Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Meistersinger of Macon

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Meistersinger of Macon

Article excerpt

Ooh! My Soul

"What are you doing in my cousin's apartment?" asks Little Richard, and the answer is that I've come to Macon to write a travel piece for the Washington Post and also do research for a book on the Georgia Peach himself. Willie Ruth Howard is two years older than her celebrated relative, which makes her seventy-seven, and even though it's a hot day, I've put on a sports coat and brought flowers, too, because I want her to think I'm a gentleman and not just a fan trying to hop aboard the singer's coattails.

When the phone rings, she talks for a minute and says, "It's him," and "He wants to talk to you," but before I can start telling Little Richard how the world changed for me when I turned on my little green plastic Westinghouse radio in 1955 and heard a voice say, "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!" he says, "What are you doing in my cousin's apartment?" and then "Uh-huh. Well, look around you. You can see that my cousin is very poor, can't you?" and I'm thinking, well, she looks as though she's doing okay to me, but who am I to disagree with Little Richard, so I say, "Sure--yeah!" and he says, "Well, then, what I want you to do is get out your checkbook and write her a check for five hundred dollahs!" and I'm thinking, Jeez, I brought her these flowers ....

Heeby Jeebies

When you call the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the first thing you hear is a familiar voice shouting, "Hi, this is Little Richard, the architect of rock 'n' roll, talking to you from my hometown of Macon, Georgia!"

And you think, architect? The word conjures up a larger world, that of Leonardo and Michelangelo, say, who were to Renaissance Florence what Little Richard, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers were to twentieth-century Macon, the one group making paintings and statues and cathedral domes just as the other made soul music, rock, and blues, each in a little, out-of-the-way town and at the same time.

Of the mastersingers who came out of Macon, Little Richard is the undisputed champ. In June, 2007, his 1955 single "Tutti Frutti" topped Mojo's list of "100 Records That Changed the World"; the magazine calls it "the biggest bang in the history of pop music." That song also appeared on Here's Little Richard (1957), the artist's debut album and one which was ranked number 50 in 2003 on Rolling Stone's top 500 greatest albums of all time.

Little Richard has been credited by James Brown, who called him his idol, with "first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat." Smokey Robinson said that Little Richard is responsible for "the start of that driving, funky, never-let-up rock 'n' roll." Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden said the "greatest rock and roll singer of all time, and the one who still possesses the truest, purest rock and roll voice, is Little Richard." And Dick Clark proclaimed him "the model for almost every rock and roll performer of the '50s and years thereafter."

Truly global, Little Richard's music electrified such figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, "Little Richard sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Richardian." And Thomas Mann wrote in a letter that "I am defenseless when it comes to Little Richard's music," adding that if he saw a performance of "Tutti Frutti," he "wouldn't be able to write a line for at least two weeks."

Actually, Nietzsche and Mann were talking about another Richard, and if you substitute "Richard Wagner" for the name of the pop artist (and "Wagnerian" for "Richardian" as well as Parsifal for "Tutti Frutti"), you have their actual statements. The core idea is the same, though: unheralded, an artist appears who embodies the culture you thought you knew and expresses it better than anyone else, and, by doing so, he advances that culture to a new level. Not only that, he does so in a manner that transforms all cultures everywhere. It was Little Richard who gave Mann the phrase "world-conquering artistry" and led him to say, "Fifty years after the death of the master, the globe is ensconced in this music every evening"--whoops! …

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