He Was An Architect
In my undergraduate studies I was able to take two courses from the architecture major. We learned a lot about design, cultivated attention to the built environment. My professors emphasized imagining things as they could be, if only we had the fortitude and verve to bring those things we sensed with our imagination into being. I loved it.
One of my favorite parts of those classes was creating "section drawings" of imagined spaces. As Frank Ching writes in his hallowed reference text Architectural Graphics, "A section is an orthographic projection of an object as it would appear if cut through by an intersecting plane. It opens up the object to reveal its internal material, composition, or assembly."1 In other words, it's what you imagine an object would look like if you sliced it down the middle and stood before its newly revealed interior face. It takes imagination to create these drawings, because there is so much possibility hidden by the surface of an object or the walls of a room: You have to consider depth and texture, weight and relation, to get at what could be there. Section drawings presume that any surface holds manifold possibility, and make manifest the capacity of the imagination towards surprise and delight — a kind of visual arpeggio. Architects, likewise, use their senses to imagine the ways folks inhabit worlds, provide for us a way to live and breathe and be. Architecture is an inquiry, the practice of the as if.
Little Richard called himself, over and over again, the architect of rock and roll. Many take this assertion to mean that he thought of himself as an influence in the genre, but as Tavia Nyong'o argued this spring after the artist's death, influence is "perhaps too weak a word." Others think Little Richard meant he created the genre, but that is a misunderstanding of architecture. Architects don't create sui generis: They gather and create ideas based on what's already there, even if what's there is emptiness — because that emptiness, that nothingness, is full with the capacity to be imagined otherwise. They take what is in the world, its land and air and sea, and let the mind dance and play in order to think through space and place differently. Architects are not originators, or even builders, but they are innovators. They attempt to figure out "the human condition in all of its complexities," as philosopher Rossen Ventzislavov says. They project, fundamentally, ideas of what could be.
Like an architect, Little Richard advanced new directions in American music and culture — toward what was for him, and remains for us, possible. But sometimes the possible is also the occasion for sadness. Sometimes the possible, and even the implemented, is the occasion for grief.
Born Dec. 5, 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was reared in Macon, Ga., one of 12 children of Leva Mae and Charles. His people were religious: His father's family were members of Foundation Templar AME Church, his mother's, the Holiness Temple Baptist Church. As a child, he imagined preaching and pastoring as his future. "I wanted to be like Brother Joe May, the singing evangelist, who they called the Thunderbolt of the West,"2 he says in the 1984 authorized biography The Life and Times of Little Richard. He especially liked to see folks in the Blackpentecostal church get happy, shouting and speaking in tongues — the capacity to be moved, and to be moving. It's this energetic movement that was the basis of his musicianship to come.
Recounting the sonic atmosphere that made his audiovisual career possible, Little Richard discussed the way songs would be constructed, with a kind of casualness and ease, on the streets where he grew up. "You'd hear people singing all the time," he said. "The women would be outside in the back doing the washing, rubbing away on the rubboards, and somebody else sweeping the yard, and someone else would start singing, 'We-e-e-ll ... Nobody knows the trouble I've seen ...' And gradually other people would pick it up, until the whole of the street would be singing."3 That a song could be picked up meant it could be carried. That it was carried by and through and with one another, as a social practice, meant anyone could participate and be a necessary, integral part. And to participate was to have an imagination for things, to see houses and streets as pulsating with interior possibility for the picking up and carrying together of sound and song.
The fact that street singing and Blackpentecostal praise provided Little Richard a structure from which to think musically is both miracle and cause for grief. Miracle because, years later, he would redeploy both in order to practice a blackqueerness he truly enjoyed. Grief, because he would eventually renounce that form of joy — not once, but over and over.
After leaving the home at 14, he went to New Orleans. He began performing as a drag queen named Princess Lavonne, and played in blackqueer night clubs throughout the South in the 1940s and early '50s. "Tutti Frutti," one of his signature songs, carried an explicit energy — not only in overtly queer lyrics about the pleasures of "good booty," but also in the expression of those lyrics through a kind of Blackpentecostal spirit of enraptured delight. As NPR's Ann Powers says, "What Little Richard did on 'Tutti Frutti' ... was to eliminate the double entendres and make matters much more direct. Most bawdy R&B songs pointed toward sex, albeit sometimes with a giant foam finger. Little Richard's vocalizations enacted sexual excitement itself."
By 1953, he had traded the princess's sparkly dresses for tailored suits, though he still "retained her sequins, her makeup, her pompadour." As historian Marybeth Hamilton writes, the artist announced himself as Little Richard, "King of the Blues ... and the Queen, too!"4 He sent an audition tape to Specialty Records, which led to his discovery by Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, a talent scout for the company looking to expand its audience with race records. The two met for a session in 1955, when Richard was 22. But something wasn't working — his performance in the studio disappointed Blackwell. They decided to grab lunch at the Dew Drop Inn. Richard, feeling right at home, jumped on the piano, and began to sing "Tutti Frutti." Blackwell loved what he saw, but decided the lyrics needed to change.
The version of "Tutti Frutti" that Little Richard recorded that autumn rose to No. 2 on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart, and No. 21 on the pop chart. Richard had found a bigger audience — but in doing so, he had left some of his directness behind. "Good booty" was gone from the chorus, swapped for the colloquialism "aw rooty." Princess Lavonne faded into memory. You could say that these changes produced a coherence and stability for his career, that muting the queer desire of his early years allowed him to settle into the concept of Little Richard, the persona we've come to know best. But this settlement was the beginning of a broader renunciation of blackqueerness in all its possibility — its relationality and joy and explicit sexual delight. The new lyrics functioned as a kind of surface. A surface that veiled depth.
It wasn't just the music industry that wasn't quite ready for a presence like Princess Lavonne's. In America's 1950s postwar moment, the idea of queerness as deviance was finding its full expression, as patriotism to the nation was equated directly with a normative family ideal, and a renunciation of sexualities that were not productive for the political economy. More than that, though, the artist had found his love for performance in church, and the church world's doctrinal commitments and theological convictions were stringent and strident in their castigation of queerness as sin. Richard's relationships with men delighted and gave him joy and pleasure, but he also consistently thought they were sinful — and in thinking his behavior sinful, he thought he needed to transform himself over and over again to be normal.
Reflecting on the point in his childhood when he developed crushes on other boys, Little Richard stated, "My affection was not natural. It was very unnatural, but I didn't realize it then."5 And about his time at Oakwood University in the late '50s, having left the music industry to train for the ministry:
"They had discovered that I was a homosexual and I resented the discovery. ... I cursed them out. I said some nasty words that shouldn't have been said in church. You see, I was angry that they had found out about my unnatural affections. You know how when you find out the truth about someone they get mad. Well, I was caught point blank and I hated it. At the time I thought they were being hypocritical. But really, to be truthful, they weren't. I was. I was supposed to have been living a different life and I wasn't. They forgave me. Oh, definitely they did forgive me, but I couldn't face it and I left the church."6
This movement became a pattern. As Ann Powers explains, "There is little doubt that homophobia, internalized and otherwise, contributed to him leaving the secular music business in 1959 to marry and become a preacher. (He would repeat the cycle of exit and return, minus the wife, many times throughout his career.)" Even near the end of his life, in 2017, he gave a televised talk for the Seventh-day Adventist organization Three Angels Broadcasting Network in which he repudiates much of the life he lived, engaging that same repetition of movement between saint and sinner.
That he had to renounce relation to blackqueerness, to Princess Lavonne and to the feelings he felt, is a grief thing. Grief not for the dead but for the renounced imaginative faculty, the submission to rather than sitting with and moving through the terror provoked by attempting to practice imagination towards a lovingly blackqueer world. Grief organized around an emptiness that does not have to be, yet is. Grief because even after attempts to sever connection, relation is still real, and there, and possible. I feel grief because of those who refused to carry him, to be carried and transformed by him. I hear it in his voice, in the way he talked about his conversion, in the grain and sound of his melancholy when stating that his queer relationality was unnatural. It is the sound of heartbreak.
My mother found Kevin in 1983 at Soul Scissors, off South Orange Ave in East Orange, N.J., having searched for a beautician who would treat her hair correctly and would be kind to her. After her first visit, she decided to stay with him. As she told it to me, Kevin wouldn't do just anything; he had a vision. And over a 13-year relationship of at least biweekly visits, he canceled only three times, and was almost never late.
When I was around 5, I began carrying around a Black My Buddy doll. My mother had been going to Kevin for two years by then, and because I'd noticed his care for hair, I tried to do the same for my doll: I'd take my mother's rosewater lotion, purchased for a church fundraiser, and moisturize the coarse brown curls, brush them with a big brush, smooth them as much as possible, try to give them pizzazz. Throughout the years I'd look — stare, really — at cousins Tracey and Deborah doing their hair with hot curlers in the bathroom when we'd visit Maryland for family reunions. I wished so much to try to do what Kevin did for my mother, to work that imaginative capacity, to be that architect of hair. I thought I was something like Kevin, but not because I had any idea yet what he was, what it meant for him to go to D.C. every year for Memorial Day. I wanted to be like him because of the liberated relation he seemed to practice with people, which I could sense even if I didn't have a name for it.
The older I became, the more I suspected — until I finally heard, through a precocious attention to rumor and hushed conversations — that he was gay. And it was a wonder to me, because I'd heard about queer folks mainly in sermons, through dismissive language that deemed them unnatural.
When I was around 13, Kevin began cutting my hair, and putting a curl process in it. And he'd talk to me, really talk to me, with kindness. He knew me — who I was, who I was hiding — and never compelled anything from me, only engaged me in a practice of welcome. I can't remember the content of our conversations, but I remember he made me feel that I wasn't monstrous, that my edges were not in need of smoothing. I noticed the kindness and gentleness and patience he practiced, which told me something of his character. And, also, a sadness he carried in his eyes that, I fully believe, allowed him to sense in me a similar sadness.
I have thought about Kevin and hair lately because, at one of those family reunions, Little Richard was mentioned — with the kind of dismissiveness I'd come to recognize. It was rumored that he was having a "sex change operation," and that he would eventually marry a very prominent male soul music performer. This was said with giggling, but also with scorn. Richard was still gay, still a sissy, and his hair was a telltale sign. Hearing this, I wondered how Kevin could have had such a loving and kind social relationship with my Blackpentecostal mother if he was also a sinner — if he and Richard were destined for the same demise.
There is nothing genetic about bouffants and sequins, no "natural" inclination towards the eccentric and ornamental. There is no biological predisposition towards constructing worlds of magic and delight, through hair or through song. These are social practices, ways to be in the world, and perhaps to practice freedom. So what happens when freedom is relinquished for the privilege to be thought of as normal?
We think of our world in binary logics, and these are simplistic surfaces, too plain to reflect the deep interior lives we live, and share. When the sacred and the secular-social are thought to be purely distinct, when it is presumed that these categories never cross and converge and constitute one another, their differences become unresolvable. And between these two, an existential despair emerges from attempting to traverse the cycle and remain intact. Many make this journey like Little Richard did, unresolved and unsure, because of a desire to cohere with a religious or social concern. But what if there remained a way to honor sacred and secular as blurred, as mixed up and impossible to produce categorical distinction over?
Since Richard's death, I have been attempting to think about the relationship between religious spaces and their secular rivals, between churches and gay dance clubs for example, or sacred music and what was and is still sometimes called "the devil's music." And what is underscored is that the binary is an imprecision. In his movement from blackqueerness to the church and back again, Little Richard's life rehearsed an unreconciled striving, because of a social world that refused to carry and be tender with blackqueer life. Yet using an architectural imagination, we can discover in Little Richard an exuberance and joy that incessantly emerged and erupted and interrupted his claims for and movements toward the normative.
Because although he transformed his lyrics, the energetic drive and bounce of the church world that he loved was carried into his performance practices, both as Princess Lavonne and Little Richard. "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" give us this joy, this pleasure, this exuberance. The practice of Blackpentecostal praise informed his stage persona even as he sang songs with the sex scrubbed out of them. The picking up and carrying of songs, from place to place and person to person, became the architectonics of his piano strumming and choreography, his desire to create music that transformed both listener and performer.
This all remained in him, with him, even when his presentation attempted to subdue and constrain his queerness, whether for the church or the secular world. The way he danced, the way he swelled and swayed and sashayed, illustrates the ways the sacred and secular are suffused with one another, how they are in unresolved relation — like grief that ebbs and flows, that emerges and dissipates.
Little Richard died May 9, 2020. And of course, to think about death is to think about grief and the way it lingers. He was not a confidant of mine, not a member of my family or a friend that I knew, and nor is this the grief of a starstruck fan. The grief I describe, blackqueer grief, is for an unresolved and restless life. Grief because the theology of the church and the doctrine of the social world interrupted his practice of joy and pleasure. Grief because his flourish and ornamentation in sound and song marked him as a person in need of repair — lest he be sinner, less he be shameful. Grief because Little Richard was not allowed to sustain the joy he found in blackqueerness, because the doctrine of queerness as a condition to escape was an unresolved and restive journey he continually traversed.
He was an architect. Like a section drawing, he allowed us to glimpse the interior of an unresolved journey, offered himself as a gift to be opened, revealed what the internal composition for a refusal of queerness is like. It's not that he didn't love himself — I'd never argue that. It seems to me his desire to cohere with doctrine emerged because he believed in and wanted a soft space for a future, his eternity. I am saying that we have to think and listen with and really sense his world, his unresolved journey, to interrogate the systems — the homophobia, the religious chauvinism — that made his life, and so many lives like his, so difficult.
Little Richard opened up for us a way to detect a kind of blackqueer complexity and love that he did not get to fully inhabit. He saw a depth and possibility for American culture, for black genius, that he could not fully see for himself. But the work he lived and strived for, bringing into being that genius and continually allowing it to flourish and flower, is work we might continue — if only we have the courage, the conviction. The imagination.
Ashon Crawley is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of The Lonely Letters and Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. He is currently at work on a book about the Hammond B3 organ, the Black church and sexuality.
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