In a clip from the documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, we hear the young entertainer singing an early version of what would become his signature tune, “Tutti Frutti.” But surprise! The original lyrics were different than the ones we know today: “Tutti frutti, good booty/Tutti frutti, good booty!”
The song, as Richard wrote it, was about gay sex. In 1955, it would become the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s breakthrough hit, catapulting him to mainstream stardom — but only after the words were revised to something much more benign: “Tutti frutti, oh rooty/Tutti frutti, oh rooty!”
The sanitized lyrics symbolize the deep conflict between Little Richard’s public persona and his private life, and how he could hit the stage in all his authentic glory, then do an about-face when the spotlight became too white-hot and too controversial — especially in the deep South, at a time when the definition of a wholesome American family was embodied on TV by Ozzie and Harriet.
“Richard was not only becoming a star in 1955, but he’s doing so at a time that is fraught with tremendous danger for Black people and queer people, and he is unabashedly himself,” says director Lisa Cortés. “I saw that there were elements for documenting something incredibly powerful. What were the social and cultural conditions that formed this man? We could not only look at the icon, but all the forces of nature that shaped him, and that he rallied against.”
Richard Wayne Penniman — aka Little Richard — died from bone cancer at the age of 87 on May 9, 2020. At the time, Cortés was finishing up All In: The Fight for Democracy, the Stacey Abrams voter suppression documentary she co-directed with Liz Garbus.
“When Richard passed away, I was in lockdown like everyone else, eating too much chips and dip,” Cortés recalls. “I started hearing Richard’s music upon his death, and saw incredible people talking about how much he meant to them. I needed a relief from everything that was going on, and I was like, ‘Okay, I want to watch a doc on him — and nothing existed.’” (Since then, PBS aired Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll as an episode of American Masters in June of this year)
Little Richard was born on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia, the third of Charles and Leva Penniman’s 12 children. His father was a minister, but also a bootlegger and nightclub owner. His parents split when he was young. On Sundays, Richard would start the day trying not to fidget at his mother’s stern, conservative church, then finish out the day praising Jesus with the gospel choir at his dad’s rollicking house of worship. That ended when Charles booted Richard from the family home after learning his son was gay.
“Richard was born into contradictions,” says Cortés. “What we come to know of Richard Wayne Penniman as Little Richard is a journey.”
Through extraordinary archival performance footage, talk show interviews and photos hunted down from fans around the globe, the film documents his meteoric rise from performer in a traveling drag revue, to his groundbreaking career as a piano-playing singer who unleashed an exciting new sound onto eager ears. “I am the innovator. I am the originator. I am the emancipator. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!” he would famously boast.
Little Richard’s irresistible music dared folks to dance, and his charismatic stage presence smashed through race, genre and age barriers. Elvis recorded a swaggy cover of “Tutti Frutti.” Another version of the song by crooner Pat Boone was predictably more bland, and strangely devoid of any swag whatsoever. Both renditions are offered up for amusing comparison in the documentary.
There are also wonderfully revealing interviews from some of rock’s most iconic figures. Mick Jagger admits to studying Little Richard’s dance moves when the Rolling Stones served as the entertainer’s opening act for 30 dates in 1963, and Paul McCartney shares how he swiped his trademark “whoo!” from Richard’s trademark “whoo!” Little Richard, says the former Beatle, even taught him how to perfect his shriek — a technique he still punctuates his songs with to this day. Little Richard’s musical influence and androgynous style can also be seen in Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Prince, and more recently, Billy Porter, Lil Nas X, and to some extent, Harry Styles.
Little Richard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from The Recording Academy and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Yet with all the love from other artists and an undeniable array of chart-topping hits from “Long Tall Sally,” to “Rip it Up” to “Lucille,” Richard felt underappreciated. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which some view as the ultimate arbiter of musical excellence, voted him in as part of its inaugural class in 1986. Unfortunately, a horrific car crash kept him from attending the ceremony. Three years later, he was asked to induct the late Otis Redding into the Rock Hall. But instead of focusing his speech on Redding’s contributions to music, Richard brashly enumerated his own achievements, to the bewilderment of his colleagues in the audience — including Jagger.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, this says so much about his pain, with people that he helped to inspire, and in some cases, put in the game,” Cortés shares. “Most of us would never have taken that platform to air our grievances, but it says something to Richard’s life experience that he couldn’t contain it.”
There’s a throughline that weaves in and out of the documentary, connecting Richard’s childhood experiences with his actions as an adult, and linking his past to people in the present — especially those who are Black and queer. Cortés calls it the Invisible Thread.
“I think we share, for many communities, the frustration of being made to feel invisible, sidelined, having our work appropriated and the actual creators not recognized,” she explains. “There is a difference to being born in 1933 and being alive now, but also some similarities still exist.”
Some of Little Richard’s issues were of his own making. There were times he deliberately misled people about his sexuality. At one point, he quit music, married a woman named Ernestine Garvin and briefly embarked on life as an evangelical.
“I think many of us see this as incredibly harmful — the platform, the position, the power to renounce what is a part of him,” says Cortés. “When I read his autobiography, I just thought it was the craziest ride. But also, in doing my research, I realized there were a lot of inaccuracies. So as much as you love someone, you still need to call them on the carpet. Getting to the truth was always the goal for all of us.”
Cortés never had a chance to meet Little Richard, but she believes he’d be happy with the documentary. “I hope he would have blessed me and hugged me,” she says. “There is something to be said for what this film does, in giving him his flowers.”
Little Richard: I Am Everything recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Music Film. Over the course of his six decade career, Little Richard himself never received a single nomination from The Recording Academy. “This is his first Grammy nomination, in an abstract way,” offers the director.
There’s a scene in the movie where Little Richard is performing in a mirrored suit. Light dances off its reflective surfaces like platinum records in the sun — perfect for an evening at an awards show.
“If I track down that mirrored suit,” says Cortés, “I just might bring it out of the mothballs and give it a twirl that night.”