David Kirby is probably immunized against what must be a common appellation for him: “brilliant.”
An award-winning poet and FSU professor, Kirby has written a homage to Little Richard, popular music as serious art, and a taut celebration of youth culture.
His book “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock n Roll” excels in giving us an exact and delightful portrait of the most significant musical pioneer of the last 60 years.
It is kind of sad, though, that Kirby would have to make the case for Little Richard’s brand of artistic greatness. That’s the fault of rock critics. At first, I got the impression that Little Richard was being used as a proxy for theorizing in the academic mode.
There’s some of that in here, but Kirby retains the sincere, nostalgic infatuation of a teenage boy getting his first taste of youthful revolt.
About that theorizing: It can be seen as a high IQ professor slumming, but Kirby is a genuine appreciator of pop culture and he’s made a nice case for its importance. A lot of it, he says, is non-sense.
The non-sense of pop life didn’t begin with “Tutti Fruit-ti” but it refined it by adding black rhythm, therefore, it is a case of profound injustice that Little Richard has been ignored as a pioneer of rock history, while Fats Domino and others says Kirby, have not.
Art, says Kirby, is largely accidental. And Little Richard’s ability to give young suede shoe teens joy was a product of an accidental moment.
That moment in a recording studio, where Little Richard blushing in embarrassment at the nature of the original lyrics —a “paean to anal intercourse” —stood singing against a wall to avoid the sight of a young lady writer —would change music history by creating a chasm between adult culture and youth culture.
This is especially significant because pop music up until this time was a universally shared pleasure. Mostly, it was the polished stuff of Tin Pan Alley —Cole Porter, the Gershwin boys, Harold Arlen —with singers like Frank Sinatra crooning the swank lyrics.
It had a youthful theme: romantic loss, love, etc but with an adult gleam and sophistication. Little Richard bulldozed that and paved the way for a good deal of the musical act we have now, Lady Gaga, for example.
Although, I admit, jazz was reaching the high point of its artistic achievement in the stuff of Miles Davis, it by then was a minor art-form, mostly ignored among the wider listening public.
What makes Kirby’s appreciation significant is its celebration of the youth culture that Little Richard’s music wrought. The 1950s, as cultural watchers like to say, was the real ferment of culture-upsetting ideas.
What it allowed some Boomers to do is cherish an idea of youthful impetuosity that is self-involved and self-defeating. Greater minds have said better things about its assaults on cultural life than I can muster here. However, I’d like make the point that this is one of the regrettable legacies of Little Richard.
You take his wonderful, interesting exploitation of vaudeville, the black church, and see its seamless integration into his personality: His pancake make-up, gaudy wardrobe, very gay, Wildean personality. And say, Wow! Like Louis Armstrong, he could make you smile.
Kirby makes a claim that I’m not sure I can agree with: Little Richard was the first cross-cultural black entertainer. By being one of the first black performers to strut his musical stuff in front of fully integrated crowds, Little Richard is a little noticed hero of race relations.
I think that designation really goes to Louis Armstrong. Through his countless tours, jazz sets and albums, but especially his TV appearances he was one of the first, really cool black musicians to become accepted by a white audience.
Sometime ago, I was showing a friend of mine an original recording of Ella Fitzgerald doing her famous rendition of “Mack the Knife” in Switzerland. He’d noticed the no-frills accompaniment, assured and dazzling singing, but the lack of a performance concept.
That’s another thing Little Richard did for music: He made it into a performance art. Armstrong had his performing repertory of hokum, but Little Richard seems to have elaborated and perfected it.
His overwhelming legacy, before Beatlemania, was ushering in youth culture and making it possible for a list of pop acts— Madonna, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga — to use considerably less talent, personal novelty and various hi jinks to vulgarize and propel the adolescent swing of pop life.
Kirby makes the case that Little Richard was an original and exciting pop artist in a vivid prose, but he also left a cultural dearth. Still, the music was, readily conceding my tender young ears, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop-a-lop-bam-boom.
Chris Timmons shares his insights and conservative sensibilities in a featured blog for The Village Square (and occasionally does a little bit of rock n roll).