Reflections of Little Richard
from Dave Penny - August 11, 2005
Just doing a bit of internet surfing I stumbled across this article and thought it
worth passing on:
BIRTHING LITTLE RICHARD Reflections on the Rise of Rock-n-Roll, Los Angeles, 1950-7 by Charles
Deemer (originally published in Oregon Magazine) ...
I became a teenager in the right place at the
right time. Although you could count on one hand the number of blacks enrolled at Woodrow Wilson
Jr. High or Pasadena High School, Los Angeles County had large enough a black population to
justify the existence of radio shows that played "the very best in Negro entertainment" around
the clock. One such show was Hunter Hancock's afternoon "Harlematinee" on KFVD. I'd discovered
this radio show in Jr. High. In 1952, when I turned 13, I already was part of a growing
vanguard of white kids listening to black music, and we were going to change the popular
music industry forever. I was on the front lines for the birth of rock-n-roll.
But as a pre-teen and teenager, I didn't look like anyone in "Grease" or on "Happy Days."
I didn't even smoke, let alone roll a cigarette pack up the sleeve of a T-shirt. I didn't own
a car, let alone a hot rod. My hair was in a butch, not a flat top. Hell, I didn't even date.
I was a science nerd -- but boy did I love listening to black music on Hunter Hancock's radio
show, from Little Water to Muddy Waters, from The Clovers to The Robins to The Flamingos,
from the wailing sax of Earl Bostic to the bending guitar notes of young B.B. "Blues Boy" King.
To this day I can remember Hancock's signature introduction: "From blues to ballads,
from bebop to boogie, featuring the very best in Negro entertainment." Late at night,
there was a more risque radio show, "Harlem Hit Parade" on KRKD, which was hosted by a
DJ who called himself "Huggy Boy" and sponsored by an all-night record store, Dolphin's
In this literal and explicit age, when the life of the imagination is
so impoverished that nothing is left to it, anyone under 55 may find it hard to comprehend
how risque the lyrics of some early 50s R&B songs were and how titillating they became
to white teenagers and pre-teens. Black artists were attracting a growing, white, teenage
audience with songs that rattled the walls of decency, and the times they were a-changin'.
In 1951 came "Sixty Minute Man" by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. This bragging confession
by a stud included lines like "they call me Lovin' Dan; I rock 'em, roll 'em, all night long,
I'm the Sixty Minute Man." This great lover would make women holler "please don't stop!"
and his seductive ways would end with "fifteen minutes of teasin', fifteen minutes of
squeezin', and fifteen minutes of blowin' my top."
Television was in its infancy, and there was no talk show on which a Dr. Ruth could
explicate the meaning of "blowin' my top." Virgin teenagers had to imagine this experience
themselves and, believe me, the result was considerably more titillating than anything Dr.
Ruth would have to say.
The next year The Clovers released "One Mint Julep." Here we learned that seduction could
have unfortunate consequences: "I'm through with flirtin' and drinkin' whiskey, I got six
extra children from a-gettin' frisky" and "one mint julep was the cause of it all." 1954
is the pivotal year in the history of rock-n-roll. Most pop music historians credit "Sh-Boom"
by The Chords as being the first rock-n-roll single. This song by a black group attracted such
a substantial white teenage audience that it was "covered" by a white group, which typically
drained the arrangement of all its sensual energy and began a process of de-sexualizing early
black rock-n-roll with white cover records that reached its absurd extreme when Pat Boone
started covering the hits of Little Richard.
But in 1954 the sound was still black. That same year in Memphis, Sam Phillips of Sun Records,
who had been looking for a white singer with the black sound and black feel,
signed Elvis Presley. (You can hear Elvis' early Sun recordings, like "That's Alright Mama"
and "Mystery Train," at
To "hip" white teenagers, however, 1954 was most remembered not for "Sh-Boom" or Elvis but for three
extraordinary records released by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters: "Work With Me Annie," "Sexy Ways,"
and "Annie Had A Baby." In "Work With Me Annie," the lyric "let's get it while the gettin' is good" was
considered so dirty, so obscene, that for a time the song was banned from the airways in
Los Angeles. This was the situation when I heard Huggy Boy announce on his early morning radio show
that, the law be damned, next week at 3 a.m. he was going to play "Work with Me, Annie"
on the air! (You can hear "Work With Me Annie" online at
http://www.iei.net/~drifter/blues/ballard.html. My Jr. High was abuzz with the news.
Would Huggy Boy really dare to do this? Of course, those of us who were hip (and I was one
hip nerd) knew the song because we owned a 78 rpm record of it or at least had heard it on the
radio before it was banned. And no wonder it was banned: "Annie please don't cheat,
Give me all my meat!" My God, who had ever heard anything so sexually explicit
on the radio before?
Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, more than any other black group in the early 1950s, had a
reputation for being sexual and dangerous. Their songs were full of references to, well, SEX.
"Sexy Ways" had the mind-boggling lyric: "In the hall, on the wall; Dance baby dance, now crawl
crawl crawl!," followed by so many repetitions of "Oh baby; Do it, baby" that a teenager could
have a premature coronary just from imagining the activity being described. Ballard's quivering
voice suggested more sexual abandon than anyone before Little Richard.
Hank Ballard and The Midnighters would have made "The Star Spangled Banner" sound sexual.
Despite being banned, "Work With Me, Annie" was so popular -- at the time it was referred to
as the Negro National Anthem -- that it inspired a sequel, "Annie Had A Baby."
This song was filled with predictions about male-female relationships that many male teenagers
would encounter in the very near future: "She sings to the baby instead of me, Clings to the baby
instead of me; Now it's clear and it's understood -- That's what happens when the gettin'
gets good! Annie had a baby, can't work no more."
And so we spent a long week at Wilson Jr. High in 1954, the tension mounting, as we awaited
the early morning when Huggy Boy was going to defy the law and put Annie back on the airways. Would
he chicken out at the last minute? One day a rumor spread around school that Huggy Boy had been fired.
In my room, I nervously waited up late for his show to start -- and felt incredible relief to
hear his usual opening banter, "This is Dick Hugg -- Huggy Boy!" On the morning in question,
I had no trouble getting up at 3 a.m. I often set my alarm for 3 in order to get up and look
at the stars with my telescope. Sometimes I would take a portable radio outside with me,
listening to Huggy Boy at low volume as I star-gazed. This night, however, I stayed in bed,
turning on the show around 2 and waiting for the count-down to the magic hour. As 3 approached,
it became clear that he was going to go through with it; at least, he kept talking about it.
And then the hour came, and it really happened: the introductory guitar riff played, Hank
Ballard sang "Work with me, Annie" in a voice drooling with sex, and the Midnighters
followed with their suggestive chorus, "Ah-oom, ah-oom." Jesus Christ, Huggy Boy was breaking
the law just like he said he would! I wanted to call up one of my nerd friends to make sure he was listening.
I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs -- without waking my parents. I wanted to masturbate.
Maybe I would have gotten around to the latter if an unexpected sound hadn't come from the radio.
Someone was pounding on a door! Huggy Boy explained that the police were outside, trying to break
into his studio! And then there was a crash, a confusion of noise suggesting breaking furniture ...
and then the radio show was off the air! Huggy Boy had been arrested,
right on the radio! It doesn't matter that later, as an adult, I realized this was all staged.
And good radio theater it was, too. But at the time it all made perfect sense because there was,
in fact, something deliciously wicked about listening to the songs of Hank Ballard and The Midnighters.
The sizzling abandon in these songs was as different from Patti Page's proper singing about
doggies in the window as the chaotic mess in my room was from the perfectly made
bedspread in my parents' bedroom. (Of course, no teenager could imagine his parents making love.)
In fact, rock-n-roll was going to clean up its act as it became more and more popular in
the late-50s. The infamous gyrations of Elvis' hips were far less risque than the quivering
sexuality in Hank Ballard's voice, but by Elvis -- who burst upon the scene in 1956 after
Phillips sold his contract to RCA, where Elvis quickly recorded "Heartbreak Hotel"
and became a national icon -- there was such a large, white, teenage audience for rock-n-roll
that the less threatening gestures of Elvis caused much more uproar than the raw sexuality of
early 50s R&B. Why? Probably because the white audience was small and restricted to large urban
centers in the early 50s.
By 1955, kids everywhere, from Montana to Rhode Island, were getting off on rock-n-roll, and to some
critics this defined a cultural crisis. At more than one radio station, rock-n-roll records were being
destroyed on the air. For me, rock-n-roll was just about over by 1957, and my musical tastes were turning
to West Coast Jazz, particularly to the musical partnership of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.
I wouldn't get interested in rock again until Bob Dylan went electric. But I experienced one last
hurrah to the more raw early sounds when a travelling rock-n-roll revue came to my high school during
my senior year. Among the headliners was Little Richard. Little Richard inherited the "most nasty"
throne from Hank Ballard. Little Richard was even more dangerous: for one, he looked more dangerous,
with his pompadour hair style and constantly sweating brow, and the sexuality in his voice was more
like a growl than a quiver. Hank Ballard seduced the audience; Little Richard raped it. I went to
the revue mainly to see Little Richard. He'd recently come out with a new single, "Jenny, Jenny,"
the only recording on which he'd lost his breath, and I was hoping he'd sing it. Near the end of the program,
he did. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to finish "Jenny, Jenny." Little Richard, who knew as well as anyone
why white teenagers had flocked to rock-n-roll, began singing on stage with the microphone between his
legs, where it jutted out toward the audience like a long, skinny, silver phallus. He even began stroking it.
Somewhere in the back of the auditorium was our Principal. She was not a fan of rock-n-roll, and the only
reason the revue had come to campus was because the campus belonged to the Community College, which
we shared while our new high school was being built. When our Principal saw what Little Richard was
up to, she did the very thing one might expect from a woman whose highlight of the week was to lead
the student body in singing "You Gotta Have Heart" at the end of each school assembly: she turned
off the power to the building. Somehow no riot started. After the show was officially cancelled,
most teenagers probably went cruising or went home, waiting for Huggy Boy to come on the radio.
I remember sitting in the dark auditorium, marveling at the history I just had witnessed and how lucky
I was to have grown up on The Clovers and on Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and how one day I would be
talking about seeing Little Richard the night my high school principal turned off his power, and how wonderful
it was to be a teenager at this time and place, to participate in the rise of rock-n-roll, even if now Little
Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were the only performers who retained the forbidden danger of the music's roots.
It wouldn't be until six years later, late on a morning in November, 1963, when I would learn that
history has many moods, some of them dark and uprooting, and as the sixties progressed and the
assassinations piled up, I began to understand that never again would I live through an
historical moment as warmly nostalgic as the birthing of Little Richard.
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