RIP: Little Richard – (Richard Wayne Penniman)(5 Dec 1932 – 9 May 2020)

Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956
Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956.
Photograph of poster from liveauctioneers.

Almost 70 years on it is difficult, unless you possessed young ears in the middle of the 1950s, to understand the enormous impact a song like Tutti Frutti had on its listeners.

Everything about Little Richard shouted ‘DIFFERENT!’ Just look at that hairdo – remember this is the staid hung-up 1950s. Our parents, our schools and the ‘establishment’ were still decrying our hair in the last years of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Imagine the public outrage (not too strong a word) in the 50s. Of course, the disapprobation of our elders only made sporting the coiffures more fun!

Although I have not looked at the stats I cannot imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, the Beatles – who actually opened some European concerts for Little Richard in 1962), besting his record of 17 hit singles in about four years circa 1955-1959. The man rocked and everyone into the new rock and roll knew it!

Penniman learned his chops in a manner similar to how many African American polymath performers learned theirs in the first half of the 20th century: first in church, then in vaudeville or traveling troups of performers. In his case it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. He joined in 1949 rather than enter 10th grade. Here he performed a variety of skits, sometimes in drag as Princess LaVonne, and learned to play what church-folk called ‘devil music’. He once said that Louis Jordan’s Caldonia was the first secular piece he ever played (“Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”) HISTORIC NOTE: The second(?) recording of this song was where the term “Rock and Roll” originated. It appeared in a Billboard Magazine review of Erskine Hawkins 1945 record: “right rhythmic rock and roll music”.) A year later Penniman joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra where his childhood nickname of Lil’ Richard was modified (he was quite small and had one leg shorter than the other.)

After a couple recording contracts with his records becoming popular in Georgia but not reaching a larger audience, Little Richard returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia doing menial labor and performing on the side. In 1955 the musician Lloyd Price (with whom my father worked) recommended Specialty Records, the label he recorded for, and Little Richard sent them a demo tape. Months passed with no call. Eventually Specialty’s producer heard Richard sing Tutti Fruiti during an impromtu set at a club – but had to hire another songwriter to clean up the sexual lyrics Little Richard had put to the song. Three takes in September led to a November release and the rest, as they say, is history!In June of 2007 the British music magazine Mojo, based on a survey of music artists (Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Pete Wentz, Steve Earle and others), listed Tutti Frutti as Number 1 in their “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World”.

SIDE NOTE: I almost did not include this mention as a decade ago Mojo moved to take over ownership of copyright of their writers and photographers work AND, at the same time, laid liability for libel and copyright infringement onto those same writers and photographers.


RIP: Denis Theodore Goldberg (1933-2020)

Artist's Open Air House in Rivonia
An Artist Friend’s Open Air House in Rivonia, © Wilbur Norman
Artist's Open Air Library in Rivonia
The Open Air Library, ©Wilbur Norman

I just learned that Denis Goldberg, one of the last two survivors of South Africa’s infamous Rivonia Trial (1963-1964), died on April 29th of cancer with Covid-19 complications.

Denis Goldberg, a civil engineer and an anti-apartheid activist, spent 22 years in prison. He was arrested during a meeting of activists and commanders of the MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) the armed wing of the ANC (African Nation Congress) on a farm in Rivonia. The defendants in the sabotage and treason trial were Nelson Mandela (already in prison under a “citing workers to strike” charge), Walter Sisulu, Lionel Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Arthur Goldreich, Bob Hepple, Abdulhay Jassat, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Moosa Moolla, Elias Motsoaledi and Harold Wolpe. (Goldreich and Wolpe escaped from prison, after beatings and torture, before beginning their sentence; Hepple fled the country when charges were withdrawn; and Lionel Bernstein was acquitted, rearrested and placed under house arrest before escaping from the country.) The rest beat a de facto death sentence thru what was probably a private treaty with the judge. Goldberg received release in 1985 largely through the work of his daughter and members of her kibbutz and the U.S. and Israeli governments (for many years both close allies of apartheid South Africa.)

Many Americans think the fight for democracy in South Africa was a monolithic black vs. white struggle. This arrest list shows how wrong this view is: those arrested were English, Indian Muslim, Jewish, Xhosa, Pedi and Coloured.

The Rivonia Trial (Rivonia is a suburb of Johannesburg) contained what is considered a founding moment in the attempts to create a democracy in South Africa – 31 years before it became a reality. The ‘moment’ was , in fact, a three hour defense opening statement by Nelson Mandela, his famous “I Am Prepared To Die” speech. Here is the closing paragraph:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As the only remaining white found guilty, Denis Goldberg was taken to Pretoria Central Prison to serve 22 years. The others served in various prisons with most doing extended time on Robben Island off the coast. Mandela served almost 28 years (18 of which were at Robben), Walter Sisulu served 26 years (most at Robben), Ahmed Kathrada served 26 years (18 at Robben) with the balance at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison (along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu.) Many, perhaps all, of those convicted worked on interesting college degrees while incarcerated. Some may remember that it was Ahmed Kathrada who showed President Obama and the First Family around Robben Island in 2013.

In 2017 the three remaining survivors of the Rivonia trial – Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and Kathrada, along with the three surviving defense attorneys, Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Denis Kuny – appeared in a documentary film entitled “Life is Wonderful”, directed by Sir Nicholas Stadlen. These were the words Goldberg’s mother, Annie, is said to have uttered when she learned that he and his comrades had been spared the death sentence. (Annie must have been quite a mom: in 1960 she was arrested with him for supporting strikers after the Sharpeville massacre and they both spent four months in jail.)

Here is an interview with Sir Nicholas about the film: https://vimeo.com/284713545

Kent State May 4, 1970

Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch
Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch


“Mary Ann Vecchio [a 14-year old runaway, as the world later learned] gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. On publication, the image was retouched to remove the fence post above Vecchio’s head.” The protest was against President Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Reacting to mass demonstrations on May 1st, Nixon he had called anti-war protestors ‘bums’.

Four students were killed and 9 wounded by the 67 shots fired by the Ohio National Guard that day. Two of the four killed were bystanders and none of the four was closer to the Guard than about a football field in distance. The Guard had been dispatched to Kent State by Governor James Rhodes, at the request of the town of Kent’s mayor, after an arson attack burned down the ROTC building on May 2.

Four million students (college and high school) went out on strike after the news of the shootings became public.

In New Mexico, where I now live, eleven people were bayonetted at the University of New Mexico by the New Mexico National Guard in a confrontation with student protesters on May 8th. The demonstrations in Washington, DC were so combative that Nixon was removed to Camp David for his safety and the 82nd Airborne was lodged in the basement of the Executive Office Building next to the White House. At Jackson State University, a historically black college, in Jackson, Mississippi, two students were killed (and 12 wounded) by police during a demonstration on May 14 – an event that did not receive the same attention as the shootings at Kent State.

I was in high school in Ohio and vividly remember those times – especially when my Draft Number turned out to be 99. For many years thereafter I never ate at Wendy’s because Ohio Governor Big Jim Rhodes (“part P.T. Barnum, part Elmer Gantry, part Norman Vincent Peale” – Dayton Daily News) was one of Wendy’s investors. There are memorial events at Kent State on May 4th every year and I have managed to make it to one (the 30th, I believe.)

There are still unanswered questions about the timing and personnel involved in the Kent State massacre. A prominent one involves the university- and FBI-informant Terrence Brooks Norman (no relation!), a student who appeared to be the only non-Guardsman individual who was armed at the demonstration.

RIP: Eavan Boland (24 September 1944 – 27 April 2020)

The great Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020) has gone beyond to the Irish pre-Christian Otherworld of Mag Mell (the Plain of Delight) or, perhaps, Tír-na-hÓige (land of the [ever-] youthful) where worthies engage in poetry, music, entertainment, and the feast of Goibniu that grants immortality to those taking part.

If Americans know Eavan Boland it is most likely for her poem Quarantine from her 2001 book Code, reproduced, below, courtesy of Carcanet Press, All Rights Reserved.

Boland lived in New York from 1956 to 1960 when her diplomat father had a posting. Though the poem Quarantine is about Irish history, she often wrote poetry reflecting the lives of those who live in Dublin’s contemporary suburbia.

Boland said she wrote this poem after reading an anecdote in an early 20th century memoir of the famine, Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire. It has been estimated that more than a million Irish died from starvation and disease in the period 1845 to 1852 and a million others emigrated, a period we know as the Irish Potato Famine. Although almost documentary in nature, I prefer to read Quarantine as a love poem and admire the use of repetition (‘worst’, ‘last heat’, ‘last gift’), the phrase ‘freezing stars’ and a reference to the horrible British administration of the country during the famine where tenant farmers actually grew enough wheat to feed people but had to ship it off for English tables (‘Of the toxins of a whole history’.) The next to last stanza brings to my mind the phrase, ‘Never Again!’ but, of course, we humans are slow to learn and even slower to react.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season

    of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his

wife.

He was walking—they were both walking —

north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not

keep up.

     He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they

arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.

    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole

history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

     There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the

body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

      Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.