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"Like Interviewing Batman" - Ken Paulson Remembers Little Richard

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Rock and roll founding father Little Richard died on May 9 at his home in Tullahoma, TN. He was 87 years old. Accolades for his electrifying presence and pioneering spirit poured in from musicians all over the world, including Bob Dylan, Elton John and Mick Jagger. MTSU's Ken Paulson shared these thoughts on his podcast journal Americana One, along with an interview for his show Speaking Freely, which is posted below. The following is reprinted with his permission and our thanks. 

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If you have any questions about why Little Richard is such a pivotal figure in the history of popular music, just listen to the 23rd second of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”

“I’ll never dance with another…whoo!”

There it is. The “whoo!”

That’s Paul McCarney singing and the Beatles shaking their heads on that syllable, but the sound is pure Little Richard.

There are no Beatles without Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. McCartney was particularly indebted to the latter two, Holly gave him songwriting structure and ambition; Little Richard gave him joy and abandon.

Of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s just Jerry Lee Lewis left. Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Elvis are all gone. But only Richard could justifiably claim to be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – and he did. The rest were all pioneers, innovators and idols, but Little Richard was the essence – truly unique, outrageous, flashy, confident and totally himself.

Were there ever more expressive lyrics than A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom?

I’ll never forget the day I spent in a hotel ballroom on Sunset Strip shooting interviews for our Speaking Freely TV show, then in about 65 U.S. markets. The show featured conversations with artists, authors and public figures about free expression in America.

On that day in Hollywood, we talked with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, pornographer Larry Flynt and Rickie Lee Jones. And then there was Little Richard, resplendent in a red suit.

It’s a bit of an out-of-the-body experience to interview an iconic figure in full flamboyance. It’s a little like interviewing Batman.

Richard didn’t disappoint, telling tales of his early rock ‘n’ roll years and his eagerness to break barriers. Midway through the interview, though, his microphone failed, and we had to briefly interrupt the taping.

“This was supposed to be a show about the First Amendment. When do we get to that?” he asked. I was stunned, but explained that everything we had been talking about illustrated free expression in America. He was freedom of speech personified.

That didn’t satisfy him, and he reminded me he wasn’t getting paid for this. He was going to walk.

So I turned to another First Amendment right: freedom of religion. “Would you please talk about your faith?”

The devout rocker sat back down, the microphone batteries were replaced, and the interview continued.

God bless the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.