Little Richard

Little Richard 2017

Little Richard was born on December 5, 1932. He is a legendary musician, singer, actor, comedian, and songwriter who was inducted as part of the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Little Richard is often referred to as the Architect of Rock and Roll, and this innovative musical genius is considered key in the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll in the mid-1950s.

Richard Wayne Penniman was one of 12 children born in Macon, Georgia to Leva Mae Stewart and Bud Penniman, a stern man who made his living selling moonshine and didn’t do much to hide his disdain for his young son’s signs of homosexuality. Raised in his earliest years in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the younger Penniman preferred the Pentecostal faith that other relatives practiced, and by age 10, he started performing faith healings in which he would sing gospel, preach, and heal other parishioners.

At the age of 13, Penniman was ordered to move out of the family home; never repaired was his relationship with his father, who was shot dead outside a bar when Richard was 19. The childhood that Penniman did manage to create was largely shaped by the church. Two of his uncles as well as his grandfather were preachers, and Penniman was deeply involved with the church, singing gospel and eventually learning to play the piano. He loved the livelier style of music, and the holy dance and speaking in tongues that he saw in Pentecostal congregations.

After moving out of his family’s home, Penniman was taken in by a white family who owned a club in Macon, where he eventually began performing and honing his talent. By his mid-teens, he was touring and performing under the name Little Richard. He played spiritual music and blues, and sang with a growling, thrilling grind to his voice that sometimes bordered on yelling. His idols were gospel divas like Sister Rosetta Tharp and Mahalia Jackson. Imitating his role models, Little Richard did up his hair and feminized his style of performance.

In 1951, Little Richard caught his first major break when a performance at an Atlanta radio station yielded a record contract with RCA. But with a repertoire of mainly mild blues numbers that masked the searing vocals and piano that would later come to define his rock music, his career failed to take off as he had hoped.

In September of 1955, Little Richard began recording in a style he had been performing onstage for years, featuring varied rhythms, a heavy backbeat, funky saxophone grooves, over-the-top gospel-style singing, moans, screams, and other emotive inflections, accompanied by a combination of boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues music. This new music, which included an original injection of “holy roller” funk into the rock and roll beat, inspired many of the greatest recording artists of the twentieth century including James Brown, Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, and Jimi Hendrix.

Mainstream recording artists tried unsuccessfully to duplicate Little Richard’s original style, but they still made hits in the segregated south, including Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others who profited from Little Richard’s unique creativity, and played it to their advantage. To their credit, 1960s mega groups The Beatles and The Rolling Stones frequently paid homage to Little Richard’s inspiration and influence in their successful careers.

One of Little Richard’s earliest and most enduring hits was a recording of a re-worked version of “Tutti Frutti,” a bawdy anthem to anal sex. The sanitized version of “Tutti Frutti” was an instant Billboard hit that reached No. 17 on the charts. In 2007, a panel of renowned recording artists voted the song number one on Mojo’s The Top 100 Records That Changed the World, and it ranked #43 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Little Richard, along with a road band, performed his hits in sports stadiums and concert venues across the United States through 1956 and 1957. He succeeded in bringing both Black and white Americans to his concerts, at a time in the U.S. when laws still dictated that public facilities (including concert venues) be divided by race.

Fueled by his earlier connections to the church, Little Richard saw his doubts about rock music deepen. In 1957, he abruptly and publicly quit performing rock, and committed himself to the ministry and gospel songs. In January of 1958, he enrolled in a Bible college to become a preacher and evangelist, and began performing only gospel music for a number of years. He then moved back and forth from rock and roll to the ministry, until he was able to later reconcile the two roles in his life. He recorded his debut religious album, “God Is Real,” in 1959.

That same year, Little Richard married Ernestine Campbell, a woman he met at an evangelistic meeting in Washington, DC. They would divorce in 1963, but during the marriage Little Richard adopted Danny Jones, the son of a fellow parishioner who had passed away.

Little Richard continued in the ministry but was experiencing marital problems and some difficulty living his ideal of a disciplined Christian life. Although rock and roll sales were in a slump in America in 1962, Little Richard’s records were still selling well in England. For several months that year, The Beatles, then still an obscure English band, co-resided with him at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, during which time Little Richard advised them on the proper technique for performing his songs.

British promoter Don Arden then booked Little Richard on a joint headlining gig with Sam Cooke for a 1962 tour of Great Britain, with the Beatles as an opening act. Little Richard thought he was going to perform gospel music, but Arden had promoted the concert as a rock and roll show. On the first night of the tour, Little Richard began performing gospel music, but gave in to the pressure and began singing his secular hits. He walked off to a wildly excited, standing ovation—a frenzied crowd reaction that was to be repeated wherever he appeared.

Little Richard recorded many other influential hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin,’” “Lucille,” “Keep A-Knockin,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Goodnight Irene,” “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me,” “Freedom Blues,” “In the Middle of the Night,” “Great Gosh A’ Mighty! (It’s a Matter of Time),” and so many other groundbreaking hits, often covered by both Black and white artists.

In addition to his records, Little Richard appeared in several early rock films, such as “Don’t Knock the Rock” in 1956, and “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll,” both in 1957.

While he has not always been out, Little Richard was one of the first popular Black artists to publicly discuss his bisexuality and same-gender attraction. Little Richard, a self-described voyeur, began having sexual encounters with both men and women by his early teens. In 1984, he described himself as “omnisexual” after he was asked about his sex life. In 1995, Little Richard told “Penthouse” that he always knew he was gay, and “Mojo” magazine described him as “bisexual” in 2007. In 2017, Little Richard gave a rare interview to the Christian-oriented Three Angels Broadcasting Network, during which he called homosexuality “unnatural.” The comments were met with anger from the LGBTQ community

Little Richard battled health problems in the last several years, but continued to perform when he could. In 2016, a new CD, “California (I’m Comin’)” contained previously unreleased material from the 1970s, including an a capella version of his 1975 single, “Try To Help Your Brother.”

We thank Little Richard for his lifelong contributions to music and entertainment.


Cleveland, James

Cleveland, James 2017

The Reverend Dr. James Cleveland was born on December 5, 1931 (to February 9, 1991). He was a celebrated gospel singer, arranger, composer and, most significantly, the driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound, bringing the stylistic daring of hard gospel, jazz and pop music influences to arrangements for mass choirs. Cleveland is popularly known as the King of Gospel.

James Cleveland was a native of Chicago, Illinois who began singing as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey was their minister of music, and Roberta Martin was pianist for the choir. His parents were unable to afford a piano, so Cleveland crafted a makeshift keyboard out of a windowsill, somehow learning to play without ever producing an actual note. He strained his vocal cords as a teenager while part of a local gospel group, leaving the distinctive gravelly voice that was his hallmark in his later years. The change in Cleveland’s voice led him to focus on his skills as a pianist, and later as a composer and arranger. For his pioneering accomplishments and contributions, he is regarded by many to be one of the greatest gospel performers to ever live.

In 1950, Cleveland joined the Gospelaires, a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk, who were associated with Roberta Martin. Martin hired him as a composer and arranger after the group disbanded. Cleveland’s arrangements of songs such as “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion” and “It’s Me O Lord” transformed them, giving a rocking lilt and insistent drive to old standards.

Soon after, James Cleveland went to work for Albertina Walker—popularly referred to as the Queen of Gospel—and her backup group, the Caravans, as a composer, arranger, pianist, and occasional singer and narrator. In November 1954, Walker provided Cleveland with the opportunity to do his very first recording. He continued to record with The Caravans until States Records closed down in 1957. Cleveland left and returned to the Caravans a number of times to join other groups, such as the Gospel All-Stars and the Gospel Chimes, where he mixed pop ballad influences with traditional shouting. In 1959, he recorded a version of Ray Charles’ hit, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” as a solo artist.

James Cleveland signed with Savoy Records in 1962, going on to release a huge catalog of Black gospel recordings, many of which were recorded in a live concert setting. His first big gospel hit was his version of the Soul Stirrers’ song, “The Love of God,” backed by the Voices of Tabernacle from Detroit. Rev. Cleveland migrated to California to become Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ in Los Angele, and worked with keyboardist Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey. Cleveland’s recording of “Peace Be Still” (1963), an obscure 18th-century madrigal, sold hundreds of thousands of copies thanks to Cleveland’s comforting growl and emotional command.

His popularity grew to great acclaim, causing him once again to return to the road, this time with the newly organized James Cleveland Singers, along with Billy Preston. From the 1970s until 1990, Cleveland would bring together a number of artists to back him on appearances and records. He backed acts as well, contributing to one of Elton John’s songs, “Boogie Pilgrim,” Cleveland would also continue to appear and record with some of the greatest gospel choirs of that time. As he toured around the country, his reputation in the nation’s Black, gay and Christian enclaves grew as well, providing him with a social life and fan base outside of the church.

Cleveland capitalized on his success by founding his own choir, the Southern California Community Choir, as well as a church, the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church. As his church grew, Cleveland’s influence stretched even further. Like Thomas A. Dorsey before him, he taught others how to achieve the modern gospel sound through his annual Gospel Singers Workshop Convention, put on by the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), an organization that Cleveland founded along with Albertina Walker.

James Cleveland won many awards for his groundbreaking compositions, including four gospel Grammy Awards. The gospel style he pioneered paved the way for the emergence of the mass choir that is so popular today. Cleveland toured extensively throughout his life, and became a fixture at gay parties in the cities where he performed. While not publicly out, his sexual orientation was a poorly kept secret in the entertainment world, and within Black, gay circles.

The Reverend Dr. James Cleveland died on February 9, 1991. According to his foster son, Christopher Harris, he died of complications from AIDS. Cleveland is interred at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

As for Cleveland’s sexuality, Harris told the “News Journal” in Wilmington, Delaware that “people in [Cleveland’s] inner circle knew, people at church knew, but they pretended it didn’t exist. I guess what you don’t see you can’t say. But I can.”

Throughout his career, Cleveland appeared on hundreds of recordings, and received a star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from the Trinity Bible College.

We remember Reverend Dr. James Cleveland in in recognition of his many contributions to gospel music and to our community.