December 5, 2011 | 7:51am
On the occasion of his 79th birthday, Little Richard becomes one of the oldest members of that first great wave of rock 'n' roll pioneers who set the standard in the mid '50s. An original inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame - he was honored during the first awards ceremonies in 1986 -- he created a template that's been followed by practically every performer who followed, be it the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presely, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John or scores of others, and his influence will likely resonate as long as Rock remains essential and enticing.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, Little Richard not only changed the course of musical history through his hits -- "Tutti Frutti," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Rip It Up," "Lucille" and "Jenny Jenny" being but a few - but also via his unhinged dynamic and performances.
His wild whooping vocals, rousing method of playing piano and outrageous
stage garb jolted his audiences out of the staid and sedate norms of
the '50s and set them reeling in ways the world had never seen before.
He was in fact, music's first real showman, and he took his persona to
extremes. Parents were outraged and the fact that he was Black repelled
them even further. Even at the height of his career, his biggest hits
were often those he wrote and were covered by others, be it Elvis
Presley or Pat Boone. He was a threat the way he brought the races
together and caused a riotous commotion, the likes of which became
commonplace as Presley and the Beatles came to the fore. Even his antics
behind the scenes became the stuff of legend, complete with orgies and
other wild antics that would later become integral to the debauched
standards of the Rock 'n' Roll regimen.
In an era when fans were shocked by scandals like Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his teenage cousin and Elvis' enlistment in the army, Little Richard managed to up the ante when the self-proclaimed purveyor of the "Devil's Music" abruptly decided to abandon his wicked ways and give himself to God. He was on his way to a concert in Melbourne Australia when he glanced at the airplane engines and suddenly imagined they were angels guiding the aircraft through the night sky. Later at the performance, he glanced upwards and saw a fireball -- the trail of flames from Sputnik I, as it turned out -- and saw it as a sign that he needed to abandon rock 'n' roll and give his labors to the Lord. When he missed his flight home and the plane he had originally intended on taking crashed, he had his confirmation that indeed he needed to quit his career. He became a reverend, started his own church and recorded nothing but Gospel music from the late '50s into the early '60s.
Eventually, Richard was coaxed back into playing rock 'n' roll once again, and his tours of England during the early '60s helped ignite a fervor that would soon sweep up the nascent British rockers like the Beatles and the Stones. But back at home, his newer records failed to chart, and Richard, immersing himself in alcohol and excess, blamed his lack of success on a backlash from religious group angered over his defection to the secular side. The racial politics of the late '60s further impeded his progress after he refused to perform only for black audiences. He was helped along by a late '60s rock 'n' roll revival, but as the '60s segued into the '70s, his addiction to drugs and alcohol caused him to crash precariously, After two close friends, his brother and a beloved nephew were killed -- and he himself was nearly shot -- he again took stock of his situation and chose the road to evangelism. He later made a promise to his mother on her deathbed that he would always remain a Christian. He would still play rock 'n' roll later on, but only as an instrument for bringing people together. In fact, he's managed to fuse these forms together; as a reverend, he presided over a number of high profile rock weddings, including those of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Cyndi Lauper and Steve Van Zandt.
Still, the fact that Richard was raised in a religious household and had performed in church as a child made his segueway seem natural, at least in retrospect. However, there have been a number of other popular musicians who were swept up by religious fervor and transitioned into the church of their own beliefs. Here's a partial listing of some of the more prominent.
George Harrison -- The so-called "quiet Beatle" first got involved with spiritual teachings during a pilgrimage to India where he studied with the Maharishi and convinced the other Beatles to follow suit. The experience later led to an interest in Hinduism and Hare Krishna, and several of his early solo songs - "My Sweet Lord," "Living in the Material World" and "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" -- alluded to his spiritual beliefs.
Bob Dylan - Though born into a Jewish family, Dylan embraced Christianity in the late '70s and followed suit by releasing two Gospel albums - Slow Train Coming and Saved--that were received with decidedly mixed reactions. Among those who didn't take so well to Dylan's proselytizing, was his producer Jerry Wexler. During the sessions for Slow Train Coming, Dylan did his best to convert him, to which Wexler reportedly replied, "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let's just make an album." Nevertheless, the album garnered Dylan a Grammy Award as "Best Male Vocalist" for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody". When Dylan later toured behind his Saved album, he allegedly refused to play any of his earlier secular material, telling his audiences that he resented being told he was a prophet and that they ought to idolize Jesus instead. Nevertheless, John Lennon got the final word when he lambasted "Gotta Serve Somebody" with his own take on the tune, a song he titled "Serve Yourself."
Al Green - Like Little Richard, it took an act of violence to convince Al Green that he needed to renounce his past and turn instead to God. A jilted lover doused him with a pan of boiling grits while he was showering, burning him severely. He saw the incident as a wake-up call, and became an ordained minister, preaching in a church a block away from Graceland. Now known as the Reverend Al Green, he continued to record the smooth R&B he had become famous for until another near-mishap - which occurred in the form of a fall from a stage -- convinced him he needed to turn his attention to preaching and singing gospel instead. A 1982 appearance with Patti Labelle in the hit Broadway show Your Arms Too Short to Box with God showed he could still maintain his popular following while also expressing his devotion to God.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam - It was while on holiday off the coast of Malibu that Cat Stevens, one of the most successful songwriters of the '70s, got caught up in a rip current and very nearly drowned. He reportedly pleaded with God to save him and promised in return to serve Him if he was spared. Suddenly a wave came along and carried him to shore. The incident confirmed that the spiritual quest he had been on was the right way to go. His brother gave him a copy of the Qu'ran and with that, Stevens converted to Islam, changed is name to Yusuf and effectively put his pop career on hiatus for the next 25 years. He started an Islamic school and philanthropic center in London, discarding the trappings of his earlier success while devoting himself entirely to religion. "I had found the spiritual home I'd been seeking for most of my life," he told one interviewer. "And if you listen to my music and lyrics, like 'Peace Train' and 'On The Road To Find Out,' it clearly shows my yearning for direction and the spiritual path I was traveling." In recent years, he's reconciled his faith with his fame and released two pop-oriented albums, An Other Cup and Roadslinger, each a fine example of the song craft he was once so seemingly determined to leave behind.
Richie Furay - An original member of the legendary Buffalo Springfield and its series of successful offspring, Poco in particular, Furay made the decision to follow his faith as a matter of need and not sudden revelation. He was introduced to Christianity by band mate Al Perkins and employed it to restore his troubled personal life and put him on a path to self-realization. After becoming an ordained minister at a Colorado church in 1983, he continued making music, but slowly slipped from the spotlight. The majority of his solo albums found him expressing his Christian beliefs, but his 2006 release The Heartbeat of Love, a subsequent live album of early Poco and Springfield classics and his recent reunions with former colleagues from both bands show his willingness, at least in part, to re-enter his earlier Country-Rock realms.
Wayne Cochran - Finally, let's not forget one of South Florida's own - Wayne Cochran, whose signature white pompadour and early rock 'n' roll revelry made him part Elvis, part jerry Lee Lewis and, yes, part Little Richard. Cochran retired from music in 1972 and is now an ordained minister in Miami.