The first time I encountered Little Richard, his face was plastered against a Bedford-Stuyvesant wall — the poster advertised a show at the Breevort Theater. It may have been 1962, I don’t quite remember. I do remember the shock of seeing his face for the first time, the open mouth and blackened lips (or so I thought since I couldn’t imagine a man wearing lipstick), the sweat running through the pancake makeup, the hair piled crazily on his head like a barely contained torrent cascading across his forehead to join the streams of sweat. I also remember the animated crowd gathered around the poster. They were saying that Little Richard was planning to get a sex change operation so he could marry another popular black singer. Even today I can still hear the delighted roars of laughter as the crowd by the Fulton Street bus stop feasted on this malicious bit of nonsense.
Little Richard, of course, epitomized everything parents feared about rock and roll. His music was brash and deviate, a screaming rush of inchoate frenzy guaranteed to get teenage blood boiling. He looked the way the devil might look if he descended on us as a rock and roll singer and if other rockers wanted to deflower the daughters of America, Little Richard wanted to bugger the sons. He was the King of rock and roll and would have remained King if he hadn’t chickened out, and given up his throne after three chaotic years. By the time he tried his first comeback in the early ’60s his kind of rockin’ had been effectively neutralized along with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis’s legion of billyboys.
Of the lot, Little Richard was the most dangerous. If Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis were prisoners of sex, imagine the horror of Little Richard who refused to be a prisoner of homosex just when America was finally feeling frisky enough to admit that people who “slept” together didn’t always sleep. Little Richard’s sins, real and imagined, made Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and the pornography collection of another famous ’50s rock and roll star seem like schoolboy games. If Little Richard hadn’t gotten rid of himself he would have been the first to go anyway.
More than 20 years later, Little Richard has finally found redemption. He isn’t one of the new Born Again, Little Richard has been born again so many times that he appears to be getting younger. The years of reckless living don’t show — his magnetic good looks remain unscarred. Tonight the face is holding forth at the Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Harlem. In his latest incarnation, the former King of rock and roll is serving the King as a sometimes Seventh Day Adventist, sometimes Baptist evangelist. He is now a hired lip, stalking the globe; exhorting the crowds who flock to his “sermons” drawn by the still incandescent aura of his notoriety.
The little church is packed to capacity. Television cameras prowl the aisles. Instamatics join in the chorus of light. Little Richard is in his glory, he may be starring for the Lord, but he’s still a star and everyone in that auditorium from the pious to the pitiful knows that they have crowded into this sweltering auditorium on a Monday night for no other reason than to see a star in performance. Even if Little Richard has given up rock and roll, rock and roll isn’t about to turn him loose, and predictably most of the “sermon” is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
“Did you ever have so much money that you couldn’t count it, that you didn’t want to count it?” he taunts the crowd.
“No!” is the shrieked reply.
“Well I did,” he begins to strut and preen. “I had so much money that nobody could tell me nothing … I didn’t know what to do with myself and I became a practicing homosexual. Some people may not like it but I’m gonna talk about homosexuality because you know homosexuality is even creeping into the church.”
The crowd titters nervously. But Little Richard has another zinger.
“You know ladies,” he says, insinuatingly dropping his voice to a stage whisper, “even some of your husbands are homosexuals.”
The congregation cracks up.
“I don’t want you to laugh,” snaps Little Richard. “I ain’t here to entertain you, I’m here to give you the gospel. God sent me here to tell you what to think. Ain’t nothing funny, when a man goes with another man that’s a sick occasion. I know because I’ve been a homosexual all my life.”
Suddenly the church is still. Papers stop rustling. People on their way to the bathroom return to their seats. The congregation leans forward. Little Richard pauses dramatically.
“From a little boy down in Macon, Georgia — I was different. I started dating with George and Cecil. I saw myself going deeper and deeper into homosexuality. I got so bad I wanted to be a real lady, that’s what homosexuality is, a man wants to be a woman. I got so that I got more from being around a guy than being around a girl. I had girlfriends but it was a front. I wanted Bobby, I didn’t want Martha, and there’s a whole lot of men today who don’t want Martha.”
The church roars and starts to applaud. But Little Richard doesn’t want to be interrupted.
“Don’t clap, just be quiet and listen. There’s a lot of men that got married to Martha and wish they could get rid of her right now. You don’t know what it’s like to be married to a homosexual, you living in hell. But let me get back to my own situation. Every year I found myself slipping, every year I found myself getting a little lower. I got so bold that I didn’t care what anybody thought about it, I was gay, take it or leave it. It didn’t matter because I figured, I’m a king, I got money, you can’t do nothing to me no more, I’ll buy what I want. But you can’t buy good love. That’s all a homosexual is looking for you know.
“But homosexuality is still a sin. It’s unholy and God said, ‘Little Richard, I want you to go and tell these folks that time is running out.’ If God had wanted homosexuals he would have made Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve. The women, they been getting by a long time. Nobody says too much about lesbians. You know there’s a lot of men who don’t mind if their wife has sex with another woman as long as they can watch.”
By this time the crowd is getting restless, moving around in their seats. Little Richard is quick to give attribution where it’s due.
“I’m not talking about nothing I’ve read,” he explains to the restive multitude, “everything I’m talking about, God gave me the word.” The throng is somewhat reassured.
“There are a lot of women that are feminine, lovely, and beautiful, and have children and they’re lesbians. Some men think that a woman can take their wife, if a woman can take your wife, something wrong with your wife, a real woman don’t want no woman feeling on her and a real man don’t want no man feeling on him. If a man let me fool with him, he’s just as guilty as Little Richard. Some fellows say to me, I’m not really gay but the bread is fine, I like the money, they be talking about they bisexual. But that ain’t nothing but a trick from the devil. A bisexual ain’t nothing but a educated word for a homosexual. Sex is beautiful, God ordained it, but there is a time and place for it. It’s for marriage, it’s not for everybody, it’s for people that are married, if you’re not married you shouldn’t do it. Why lose your soul for 30 seconds of pleasure. That’s all it is.” He makes a loud sexual noise and moves his body suggestively. Everyone is in stitches.
“I want everybody to be quiet,” he says, trying to still the uproar. “You know you got some people saying, ‘That Little Richard is a disgrace. He should find some other words.’ Well I don’t know no other words, I’m not educated, the only B.A. I have is that I been born again. The man thought I was a disgrace because I was open, but God told me to tell you all this … ” His voice begins to rise in desperation. Apparently some people agree that he’s a disgrace because a few of them start to walk out.
“I bet he’s still a homosexual,” the woman beside me sniffs. She starts to get her things together to leave, declaring, “I’ve heard enough about his sex life.” She’s joined by the bishop of one of Harlem’s biggest churches, who can barely conceal his rage as he stalks out. Earlier he had been trying to give me the word, but as he storms out of the church, he isn’t in an ecumenical mood.
“It is a disgrace,” he fumes. “That wasn’t a sermon, it was an exhibition and not a very good one at that. I don’t know what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing but he probably converted more people to drugs, homosexuality, and rock and roll than he did to the word of God. He has some nerve carrying on like that in front of women and children.”
He calms down long enough to once again invite me to his church, telling me how “handsome” I am. As he gets into his car, I notice something hanging from the rear view mirror. It isn’t a cross. It’s a Playboy rabbit-head insignia.
“A minister in bed is still a man with the same feelings. He just says, in the name of the Lord, we’re gonna do it, baby,” says Solomon Burke.
He doesn’t look to me like the kind of guy who would be the father of 21 or more children, but he is. Of all the Soul Clan, he seems the least likely. Wilson Pickett, absolutely. Joe Tex, without a doubt. Otis Redding, if he had survived, sure. Arthur Conley or Don Covay? Why not? But Solomon Burke? And Burke isn’t content with just any woman. He goes for exotic types like the ravishing Tamiko Jones (a former wife) or his present wife, an Oriental beauty at least half his age.
It must be the charm, the good looks, and the heavenly connection. It could also be the money. Burke has plenty of all of the above. It might not seem likely. After all, Solomon Burke was just one of the great soul singers of the ’60s. Some may argue that he was the greatest pure singer of his era and he did have big hits like ”Cry To Me,” ”Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms),” ”If You Need Me,” and ”Got To Get You Off My Mind.” But you can’t live off those royalties forever and Solomon Burke has never tried.
He was born into a gospel ”empire” founded by his grandmother that he says has now grown to include 161 churches all over the country. He is now the Supreme Bishop of the organization. Burke says even when he became a star, he never left the church (except for a brief period just before his 10th birthday when he says he became a pimp). Apparently he wised up because by the time he was 12, he was known as the Wonder Boy Preacher of Philadelphia and had his own church and radio show.
Solomon Burke doesn’t live in Philadelphia anymore. Most of the time he runs the empire from one of his two houses in Beverly Hills. The rest of the time he spends on the road visiting his churches or taking his message into nightclubs, bars, or anywhere that people will listen. Solomon Burke is a rock and roll preacher and his message is very simple, God wants you to enjoy yourself. If his 21 or more children are any indication, Solomon. Burke believes in God.
“Only God can judge the whoremonger,” Burke says as he begins to devour a huge meal. “I’m sure I’ve been a fantastic whoremonger myself … but I’m high on God, I get high on love, I get high on just the thought of making love to the woman I love. When a man and woman is in love and they’re making love to each other and they’re about to reach a climax, nothing else exists and they come to the end of their journey. That’s love and life and this is what we’re trying to teach people. God wants you to enjoy your life. If you want freaky mirrors in the bedroom so when you look up at night you can see the action, go ahead and get it because if you don’t some other sucker will. That’s the message. I’m against pimpism, I’m against women being abused, and I’m against prostitution and homosexuality, but I’m not against people enjoying themselves. One thing I want to leave behind is the thought that Solomon Burke came, he saw, and told the truth: and he left the message that if we live the life that God gives us now, we’ll know what it is to die. Don’t bring me no flowers when I die and I don’t want no men pallbearers. I want some fine, sexy, beautiful sisters to carry me out. It may take 20 of them to carry me, but let each one of them get a good grip.” Burke laughs heartily and digs into his steak.
“We have to live this life because we living in heaven and hell and we have to make it what it is. I love God, money, and women in that order … I had 11 children by one lady and I had other children along the way. I don’t feel it was a downer to have all these children, I feel it was a blessing. God has just put me in the direction of being able to touch on different people’s lives. I’m very proud to be the father of all those kids. If somebody walked up to me and said, ‘Do you know this is your kid?’ I’d only have to do three things to see if he’s mine — check his feet, hands, and find out if he has any talent. I’m very happy because all my kids look like me. Thank God there’s not too many people that resemble me. I believe in control, but I don’t believe in abortions. I certainly believe that the Black man today must not be controlled to the point of being told that he can only have two children.”
It’s almost time for Burke to hit the stage. Tonight he’s bringing his message to a little club in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s black neighborhood. Burke says if the people won’t come to church, he’ll take his church to the people. But unlike other rock and roll preachers (Al Green, Brook Benton, and Little Richard) who have given up the music that made them famous, Burke continues to sing his hits.
“There was this one waitress there last night,” he says to his brother who plays guitar in his band, “and she came backstage after the show and said, ‘I’ve never heard any of your songs before but I was really moved.’ ”
“Was this the one with the big tits?”
“Yeah, you know the one I’m talking about. So I tell her, ‘The Lord loves beauty and so do I and the Lord must have really loved you because he sure gave you a lot of it.’ I tell her she needs to be baptized and to let the spirit of the Lord move in her. All the time she’s agreeing with everything I’m saying and all the time Satan is telling me it’s okay to mess with her. I wouldn’t listen. to Satan last night, but I can’t wait to get over there tonight. There was another girl down front, and all the time I’m singing she’s sitting there with her mouth wide open. I could hardly concentrate on my singing, ’cause she was so fine and she looked just like a Big Mac to me.”
Burke and his brother crack up and head for the limousine which deposits them in Jront of the club. As he enters, Burke is crushed by female flesh.
“Lord help me,” he mutters without much enthusiasm. “Maybe I should go upstairs and meditate.” He decides against it and instead plunges into the mob of fans, accepting their adulation and kisses.
“This is not a show,” he tells the crowd, “this is a revival of heart, soul, body, and mind. We’re gonna bring back memories and songs that meant something to you and I. Most of the songs you hear on the radio today don’t mean anything. Well the songs I sing mean sometll.ing because I’ve lived them all.”
He launches into his hits, but does others like Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point” and Brook Benton’s “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” He chooses carefully, picking songs with which the audience is thoroughly familiar and material that emphasizes his immaculate voice, one of the greatest instruments in the history of soul. The audience knows most of the words, they sing along or cry out, “Talk to me baby,” “Sing it Solomon.” He smoothly segues in and out of songs, delivering a message that goes something like this.
“Some people say, ‘I love you’ because they want sex or they want money, but those words were meant to be taken seriously. When you say you love somebody, you better mean it and when you say you gonna make love to somebody, you better know what you talking about. I can hear some of you fellas saying to the woman you with, ‘baby when I get you home tonight I’m gonna do it to-you until you whupped.’ He ain’t lying either ladies. He’s gonna get you home and as soon as he’s finished he’s gonna be fast asleep.” The audience convulses in their drinks.
“I’m telling the truth now, and the Bible says the truth will make you free. Don’t use nobody in the name of love, don’t sleep with nobody in the name of love. There are two thousand ways to make love but there’s only one way to say it.”
All this talk about making love is too much for one woman. She screams, “Come on over here and sing to me baby, there ain’t no man at my table.”
Burke looks briefly in her direction but doesn’t move toward her. He continues, “I’m physically and spiritually moved by each and every one of you and every one of you is being blessed. It’s good to have somebody to love, not just somebody to Make love to … even when you don’t got nothing.”
The same woman, who is now deep in the .cups, jumps out of her seat and screams, “You got my $8.50.”
“And you got my heart,” Burke replies.
The woman isn’t satisfied. “Well, I want some of your money,” she says staggering toward where Burke stands in the spotlight.
“You can get anything you want baby.” Burke refuses to back down.
“Can I get a ride in your Cadillac too?”
“When you get in my Cadillac and that door shuts behind you and those windows roll up, it won’t be time for jiving, you gonna have to give it up.”
“Well in that case,” she shouts back, “we don’t need no Cadillac. We can do it right here.”
Burke doesn’t have an answer for that one. Instead he goes into “Don’t You Feel like Crying.” The woman comes closer and as he sings, she does a slow erotic dance. After the song is over she tells him how she has loved him all these years and how she used to buy all his records and wants to know where he’s been. He tells her he’s been out making 21 children. That seems to sober her up and she goes back to her seat. But three more women take up the challenge. As he sings “Send Me Some Loving” one grabs him and begins to do a slow grind. He doesn’t resist as two more grab him from behind and join the grind. The waitress notes with a gleam in her eye “It’s always like this when Solomon Burke comes in here.”
At the end of the night, the owner of the club is less than ecstatic. Even though he’s made more money with Burke than with anyone else he’s ever brought in, he refuses to give Solomon the rest of his money. It seems one of the waitresses has developed a fatal attraction for Burke and the owner, who regards all the waitresses as his personal harem, is furious.
Burke doesn’t get mad; instead he tells him, “That’s all right man, I don’t need the money. You keep it, but tomorrow night, you get up there and sing. You know how they carry on for $8.50, imagine what they gonna do when they get in and don’t see me.”
He gets in his limo and with the waitress roars off.
“That dude don’t know me man,” he says evenly. “You see my man right here? He wanted to blow the dude away. My man is bad. He comes from a part of town we used to call the Hole. To him moving to the ghetto was moving up. But I don’t like violence and I don’t need the money.”
The next day is Mother’s Day and Burke treks to Philadelphia to pay respects to his mother, who is also a minister. As I enter the storefront church, Mom is exhorting the congregation to employ the services of the church beautician since God wants them all to look good. She assures them that it’s not just for the women, God wants the men to pay more attention to their personal care too. When it’s Solomon’s turn to speak he starts off by handing his mother a $50 bill and instructing her not to spend it on anybody else but to go out and have a “bugaloo good time.”
The church amens its approval.
Burke tells them how he has been testifying for the Lord in the field of battle (meaning the previous night’s engagement). He tells how the people were moved by his witness and how the devil made him hemorrhage while he was on stage but how it wasn’t enough to stop him. He tells of one young man who was so moved by his preaching that he suddenly discovered his own singing abilities (probably referring to the club owner). Burke tells the children to honor their mothers in particular because “you can do without a father but you can’t do without a mother and I ought to know. Every time I start talking about kids, with the 21 I got, my mom gets nervous.”
After the service is over, dinner is served. One visiting minister who is staying at the house of Solomon’s uncle tells me what a wonderful man he is and how she gets advice from him all the time. She says his favorite spot is the piano in the living room.
Solomon’s uncle has been dead for three weeks. Another preacher affiliated with one of Burke’s churches joins us. As he sits down to eat he announces that he wants to give everyone at the table a blessing, but he particularly wanted to give one to Sister Mary. Burke says to no one in particular, “He’s probably gonna give one of them show-business blessings and nine months from now a star will be born.”
The preacher ignores him and continues to dispense his blessings. They are cones of incense that he instructs everyone to burn at “6 a.m., not 5:55 or 6:05 a.m.” I got to go get my blessing. The preacher puts the blessing in my hand after kissing it and taking my hand in his he begins to quaver. I decide to get my share of the spirit. “Praise the Lord,” I intone solemnly.
The preacher opens his eyes and fixes me with a glare of indignation. “Don’t interrupt me when I got the spirit,” he warns.
Later I learn that while he was getting the spirit, the Lord had revealed the number to him. The preacher promises the faithful that if they burn the incense and play the number the Lord had revealed, they would all be rich by next week.
I follow the instructions to the letter and play the number. On Monday the number comes up 083. On Friday it is 788. The preacher had said the Lord told him it would be 783.
I should have kept my mouth shut. ■
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 10, 2020