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Music

When Little Richard quit rock and roll for religion

It was the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was coming into its full upward swing with recording artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard flogging thousands of records left, right and centre. As we know very well by now, fame on this level of rock star worship can have adverse effects. While a number of factors caused Elvis’ eventual downfall into addiction and his subsequent death, the critical overarching pressure was his own fame. 

Over the years, we have seen hundreds of rock stars deal with fame perfectly, but also a number who have sadly been ill-equipped to deal with it. Little Richard, the iconic singer of ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Lucille’, was, fortunately, one of this early generation of rock stars who managed to handle his fame well — for the most part. 

Richard’s upbringing was particularly tough. In his early teens, he was openly bisexual, and when he was just 15 years of age, his father kicked him out of the house because of his effeminate mannerisms. Against the odds, the musician became the architect of rock ‘n’ roll and introduced Black music to the white mainstream audience of the USA.

By the mid-1950s, Richard was a world-renowned star, and as can be expected with such levels of fame, his confidence grew through the glass ceiling. He didn’t depend on his fans deeming him as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll over the years following his rise to stardom, Richard did a pretty good job of that himself. 

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Even in 1990, Richard was outspoken about his claim to the throne that was seemingly given to Presley with his title of ‘The King’. “I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor [of rock ‘n’ roll]. If there was somebody else, I didn’t know then, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day. So I say I’m the architect,” Richard asserted while speaking to Rolling Stone

What’s interesting to note, though, heading back to the 1950s, is that Richard also had a period when he renounced rock ‘n’ roll as an unholy occupation and temporarily abandoned his role within it. Finding new value in religion also seems to be a common side effect of soaring fame. 

Just like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and George Harrison would, later on, Richard suddenly found sanctuary in religion in 1957 after a year and a half of global success. 

It was on October 12th, 1957, that Richard made his surprising announcement. The rising cream of rock ‘n’ roll was in Sydney, Australia, performing the fifth date of a two-week tour when he announced out of the blue that he was renouncing the rock lifestyle and instead embracing God. 

Richard purportedly told the crowd: “If you want to live with the Lord, you can’t rock ’n’ roll too. God doesn’t like it.” He continued, explaining that he had dreamed about his own damnation after praying to God when one of the engines on a plane in which he was flying caught fire. Legend has it that around this time, the unhinged rocker threw four diamond rings (valued at $8000) into Sydney’s Hunter River.

Upon his return to the US the following day, Richard’s record label tried to keep his unexpected announcement quiet. The label organised a final eight-song recording session before he entered theological college to vindicate his assumed damnation. 

While attending college, Richard’s recent recordings were still hitting the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, boosting his rock ‘n’ roll profile to dizzier heights. Towards the end of 1957 and the start of ‘58, Richard’s singles ‘Keep A Knockin’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, in particular, had become comfortable in the higher reaches of the charts. 

For the remainder of the decade, Richard maintained his rock ‘n’ roll status, thanks to the ongoing releases of previously recorded singles, including ‘Ooh! My Soul’, ‘Baby Face’, and ‘Kansas City’. However, all the while, the God-fearing convert was in the process of becoming the Rev. Little Richard and started recording gospel songs in the early 1960s alongside Quincy Jones.

In 1962, after five years of religious sanctuary, Richard seemed to have forgotten about his eureka moment in Sydney and began to welcome rock music back into his life. This too was the year that Richard started to form a close friendship with The Beatles after playing with them at the Star Club in Hamburg. Five years, to the day, after his renouncement of the life that made him famous, Richard was playing the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, near Liverpool, alongside The Beatles and from this point forward, the previous five years seemed like a strange dream.

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