Rock’n’roll may be dead, but at least it’s well preserved.
Little Richard brought his singular sound and personality to the Michigan Theater Saturday night, almost five years since the last time he said he’d retire for good and more than a half-century after he first scored a hit with the raucous “Tutti Frutti.” Richard hauled out his “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-whop-bam-boom!” and “Whoooo!” vocals, pounded the keys till they rang (when it counted) and flirtatiously toasted his band members during his set. But his age, especially when he pointed out recently passed peers like James Brown, was startlingly obvious, if not embarrassingly so.
On crutches due to an apparent injury, gone was most of Richard’s physical showmanship. He graced the crowd with a few arm flourishes after a doddering introduction, preening as fans cooed and called him pretty. Mostly, he would lean coquettishly toward the audience between songs, telling them about God, blues and the juice he was drinking – and looking very much in danger of toppling into the orchestra pit. The glut of rhinestones on his cornflower-blue suit and boots seemed to substitute for Richard’s lack of motion, as did his unbelievably joyful multi-piece band (including a keyboard player). Recordings of classic songs like “Tutti Frutti” made up for his inability to play them in full.
Following prolonged band solos and severe threats toward anyone who dared take photographs, Richard finally made it to the piano. He and the band started up “Good Golly, Miss Molly”; for the rest of the set, they would stick with what Richard was best known for – out-of-your-seat rock’n’roll and make-you-blush obscenity. The crowd reacted accordingly.
After inviting the Michigan Theater’s black audience members on stage (“We don’t have no black people tonight? Turn on the lights – I want the black people to come to the stage!”), Little Richard starts talking to a six-year-old girl who has come up and embraced him.
“I love you, baby – you wanna dance for me? Get on the piano!”
Normally, with any other elderly gentleman and child, this would be a cause for alarm.
But this was the Little Richard, 74 years old and still beautiful, still with that famous shriek and the pompadour most appropriately called a shock of hair. Ten minutes earlier, Richard had welcomed five “pleasingly plump” white lady fans – after first bellowing for large black and white men, then “Big fat, juicy Mexican ladies! With some tacos!” – onstage to dance to a surprisingly somnolent cover of “Old Time Rock’n’Roll.” And considering that, well, instructing a child to boogie to “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” would have been the least of his handlers’ concerns.
Richard and the band also blew through “Blueberry Hill,” a cover of the Rolling Stones’s “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll,” “Keep A-Knockin'” and “Jenny Jenny.” Somewhere in between, Richard took 15 minutes to introduce the band and drink some juice (orange juice, as well as bottles of water and Gatorade, formed a little cluster on top of his piano next to a growing hill of Kleenex). And then, after some more advice – “Never put a question mark where God has put a period!” – and a hot-sweat rendition of “Lucille,” Little Richard decided it was time to go.
Little Richard may not have much of his legendary energy left, but he’s still got what he thinks is pride. The meticulously curled hair and glittering outfits make him look how Little Richard should look (at least from a distance), and when he makes declarations – “I wrote this when I was 13 years old!” “Mick Jagger started with me; the Beatles started with me!” – it’s not so much Richard being prideful (he is, after all, a good Christian), as it is him laying out the facts. It’s certainly commendable that Little Richard still has the desire to tour. But when a deliciously obscene persona and highly amped backing band is all you have left to cling to, good golly, maybe its time to rest on your laurels.