When Little Richard wailed those syllables in a tiny recording studio in New Orleans in 1955, David Kirby writes, "suddenly, to quote the Book of Genesis, there was a firmament in the midst of the waters. It's a huge song musically, but it's also a seminal text in American culture, as much as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Song of Myself, and the great documents of the Civil Rights era. In a sense, it's America's Other National Anthem."
The song is, of course, Tutti Frutti, which is, depending on how you look at it, a nonsensical novelty song, a raucous masterpiece of innuendo and sexual energy, or — according to Kirby — the birth scream of rock 'n' roll.
Looking at things from several perspectives is the modus operandi of Kirby's new book, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll. Kirby is a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University; a distinguished teacher and accomplished poet (his book The House on Boulevard St. was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in 2007), he has often written about pop culture and music.
This book is not a biography of Little Richard, who was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932. (He turned 77 on Dec. 5 and recently interrupted his still-busy tour schedule — "The beauty is still on duty" — for hip replacement surgery.)
Kirby isn't interested in stolidly documenting all of Little Richard's life; he's interested in him as a transformative figure who embodies a whole array of antitheses in one pompadoured, satin-and-glitter-clad person, like some trickster god of 20th century pop culture.
Little Richard is a black musician who has spent most of his life playing for white audiences. He's a hard-partying rock 'n' roll icon who has repeatedly turned his back on that life for the gospel music he grew up on (and then boomeranged back). He's as famous for his flamboyantly gay persona as for his songs, yet remains ambivalent about his sexual identity. He was a galvanizing, massively influential talent in the early days of rock — Keith Richards said of hearing Tutti Frutti for the first time that "it was if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to Technicolor" — whose career as an innovator essentially stopped after one year and remains frozen in amber.
A rich subject for a scholar and poet, and Kirby has a ball with it. He pursues the true gen of Little Richard in a variety of ways: He rambles around Macon and New Orleans to talk to the performer's relatives and old friends and colleagues. He catalogs Little Richard's various avatars in pop culture (including his appearance playing a Little Richard impersonator in a Las Vegas wedding chapel on The Young and the Restless in 2008). He writes an evocative account of the recording session that produced Tutti Frutti — after Little Richard's original, exuberantly lewd lyrics ("A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-good g-- d---, Tutti Frutti, good booty . . ."), which referred unmistakably to gay sex, had been tidied up for '50s America by a nice churchy lady named Dorothy La Bostrie.
Did Little Richard invent rock 'n' roll? Kirby knows about your Bill Haley and the Comets ("seven hicks in mismatched shirts playing a watered-down rockabilly"), your Ike Turner, your Elvis, and he bows to Little Richard, even though his subject, ever the trickster, eludes Kirby's efforts to interview him in person.
If you want to decide for yourself, go to tinyurl.com/y9j72e8 and listen to Tutti Frutti. If you can sit still while Little Richard rocks it, get somebody to check your pulse. You might be dead.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.