“Little Richard” by Howard Nelson

Howard Nelson


What was it that gave me the discerning taste 
when I went into the record store in 1958, 
when I was twelve years old, an ordinary kid (white) 
in the suburbs, middle class, to buy the album 
Here’s Little Richard? It may have been 
the first of the big vinyl discs that became 
my record collection, which was for me for a while there 
(and in a way still is) something like the Bible 
is for religious people. What it really was was 
good fortune, and being young and ignorant, but interested, 
and being able to walk into the record store, 
in the riches of a moment of time. 
And there was Little Richard. 
His screams came out of gospel, 
though I didn’t know that at the time. 
I knew “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” 
and “Long Tall Sally,” and I’m sure 
Little Richard’s piled high hair 
had something to do with it too.
Early on he crossed back over to gospel, 
but later he crossed back again. 
Many crossings and recrossings, ups and downs, 
comebacks and never-lefts, 
in his long career and life. 
Little Richard was not little—he was five feet ten.
His name was Richard Pennimen. 
Somehow he lived to be eighty-seven.
Even musicians thought of as the pioneers
were influenced in their pioneering
by what Little Richard had already done.
Elvis said he was his inspiration.
Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers,
recorded his songs. The first time he toured Europe, 
the opening act was The Beatles. 
He gave Paul McCartney singing lessons. 
If you want to remember him on his passing, 
I recommend watching the video of him doing “Lucille” in 1957.
He’s wearing a beautiful baggy white suit, it must have been linen,
and there are three saxophone players moving in sync behind him, 
two guitars, bass, and drummer, also in white suits, 
and Richard out front, with his tall pompadour,
standing-dancing at the piano, skinny mustache, blazing eyes. 
Nobody’s eyes opened wider than Little Richard’s. 
He had a purity, a beauty, a laughter and a fire. 
But you might also watch Otis Redding’s 
induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Otis, of course, was long gone, more 
than twenty years, but it was a good choice 
to have Little Richard do the honors. 
He had a gift for public speaking, 
as frenetic, and beautiful in its way, as his singing. 
He was no longer young that evening, 
but the energy and his spirit were still with him. 
“I’m still here—I still look decent,” he said, 
and he did, still with his mustache, now 
with a long mullet of lustrous curls.
Who better to sing selections 
from Otis’s songs? Just a few verses. 
And when Otis’s widow, Zelma,
came up to accept the award, Richard
put his arms around her, and held her. 
And when she had given her moving, tearful
two sentence speech, it was beautiful 
how he walked with her, how he escorted her, 
with great tenderness, from the stage.

from Rattle #79, Spring 2023


Howard Nelson: “I’ve been writing poems that are a kind of personal archeology—poems of memories from early years, which are also celebrations of cultural figures important to me, and important to the bigger flow of the historical moment I happened to drop into, being born when I was. So, Little Richard. One of the flamboyant greats. Other poems in this vein, to James Brown, Otis Redding, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Ronettes, and others, are in my book That Was Really Something.” (web)

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