June 7, 2023

I Am Everything’ and the Nature of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneer


Little Richard performs onstage in circa 1956 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

Little Richard performs onstage in circa 1956. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

For a masterclass on the founding father of rock ‘n’ roll, look no further than the new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything. Arriving on HBO Max on April 21, filmmaker Lisa Cortés gets to the root of being the self-proclaimed “originator” who amplified the genre.

The film also meditates on the ascent of Little Richard from Macon, Georgia, releasing hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” to the artist having a history of denouncing his queerness in lieu of publicly living in his truth. With interviews from Billy Porter, Nona Hendryx, John Waters, and music scholar Jason King, part of Cortés’ objective for I Am Everything was to explore Richard and his contributions to the lineage of early rock ‘n’ roll.

“When you see Little Richard with The Beatles, and you hear about how he influenced them and even introduced him to Billy Preston, who then goes on to be what many people call the fifth Beatle. You’re like, ‘Wow,’” Cortés tells Okayplayer. “Jimi Hendrix is in Little Richard’s band. Little Richard brings James Brown to record his actual first hit. Little Richard is more than somebody who says “I am the king;” he is a true architect and contributor to this art form.”

We spoke to Cortés about I Am Everything, Little Richard’s impact on European audiences, the growing prominence of Black queerness in music, and more.

The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

You had an interest in Little Richard’s life prior to making the documentary. Was there anything that you discovered about him during the filmmaking process?

Lisa Cortés: I think it was how complex his story is. Depending on when you encountered Little Richard, you have different memories of him. For some people, it’s [him performing] “Rubber Duckie” on Sesame Street. For other people. it’s the talk shows in the ‘80s or he’s saying “shut up.” But with his erasure from his important role in rock ‘n’ roll history, I think that we as a culture lost sight of how deep his contributions were.

It’s not just the music and the great lyrics he wrote, it’s not just the hair and the makeup and the fabulous suits or the performance, or bringing his queerness into the mix. It’s the combination of all of this that shifted culture. The residue that exists now are artists who are direct descendants of what Little Richard unleashed.

What do you think makes Little Richard a standalone amongst the Black artists of his time?

It’s 1955, and a Black man from Macon, Georgia declares himself as a king, as an innovator. It’s a rebellious act with music that’s equally anarchic. He does so with performance and presentation that you can’t forget. There’s no one else like him, and that’s why one of the things I lean into the film is that ‘is he from another planet?’

He’s so unique and special and is pulling from so many different places and traditions whether it is his church background; some of the innovative singers in that space ranging from Brother Joe May to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He’s pulling from drag culture, the chitlin circuit – no one else created a gumbo like that and brought it to the world so unapologetically.

In the film, we saw Little Richard face both homophobia and racism during the Jim Crow era. What would you say that he struggled with most in his career?

The biggest struggle that he talked about and that we see in the film is being a saint and being a sinner. His relationship with God, and then his relationship with rock ‘n’ roll, and his queerness, which are in his mind are the polar opposite of what it is to lead a Godly life. So he is on this rollercoaster. At the height of his fame he gives it all away – he throws his jewels into the ocean and goes to Bible college.

For him, he feels it is a contradiction in his walk, and I think the challenge for him was, how could he hold on to all the multitudes that he attained? He can sing gospel that melts your heart and he can sing rock ‘n’ roll that rocks your soul. They’re all from the same person, but he could not reconcile within himself that he held all of this.

You mentioned that he went to Bible college when he was still considerably in his prime. Do you think that secular music and religious faith can coexist?

I think Sister Rosetta Tharpe is an incredible example of someone who came from a gospel tradition who picked up the guitar and plugged it in. That’s why we’re calling her one of the mothers of rock ‘n’ roll, because she literally brought that rock ‘n’ roll energy and the rhythmic propulsion of rock ‘n’ roll to gospel music.

Nearly 25 years before I Am Everything there was a television movie about Little Richard’s life. If you were in the director’s seat, what would you have changed about the film?

Well, I love that Leon [Robinson] portrayed Little Richard in that film. I thought he was really fantastic. I think I would have had a much more pointed examination of how white artists who appropriated his style and music went on to have bigger careers than him and did not give props to Richard for all that they were co-opting from him.

Even in your film, Little Richard had to ask for those props later from artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. What do you think the appeal was between early soul artists like Little Richard and European musicians?

What we know is when we cross the pond – and we speak to artists in the U.K. specifically – they valued these records that were coming from the U.S. They were like gold for them. It was like trading baseball cards. It’s like, ‘Do you have this record?’ ‘Well, no, but my cousin came from the states and I’ve got two copies of [this].’ I mean they had so much scholarship and equal parts passion. I think they really valued these artists much more so than America which did not value this Black cultural product.

Do you still think it’s that same way? Now we have very prominent British artists like Adele who are strongly influenced by southern blues.

Well, it’s such a different time that we live in now. You know how [faster] information travels, how your album comes out on Friday night on Spotify and it’s like a shot heard round the world. I think that back then, information was traveling much slower, but there are these deep pockets of young people in the UK who make it their mission to know ‘What is the latest and greatest coming from Chess Records?’

Although white artists were very influenced by Little Richard, you included Black artists like Valerie June, Cory Henry, and John P. Kee who performed in the film. What did you want their presence to convey about Little Richard’s impact?

Creatively, those artists appear in what I call my “dreamscapes.” Dreamscapes are seminal moments in Richard’s life when a portal of possibility opens up for him that propels him to the next greater part of his journey. So a 14-year-old Little Richard meets Sister Rosetta Tharpe, his favorite artist, and she says, “Come and perform onstage with me in the Macon Auditorium.” This kid he’s queer, he’s been kicked out of his house. He’s different from everyone else and someone hears his voice, sees he has talent, and welcomes them on the stage. I wanted this film to have these immersive moments and to hear this music performed by contemporary artists who I believe are inheritors of the legacy.

Valerie June is a very accomplished artist in her own right. She’s a Black woman who has an Americana background, a rock ‘n’ roll background and combines that in her artistry. She just was the best choice to bring us to this moment and to hear this music, but with her spin. That’s the thing: Valerie, in performing “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day,” she doesn’t do it like the record. She doesn’t do the same arrangement that Sister Rosetta Tharpe did, she puts her spin on it.

In establishing Richard as a structural integrity of this family tree, it’s always important for me to see the branches of the tree. Cory Henry is another part of the branch. He came up in the church playing gospel music, and he now plays a selection of music that ranges from gospel to funk to R&B and hip-hop. Pastor Kee, the song that he performs is not a Little Richard song, but it emotionally speaks to the juncture we’re at in the film where all Little Richard has is prayer. He is at the lowest level in his life and it is through prayer that he is able to find a way out of a very dark period of great loss and reconnect in his relationship with God or strengthen his relationship.

Getting back into Little Richard’s queerness, he really didn’t open up about that until the 1980s. So do you think the industry still has some improvements to make when it comes to Black queer artists?

He started talking on the talk show circuit [in the ‘80s] like, “Yeah, I was queer, but I’m not gay anymore.” See that’s the thing, it’s during this period when we all see him and we’re like, ‘I think he’s queer,’ but he never said that he was. It’s only in the ‘80s that he actually says that he was, but [claims that] he isn’t. The ‘80s was not loving to Sylvester who was out, it’s not loving even to Boy George and Culture Club. So I think there is a much greater, healthier space for artists to be out or Sam Smith to declare who [they are]. For Brandy Carlisle to be revered as a great artist who happens to be queer. We’re living in a different time in space, and still there are those who are frightened and challenged by Black and queer history.

Although Little Richard didn’t exactly become a minister as he hoped in his childhood. What type of ministry do you think he achieved in his music and existence?

I think there’s a lot of love. He was very generous to people. Whether he was singing gospel or rock ‘n’ roll, he knew that he brought joy to people and that there is a great gift that we can still tap into when we listen to his music.

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with bylines at Billboard, MTV News, NYLON, Recording Academy, and more. Read her mind on Twitter at @hernameisjae.

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