I'm well aware that the winter meetings begin tomorrow, but today we should all pause to observe a very special anniversary.
Little Richard was born 78 years ago today in Macon, GA.
Say what you will about the various kings of rock and roll, but Richard Wayne Penniman was the guy who really and truly scared the crap out of the greatest generation, as Tom Brokaw so aptly labeled those American citizens who were reaching adulthood during the early 1940's when war was looming. After the war and nearly a decade of peacetime, here comes something called rock and roll and at the forefront is a screaming, diminutive black man with a slick pompadour and a baggy suit, banging a piano and singing the praises of "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," and something about "Tutti Frutti."
What in the world is this all about, and how can we protect our children from it?
Of course, you really couldn't keep the kids away from it. As soon as they knew mom and dad didn't like it, they went for it big time. Someone had the bright idea that if we get if we get some real vanilla white guy to sing the same songs, maybe this Little Richard person will go away.
Needless to say, Pat Boone warbling "a wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom" didn't cut it. Not genuine. A little unsettling, actually.
Richard persevered, with hit after hit, until an incident in Australia in 1957 caused him to abruptly quit show business and enter the ministry. Performing at an outdoor concert, he saw a ball of fire in the sky that he took as a sign from above. It was actually the Russian satellite Sputnik re-entering the atmosphere, but no matter, Richard went to a Seventh Day Adventist college, and preached and sang gospel music into 1962.
He returned to rock and roll in 1962 with a British tour that included the Beatles as the opening act. It was a tremendous success, and for several years he found a way to balance his faith with secular music. He had some drug issues along the way, but has continued to perform and record over the years. He performed at the White House in 2007, and has participated in numerous charity fund-raisers over the years.
Today fans routinely hear rock and hip-hop music at the stadium, but it wasn't until the late 1960's that you'd hear any rock music played over the sound system at a ballpark. I've often thought about what the reaction would've been in the mid-1950's had any of Richard's hits been played between innings. The Senators didn't integrate until 1954, 7 years after Jackie Robinson's debut. The Red Sox didn't have a black player until 1959. I have to think the younger players - those in their early 20's - would've enjoyed the change from the standard organ music, while older players, particularly those from the south, would've hated it. We''ll never know for sure.
Regardless, direct those birthday greetings today toward Lynchburg, Tennessee, where the once-scary, now legendary, Little Richard Penniman has 78 candles to blow out.
Rip it up, Richard.