8 Jul 2023

Lisa Cortés: Little Richard and the queer Black origins of rock'n'roll

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 8 July 2023

Without Little Richard would Lizzo exist? Lil Nas X? The Rolling Stones? 

Three years after his death, a new documentary directed by Lisa Cortés pays tribute to the pioneer of rock n roll and makes clear his musical DNA is everywhere.

Little Richard performing in 1962

Little Richard performing in 1962 Photo: AFP

As well as his music, Cortés' celebrates his blackness and queerness. Richard shouted his sexuality with songs like 1955's 'Tutti Frutti', all while trying to do right by his religion and stay safe as a Black man in the Jim Crow South.

From the beginning of Richard's life he was being pulled to the extremes, Cortés tells Kim Hill.

“His love of the church, of God, the music and then on the opposite side, a world that says here’s what’s fun; the bar, the club, juke box music.

“So, he starts getting pulled between the sacred and the profane.”

Richards was born and raised in Macon, Georgia and his flamboyance made him an outsider from the start, she says.

“He was dressing differently, was effeminate, and ultimately was thrown out of his home by his father for being queer.”

Hard as it is to believe in the segregated 1940s south, Richard found refuge, she says.

“There’s a little club called Anne’s Tick Tock in Macon and it is a gay club, we’re talking about a gay club in the 1940s where black people and white people in the segregated south come together to find community because they were not accepted in the mainstream community.

“As a teenager he is taken in by the owners of this establishment.”

Richard’s rise to fame tracked with the emergence of the teenager in US post-war society, she says, and white kids found his music through white covers of his hits.

“His music, for many white kids they initially encounter it through the covers done by Elvis Presley, done by Pat Boone. But when Little Richard starts touring, something else happens.”

Lisa Cortés, Director of Little Richard: I am Everything

Lisa Cortés, Photo: supplied

 White kids start attending his shows. Richard himself says he was breaking down the walls of segregation, but equally believed his persona allowed him an an entree to the white world.

“If I hadn’t had looked feminine, they wouldn’t have let me play white clubs,” he said.

Cortés believes it was a shield that protected him

“It’s white women who are going crazy over Richard, as his drummer says they were getting panties thrown at them way before Tom Jones.

“And this is 1955, this is the same time that we see the murder of Emmett Till, and horrifically killed, so for white men and black men there is this heightened tension and there is great harm that happened to the black male body.”

Richard, like many black artists, saw their white imitators eclipse them commercially. Pat Boone’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ sold more than the original.

As his career went on and his success dwindled, he came to resent being overlooked, she says.

“I think he in many ways felt invisible, when you look at the magnitude of his contribution and everyone from the Stones, to Bob Dylan, to Dave Grohl it is a who’s who who talk about how important his music was to their careers.

“And they all talked about it when he died, and I don’t feel that he was really recognised within the pantheon in the way that he should have been.”  

Cortés' film Little Richard: I Am Everything will screen as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival