein’ able to be alive at this time, and around in this time, and being well, that you can speak what you feel you—you have your opinion, that you can sing, good or bad, black or white, red, brown, or yellow, that, I believe that then Pat started making money, made him bigger. Then he felt he saw something else in that, because it became a huge, gigantic record. A huge—in fact—a lot of the people wouldn’t get mine because I was black, but a lot of ‘em got mine because I was black. You know, there’s a lot of whites that love black music.

Paulson: Well, you’re very gracious in your comments about Pat Boone, and, there have been rock and roll histories that have suggested that he ripped you off, and it’s actually good to hear you say that he’s a friend of yours. Now, we brought you on the show to talk about freedom of speech, and one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that you did sing songs that were…unpopular in some quarters, but had the courage to do it. And what is your sense of free speech in America today? How important is it to the kind of country we are?

Richard: I think that we, in this country—I think it’s a danger that, you know—it’s just like if I say something about somebody and they get mad ‘cause I said it and go—and block me from my job, that’s not freedom of speech. Freedom of speech—when everybody have a right to say what they wanna say, good or bad, right or wrong. You may not like it, but it’s my choice—I can’t—I have a choice to do that, and I can do that, I can say that. But, I think that sometime in this country that people are condemned for speaking what they feel and what they want to feel. And I think that when you speak, you should tell the truth, and if it’s not the truth, you should shut up. I think that a person have a right. As I stated earlier, you got to live it to give it; you got to know it to show it. If a person don’t live their life, whatever it is, I think that—I’m not into politics. I never been into politics in my life. I believe that God sets up kings and take ‘em down. I believe that’s all left in the power of God. Regardless of how much we vote, I still think God rules over it. I’m glad that we have a right to vote. I thank God for that freedom, you know. And it’s a good freedom for every man—race, creed, or color. And I think that—and I think—I feel this, this here. Regardless of what color a person is, of what race they are, they have a right to speak. And they have a right to be truthful and real about it but don’t make up a lie to make somebody look down because they’re this or because they’re that. Tell the truth. And God say, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” And if you do what God said do, you’ll be free, you know. And I just—I’m just glad that there’s a show in America like this, that you can speak about freedom and the freedom of choice, you know, a person have a right to do this, good—you may not agree with me, but I have a right. You have a right, I may not agree with you, but you have that right. And so that’s where my thoughts goes.

Paulson: Well, you know, this is a free country, as they often say—

Richard: Yes, it is. Thank God for America.

Paulson: Do you think there’s anywhere else in the world you could have been Little Richard, the way you have been?

Richard: No. I’ve traveled allover this world. For the last 60 years, I’ve traveled everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been on—I’ve never seen nothing like this country. This is the greatest country in the world, and it is God’s country. God set this country up to be a depository of his truth. To be an outlet to the whole world—that’s what this country is. And God made us the wealth, so we can be blessed to other people to keep them in health. But we got to be a blessin’ and a lesson. [Chuckles] I think we should be both a blessin’ and a lesson, and I’m just glad to the Lord that I’m an American. You’re blessed to be born in this country. And you know, like some people say I’m from Africa—I ain’t from Africa. I’m not against Africa, I love Africa, but I’m from Macon, Georgia. I’m an American black boy from Macon, Georgia. And it’s an honor to be born in Africa, it’s an honor to be born in any country, but I am an American, what they call an Afro-American, and I thank God for just being here and being a part of it.

Paulson: Have you ever bit your tongue? Have you ever felt like there’s a time where you couldn’t say what you believed?

Richard: Oh, many times.

Paulson: Yeah?

Richard: Many times. Many times. When I was a boy in Georgia, many times I felt that I wanted to say somebody, I was afraid to say it. I was afraid; it was a fear that I had. Thank God it’s gone—but back in that time, I did have it, and my mother was there, and I didn’t want nothing to happen to my mama. I loved my mama, you know. I didn’t want nothing to happen to her and my brothers and sisters or my father. And a lot of times, I used to watch my grandmamma when I was a boy. She used to wash clothes for people, and she’d iron ‘em and would iron the shirts on hot-cold, and she—well, now, she had kept them shirts so white and clean, they didn’t get no black or nothing, no dirt or no nothing from the floor. No black soot from the iron never got on the shirts. I used to wonder—I said, “How in the world did big mama do that?” And I used to sit there, and I watch, and I watch, and I used to watch out when the white people would come to get their clothes, and she would says—she would go to smilin’. She had a thing where the old black women did back then— [Giggles effeminately] She say, “How you doin’,Mr. Willie?” She would that little boy, eight years old, “Mr. Willie.” and, I just, I said “Big mama, his name ain’t no Mr. Willie. That’s Ol’ Willie.” And the man would say, “That boy ain’t be gonna nothin; he ain’t right.” [Chuckles] So he would tell a joke, and my grandmother would laugh, and I wouldn’t laugh. So he said, “Did you hear the joke?” I said, “I haven’t heard no joke.” And so, I wouldn’t laugh. So I was outspoken from a child, but not in a bad way, in a respectful way. But I wasn’t no pushover, either. But I was sittin’ there, and I would just watch her, how she endured all of that through the years. And she was a—she had freedom of speech and didn’t know it. She could’ve said something, and she didn’t. She washed all those clothes, she ironed all of those shirts, she cooked all of that food, and the little money was terrible. You know, but we thank God for the money back in that time,’ cause it carried us through. God multiplied, you know. We had a little, but God made it much through his divine power.

Paulson: You know, in your music, there were people who sometimes thought you were a little crude, a little raucous, and yet, you listen to the radio today or listen to CDs and rap music, and there’s a lot of profanity. You know, in this country, technically, you know, free speech says they can say what they want and sing what they want. Do you have any thoughts about popular music today and the envelope it pushes?

Richard: I think that—I think the same way that when I sing rock and roll. They said that it was awful, it wasn’t gonna last—it would be gone very soon. That’s the same way I think about rap music. It is—it’s an art. It’s an art form, and if you—I tell you something: if you think ain’t nothing, try to sing some of it and sing it in a melody like they’re singing—it’s hard. I’m a musician, and it’s hard for me. It’s hard to sing it and stay within that thing, they way they are. And why all the young kids love it. I think that they have a right to do it. Now, some of it makes me tremble. I’ve heard those guys say some things on those records I never knew you could say on a record.

Paulson: [Chuckles]

Richard: And they call some names that I never knew you could say. And I think that they—I think they should be careful how they talk. But it’s—really, you got to remember…that is still freedom of speech. They still have a right to do it, whether I like it or not—I take that back. They have a right to do it. It’s their right, you know. and a lot of those kids there are saying what they see in their neighborhood, they’re sayin’ what they see at their home, they’re saying what the life that they have lived. And that’s what they talk about. They don’t make records about some things like other people did years ago. Their thing is strictly about what they’re livin ‘in this time and the things that they’re around. And it is a whole lot of stuff going on in these neighborhoods in the projects, and in suburbs too. Whole lot going on out there just— [Stammers] and they buyin’ those records in the suburbs. They buyin’ those records. You can’t sell millions of records and just be involved in the urban—it’s different. They’re buying it everywhere. Those guys are big. They’re selling millions of records, and some of ‘em make a million dollars a night. Singin—that’s a lot of money, you know, for rapping. You know, I—that’s a lot. And I’m thankful to God that we’re here, but I wish—freedom of speech is right to have and is good to have, but we need to watch—we need to say some good things for the kids, to lead them and to guide them and to correct—and to show them that God is love, that he is omnipotent. He is omniscient. He is omnipresent. He’s the truth, He’s the light, He’s the door. He’s the mighty way. He’s the holy light to guide and to lead us. And that if we trust in God, and hold onto his unchanging hand, the world can’t do you no harm, because you’re safe in the master’s arms. That’s what I believe.

Paulson: You’ve done some preachin’.

Richard: Oh, yeah. I just love God. [Laughs] Jesus has been so good. You just—just now when I was talkin’, I felt like jumping up and shouting. I just felt it all over my body. But I just love God. He just— [Sighs] He’s been so good. He’s been so wonderful. All of my friends are dead that came round when I came around—they’re gone, I’ll be 72 in December, and God is no respecter of person. I didn’t have to be here. God kept me here for a reason, and I never thought I would live to see this age. God only promised us 70 years—that’s threescore and ten. And I’ve lived almost two years by grace over His—over the mercy. And I’m just so glad to be here, and I’m just—I’m glad to meet you and the other people here that are trying to get programs out like this to people and being enlightening and uplifting to people. And that’s what young people need to hear. They need to know that there’s a way, there’s a door—it look like it shut, but it can be opened.

Paulson: You know, as wonderful a recording career as you’ve had, you also took time off to serve the Lord.

Richard: Yes.

Paulson: On a couple of different occasions. And you did it in interesting ways. I mean, I think you sold bibles, and, I mean—you’ve done all kinds of—it wasn’t just the glamorous jobs you were pursuing. And I gather that’s something in your life, that direct service to the Lord and to fulfill your faith, that you feel every few years, and you feel like you need to embrace that.

Richard: Well, I embrace it every year now, because I found out that what I was doing was my living and my job. Serving God is my life, and without serving God, you don’t have no job. You can’t work, and he’s the one that guides you in your work and in your activities that you have to do every day. And so I just trust God for that. And I, I attended Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m a bible student. I love the Lord. I sleep with a bible in my bed every night, right in my arms. I put it on my chest every night. And I feel safe—when I fly on airplanes, I hold it my hand, and I don’t put it up, because I have seen airplanes goin’ through some terrible turbulence, and I have prayed and held the bible, and I’ve seen God lift that plane out of that turbulence many times. And I advise anybody that fly, put the word of God in your pocket. You’ll see something when you fly; there’ll be a difference. You know, and God is really—he’s really been a light in my life, you know. He’s been alpha and omega. He’s been the first and the last. And I think that people need to understand that soon—and very soon—that something is gonna happen that—the same way God came back in Noah’s day, he’s coming back in this day. I’m not preachin’ the gospel, ‘cause I know preaching’s not allowed on this channel, I don’t think, is it?

Paulson: [Chuckles] Sure it is.

Richard: But we’re not preaching, but we’re just telling the people that’s the way that I have lived from rock and roll to the rock of ages. Although I still sing rock and roll. It’s still my living, but I still have the rock of ages.

Paulson: To be clear, we believe in the whole First Amendment, which includes freedom of religion, so you can testify—it’s okay.

Richard: Yes, I believe in freedom of religion, also. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, [Shouting] freedom in God! Hallelujah.

Paulson: You know, when rock and roll began, some critics said it was the devil’s music. Were they just plain wrong?

Richard: I believe that there’s some music—I’ve seen some music in my life that has been—I don’t think God had nothing to do with. And some people may think that what I’ve done God didn’t have nothing to do with, but that’s their choice. But I believe that the thing—a lot of things that I’ve done in my life, I think I was inspired from on high, from God. It’s hard for me to answer that question direct, ’cause I have to break that down, because I would hurt a lot of people if I answered wrong. And I don’t—and this tape’ll be around for a long time. I don’t want to answer that wrong. I believe that there’s a lot of people that are inspired to write lyrics. I believe that a lot of people that are inspired to make beats and music, and I believe that a lot of people that are inspired by God—I believe, though, some people are inspired from the bottom, the power of darkness. And can’t none of us deny that. I believe that. But I believe that God overrules all of it. I believe that God overrules all. I believe that when you do something with good intention, good purposes, to bless, to help, to lift, to help people eat, help people sleep, help people pay their rent, help people to keep their houses when they’re goin’ on foreclosure. And you don’t even know the man, and you pay the house off. And you ain’t gonna never get that money back—it’s something to loan money to a man that you know they got money, gonna pay you back. But when you give that money to old Johnny and you know Johnny ain’t got a dime, he ain’t got a pot, no kitchen, nothing. And you know that Johnny can’t pay and you give him this $50,000, you got to love Jesus to do that, ’cause you know you ain’t gonna get it back.

Paulson: [Chuckles]

Richard: And, see, when you see a man do that, he really know God. And most of my life, I’ve done that. I’ve saved people’s home, many houses. I’ve saved people’s home when I was losin’ mine.

Paulson: You’ve been kind enough to come on this show to talk about freedom of speech, and that’s refreshing to us, because the whole lot of people come on this show to talk about their new movie. And you’re too modest to talk about your accomplishments, but anybody who looks at the history of rock and roll, you know—you can’t hear Paul McCartney without hearing some Little Richard. You can’t hear a lot of great music without hearing echoes of your inspiration. And, you know, throughout your career when you’ve been asked about who you are and what you are in the history of rock and roll, I’ve heard you say you’re the originator and the inventor, and I think most recently I read that you’re the architect of rock and roll.

Richard: Yes, that’s what they call me: “the architect—“

Paulson: I think it’s a fair description.

Richard: “Of rock and roll”—they call me that. They did it. I never thought of that name. I was using the name” the quasar.” But they call me the architect.

Paulson: Well, you’ve accomplished a great deal, and you’ve practically invented rock and roll. if you’re not the sole inventor, you’re one of the three or four founding fathers, and it’s a great, great privilege just to have you on the show.

Richard: Thank you so much.

Paulson: I just have—I have one question, which is: where do you go from here? What’s left for you?

Richard: I hope a little longer life on this earth; to be a blessin’ and a lesson to people; and I hope that, God blesses me, and I hope God blesses our government and our country, which is a great country. And I hope that God bless us to be a blessing to other people that—less fortunate. And to—for all the races to come together and show love for God. And to know that we can show our true colors in God.

Paulson: Thank you so much for being here.

Richard: Thank you so much. May God bless you.

Paulson: God bless you.

Richard: Thank you.

Paulson: Our special guest today on “Speaking Freely”, the one and only Little Richard.

Richard: Thank you.

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