Thursday, July 8, 2010

Little Richard: Live at the Heymann (1997)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

Not to imply that the crowd who packed the Heymann Center to see Little Richard last week was old or anything, but when you overhear pre-show chitchat like “I’ve been getting AARP stuff in the mail since I was fifty,” you know you’re not in a mosh pit.

But no matter. The crowd that partially filled the Cajundome three years ago to see the Beach Boys wasn’t exactly chockfull of spring chickens either, yet a good time was had by all--and their grandchildren.

There weren’t many grandchildren at the Little Richard show. Despite his uncanny self-promotional skills, the sixty-four-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer born Richard Penniman hasn’t bridged the generation gap the way the sixty-five-year-old Johnny Cash has.

Nevertheless, when he sets up behind a piano and a mic, he can still rock the decades away. Actually, he spent most of his Heymann show out from behind the piano. For every minute he spent pounding the ivories and “Whoo!”-ing his way through his greatest hits, he spent three stalking the stage, working the crowd with the timing of a comedian and the fervor of an evangelist.

Indeed, at times you could hardly tell whether his agenda was rock-and-roll, comedy, or evangelism, so abruptly did he shift gears.

On the rock-and-roll front, he and his nine-piece band banged out brief, hard-hitting versions of everything from “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Tutti Frutti,” and “Lucille” to “I’ll Be Missing You (Every Breath You Take),” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Jambalaya.”

On the comedy front, he punctuated his steady stream of one-liners (“I screamed like a white lady!”) and non sequiturs (“Let’s have a big round of applause for my son Danny!” “I’m getting my own TV show in January!”) with his trademark “Shut up!” thirty-two times.

As for the evangelism--well, first some background.

Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard made headlines early in his career by turning his back on success and attending Bible college. But it wasn’t until a 1979 appearance on the Merv Griffin Show that he “came out” as a Christian. Distributing Bibles to Griffin’s audience, he credited the Lord with delivering him from drugs and homosexuality.

Seven years later, he released a gospel album, Lifetime Friend, on Warner Bros.

Little Richard didn’t hand out Bibles at the Heymann. Instead, his aisle-roaming assistants distributed a book called Finding Peace Within--A Book for People in Need, by E.G. White, L. Munilla, and C.E. Wheeling. Its 211 pages quote from the Bible, maintain that the end is near, and insist that the Sabbath should not be observed on Sunday. A blurb on the back says it's available in "more than one hundred languages."

Along with the book came a black-and-white photo of Little Richard, across which was written “God loves you and cares for you. Please don’t forget that. --Little Richard.”

He even preached an impromptu sermon at one point, challenging the male AARP members of the audience to give up their pornographic magazines and videos and to start loving their wives again. “I know she don’t look the way she used to,” he said, “but neither do you!” Amens followed. All this while the band played “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” softly in the background.

What had started out as a rock-and-roll show, in other words, ended up as a Promise Keepers rally.

Let no one say Little Richard doesn’t understand the times.

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