In his lovely memoir about growing up Adventist, All of Us Together in the End, Matthew Vollmer laments the church’s minimal public profile. “Seventh-day Adventists were rarely named or alluded to in media or popular culture,” he writes. “I’d heard rumors that certain celebrities—namely Prince and Little Richard and Magic Johnson. . . had been raised in the church, but I’d never been able to prove whether those rumors were true. . .”
Those rumors about acclaimed musician Little Richard were somewhat true. He wasn’t raised as an Adventist, but he joined the church in his mid-20s. Over the decades, he was in, then out, then partly in but mostly out, then all in. Following his death from bone cancer in 2020, he was buried in the Oakwood Memorial Gardens cemetery.
Little Richard’s life was a monumental irony: the most famous Seventh-day Adventist ever was also the architect—some would say inventor—of rock ‘n’ roll. Stars who credited him as a key influence on their life and music include Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Prince. For a time in the early 1960s, the Beatles were his opening act. John Lennon later told a reporter that Little Richard “used to read from the Bible backstage, and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen.”
Last week, I watched Lisa Cortés’s new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, on CNN. I expected to be educated and entertained, and I was. But my strongest reaction surprised me: it made me sad.
Richard Wayne Penniman’s life was never easy or simple. In 1932, he was born in Macon, Georgia, the third of 12 children. His father was a minister, brick mason, and nightclub-owning bootlegger. One of Little Richard’s legs was shorter than the other, giving him an unusual gait, and he was regularly mocked and bullied by his schoolmates.
As a child, Richard attended both Baptist and Pentecostal churches and began singing for them. From an early age, he knew he was gay. When he was just 15 years old, his father put him out of the house for looking—and acting—effeminate. For a brief time, he lived with a white couple who ran a local club.
Richard was a born performer with a warm, engaging personality, a natural exuberance, and electric energy. He started touring in his mid-teens, traveling the Southern United States with several Black musical revues. Early on, he developed his flamboyant persona: heavy makeup, a mile-high pompadour, a pencil-thin mustache, and outlandish costumes. His looks were matched only by his vitality.
His big break came in 1955, when he signed a contract with Specialty Records. His first single, “Tutti Frutti,” became an immediate sensation, and he soon had a string of hits. But his churchly background left him deeply conflicted about his music and lifestyle. While touring Australia in 1957, he decided to give up performing and become a minister.
Largely through the influence of his friend Joe Lutcher, Little Richard joined the Adventist church. Though he had not finished high school, he enrolled in Oakwood College. Fellow students later remembered him for his friendly ways, his habit of stopping to pray with them, and his big yellow Cadillac. But he couldn’t escape his personal struggles. In 1959, he was expelled for exposing himself to a male student. He worked as an evangelist for a time, and in 1962, he resumed his singing career.
The next four decades were tumultuous as Little Richard wrestled with competing pieces of himself. When he performed, he often sprinkled hymns and testimonies into his repertoire. During some low periods, he turned to drugs and sex for distraction; other times his focus was on Bible study and ministry.
I saw Little Richard perform once. It was at a music festival in the late 1990s. He was far past his prime and moved onto the stage with difficulty. But when he talked, he had an instant connection with the crowd. And when he hit the first pounding piano chords of “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” the years dropped away for all of us. His charisma was undimmed and unmatched.
Cortés’s film left me feeling rather wistful that a man of such deep personal warmth, energy, and towering talent had known so little peace and pure joy. What might Little Richard’s life have been like if he’d found a space where he was accepted for who he was—a Christian and a gay man and a rock star? Maybe there’s no such place. But perhaps there could be. Throughout history, haven’t God’s people danced and sung to celebrate his redemptive acts? Is it possible that God likes rock ‘n’ roll?
In interviews, Little Richard would often explain his conduct by saying “You got it, God gave it, show it to the world.” He could only reveal himself sometimes, though, and never without conflict. In the documentary, Jason King, dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California noted, “He was very, very good at liberating other people, but not good at liberating himself.”
Little Richard seemed to finally find contentment at the end of his life. I hope that’s so. It seems as if that contentment came at the expense of denying a central part of who he was, but I can’t truly know what he experienced. I’m agnostic about specific details of the afterlife, but I do have some heavenly fantasies. One that never fails to make me smile is a vision of Little Richard Penniman, free at last from all strife and struggle, lifting his soaring, wonderfully raspy voice to solo with the angel choir.
Thomas Dybdahl, who has degrees in theology, journalism, and law, is a former Spectrum journalist, Adventist pastor, and former staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence.
Title image: Still of Little Richard in Little Richard: I Am Everything, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
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