ArtSunday

Little Richard: the ecstasy of cognitive dissonance…

Little Richard is the victim of enough cognitive dissonance for at least three people.

“Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen.” – Richard Penniman

Little Richard at his peak (image courtesy spclarke.com)

Reading the “authorized” biography of Richard Penniman, i.e. Little Richard, The Life and Times of Little Richard, is part joy, part chore. The author, Charles White, hasn’t so much written a biography as compiled and organized interviews with Little Richard, several of his siblings, his mother, his on-again-off-again manager Bumps Blackwell, and others who moved into and out of his life. This has advantages and disadvantages. The greatest advantage is that Little Richard, whose interviews dominate the book as one might expect, gets to tell his own story as he recollects it. The greatest disadvantage is that – Little Richard gets to tell his own story as he recollects it. This makes for fascinating reading but its reliability is only as trustworthy as the memory of the interviewee. That said, let’s say simply that Little Richard is a great storyteller.

As one reads The Life and Times of Little Richard, what emerge poignantly are the conflicts in Richard Penniman’s psyche. Torn between his love of rock and roll and his love of religion, torn between his “homosexuality” (though more likely he is bi-sexual given his own descriptions of his relationships with men and women) and his desire to be “normal,” torn between his love of public adulation and his desire to be a good son and brother, torn between his status as a major star and the prejudice and mistreatment he encountered as a black man, Little Richard is the victim of enough cognitive dissonance for at least three people.

Cognitive dissonance, for those fuzzy on the term, is the psychological discomfort a person feels when his behaviors and his sense of self-hood conflict with each other. In Little Richard’s case his conflicted feelings about his sexuality started in childhood:

The boys would want to fight me because I didn’t like to be with them. I wanted to play with the girls. See, I felt like a girl…. I just felt I wanted to be a girl more than a boy…. I knew I was different from the other boys as I got older. My cousin had a boyfriend by the name of Junior. I loved that guy…. I loved him just like a girl would love her boyfriend and the same as a man would love a woman. My affection was not natural.

The older women still liked me, though. One of the ladies I would sit around with…would ask me to have sex with her.

Little Richard’s religion based judgment on his own behavior aside, this passage reveals a person obviously deeply conflicted about his sexual identity. This conflict has haunted Little Richard his entire life (and may be part of the reason why, in spite of his renunciations of rock and roll in particular and show business in general, he returned to that life again and again).

Rock and roll made Little Richard a world wide star and cemented his place in the history of popular music; his rejection of it to pursue a career in religion is another of his conflict points that he repeatedly tries to explain, as in this chapter from the biography composed almost entirely of Little Richard’s personal testimony given as part of his work as an evangelist:

My name is Little Richard. I’m the Rock ‘n’ Roll singer that you’ve heard about through the years. I’m the one that sang “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Rip It Up….” I was making ten thousand dollars for one hour’s work…. I had forgotten all about God…. I was directed and commanded by another power. The power of darkness…. The power that a lot of people don’t believe exists. The power of the Devil. Satan.

Then there is the issue of wanting the adulation of fans and wanting to be a good son and sibling to his family. Here is Richard offering a couple of assessments of his importance to rock and roll and rock and roll’s importance to his desire to help his family:

A lot of people call me the architect of rock & roll. I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true.

Rock ‘n’ roll offered me a platform to speak what I felt. It also offered me a platform to support my mama and my brothers and sisters – twelve children.

Finally, there’s the issue of racism. Like many great black stars of his era, Little Richard was cheated by record companies, promoters, and, as he claims here, by the radio industry:

A lot of people in management didn’t like cos I was a white attraction. If I’d been a black attraction like James Brown or Otis Redding, it would have been different. I think I scared them. I would have had the same stature as the Beatles or Mick Jagger…. Racism has always been so heavy against me in America. Even when I was doing Las Vegas, they somehow never wanted to give me the money they gave the other artists…. They were really nasty to me, and that was pure racism.

This form of cognitive dissonance, the result of institutionalized racism, added to the other cognitive dissonances he experienced would have defeated many of us. That Little Richard triumphed, became not just a star of his time but a legend in rock music, is a tribute to his drive, talent, and strength. How did he do it? Reverend Penniman explains it best himself:

I did what I felt, and I felt what I did, at all costs.

Ladies and gentlemen, Little Richard….

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