Little Richard and His Time at Oakwood College

Spectrum Banner Image: Click for COVID-19 coverage
 

 

Written by: 
Published:
May 15, 2020

Oakwood College/University and Seventh-day Adventism have always played an important part in the life of former rock and roll star, Little Richard. From the very beginning of his conversion in 1957 and his move toward wholeness in Christ, Oakwood and Adventism played a significant role in his life.

"One morning very early I received a phone call," said Pastor J. B. Conley, preaching at the Australasian Missionary College. "And, strangely, the phone call was from 'Little Richard,' asking if I could come to his hotel in St. Kilda Road and pray with him. I went along wondering what I would find.

"When I got there a young man came to the door of his hotel suite with a Bible in his hand. He said, 'Come in, Elder, I'm so glad you've come. I have been fighting myself since early morning. Will you pray with me?' I said, 'Tell me the whole story.' And then he released the fact that he was under contract in Australia of a quarter of a million dollars a year. It was all signed and sealed. He said, ‘You know, last night in the middle of my striptease act in the stadium, right out of the yelling crowd, conscience spoke, ‘If you want to live for the Lord you can't live for rock 'n' roll.' Right there I made up my mind that, Christ helping me, I'd be through with this thing for ever. I looked through the telephone book and found the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters. I knew something about them in America, and I rang the office, and they rang you.'

"Where do we go from here?" I asked. He replied, 'I don't know. You tell me.' 'Well, Little Richard, I advised, 'there is only one thing for you to do. Break your contract and let come what will, and do it now. 'I have learned through the years not to delay in these matters. Do it now.' 'Well,' he declared, 'There will be hell to pay.' 'Let hell come,' I said. 'Christ conquered hell.'

"And so the day wore on, and he cancelled his Melbourne appearances. He then came to Newcastle, and his saxophonist and he were crossing (the river)… and the saxophonist said to him, 'Do you know, Richard, I don't believe you're genuine in this thing. Two hundred and fifty thousand a year for this religion business — what's going wrong with you?' Little Richard snatched from his finger four diamond rings valued each at over one thousand pounds. 'Will this convince you I'm through?' he asked as he threw the four of them into the Hunter River. 'From now on I follow the Lord.' And inside twelve hours he was on a plane bound for America with a broken contract. He went home to face his mother… But, praise God he went home to attend our Oakwood College in America to train for the ministry."[1]

Quitting the tour in Australia 10 days earlier than his contract called for, Little Richard returned to the States and did one last show in New York and a recording in L.A. His conviction to leave show business and prepare for the ministry only strengthened. He braced himself to face his mother in the new mansion he had bought for her in the upscale black neighborhood of Sugar Hill near Los Angeles, California. It was just a year and a half since the release of his hit “Tutti-Frutti” and the peak of his career.

Leva Mae Penniman had mixed feelings when her third son of her 12 children, born Richard Wayne Penniman, broke the news to her that he was leaving show business and heading to Oakwood College in the next few days to study for the ministry. She was happy he was giving his heart to the Lord, but she had some real questions. "How will we pay for this big house that you just bought for us? Where is Oakwood College? Why not go to UCLA which is bigger and closer to home? Why are you leaving so soon?”

Leva Mae was a deeply religious person and in Macon, Georgia, their native home, she had been a highly active member in the New Hope Baptist Church. Her husband, Charles “Bud” Penniman was just the opposite — a church deacon and brick mason but he sold bootlegged moonshine at a nightclub he owned called the Tip In Inn. On Valentine’s Day 1952 Bud had been killed in an altercation outside his Tip In Inn. Penniman's family was religious and joined various A.M.E., Baptist, and Pentecostal churches, with some family members becoming ministers in these churches. Little Richard enjoyed the Pentecostal churches the most as a teenager because of their charismatic worship style and loud lively music.

It was toward the end of October 1957 when soon-to-be 25-year-old (December 5) Little Richard finally packed a few things into his car and drove away from his California home and headed east toward Huntsville, Alabama. Most students were already at Oakwood when he arrived. The freshmen class arrived late in August to go through freshman orientation and tests and the upper grade students arrived during the first days of September.

I was one of the students who arrived in the freshman class of 1957. I had received two surprise scholarships from my high school which I learned about on graduation night. So, I left Philadelphia with a heart full of gratitude and with some students from Ebenezer Church sandwiched in a car owned and driven by Robert Douglas and his wife, Madge Bonner Douglas.

School was in full swing when Little Richard arrived. The news on Oakwood’s campus spread quickly: Little Richard was on campus and he’s a student! It was unbelievable! We found out that he was a special “unclassified” student hoping to be a minister/evangelist. Little Richard gave his testimony in chapel and told all the students he didn’t want them listening to his “devil” music. As a matter of fact, if anybody had any of his records, he wanted to buy them back. He was offering to pay them more than they paid for them originally in the record stores. He wanted to have a bonfire by the bell tower in the middle of the campus and burn them all. It is alleged that one or two students figured out they could make some money from that deal. They went to the record stores, bought some of his records and let Little Richard buy them back at his special rate.

Little Richard lived in the boy’s dorm, Peterson Hall, and it seemed like he had a room all by himself. Very few single students living in the dorms had a car in those days. Herb Doggette, who became the Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, remembers Little Richard having a bagful of cash money. (Deputy Commissioner is the second highest Social Security administrator in the nation. The Commissioner is a political appointment; Doggette often served as acting Commissioner during vacancies.)

On the first few days after Little Richard’s arrival he went into Huntsville and purchased a brand-new flashy Cadillac. Cash. One with the big fishtails. Everyone wanted to see his big yellow Cadillac which he parked behind Peterson Hall. (Little Richard must have driven to Oakwood in an older Cadillac of a different color and traded that in after a short time for the new one of a different color. The color of his Cadillacs is sometimes described as pink, yellow, or purple.)

Little Richard always wore a suit at Oakwood and always carried his Bible. He had a habit of stopping students and praying with them, especially if they were alone. If you were late for class and saw him coming you would take a different direction. He might stop you and KNEEL and pray with you. His kneeling prayers took a little longer. You didn’t mind praying with him but not when you were late. Little Richard knew most students’ names very quickly and would often sit in the lobby of Peterson Hall and just chat with anybody who was there. He was very friendly and enjoyed the company of the students.

Little Richard had “one foot in the academy and one foot in the college.” At that time, he was a slow reader and a special program had been worked out for him to simultaneously finish high school and yet provide him with the college religion courses that he wanted to be a minister/evangelist. His mind and reading skills were sharpened by constantly reading the Bible. Once he read a scripture, he would reread it and reread it until he had committed it to memory. He could quote his favorite texts with force and power in his preaching, citing Bible book, chapter, and verse.   

While at Oakwood, Penniman never complained about the vegetarian diet which was the only food served in the cafeteria, and he was a confirmed teetotaler. We never saw him drink a drop of coffee, beer, or any other kind of alcohol. At Oakwood, he found at last the peace and joy he had been looking for all his life.

Page 97 of the 1958-59 Oakwood Acorn. Photos from top to bottom: “Friendly students make Richard (Little Richard) Penniman welcome to O.C.”; “Richard studies diligently in preparation for a degree in religion”; “Richard, one time Rock ‘N Roll singer, now sings hymns for church services.” Courtesy of the author.


In his autobiographical article in Message magazine Little Richard recounts the steps he had to take immediately after his conversion in Australia. “The first things I wanted to be rid of were the badges of ‘Little Richard’ — the expensive, showy jewelry, loud clothes, and crazy hairstyle. I walked to the Bay at Sydney and consigned the jewelry to the Pacific Ocean. The diamond rings were a repulsive symbol to me, and I obeyed my impulse to reject them then and there. I have not been sorry. The rest was more practical, conservative clothing and a decent haircut restored to me a semblance of respectability and acceptability.

“The next decision that had to be made was, ‘What church shall I join?’ My mind turned back to childhood and a brief introduction by friends to the Seventh-day Adventist church in Macon; to my friend Joe Lutcher, who was an Adventist in Los Angeles; to the pictures of Oakwood College in the (Message) magazine (given to him by a minister). I had thought vaguely whenever a glimmer of religion stole over my heart, ‘If I ever choose an affiliation, it will be with the Adventists.’ Now, their dedication, sincerity, simplicity of life, and biblical teachings, I saw as an admirable way directly opposed to my former existence. Back in Los Angeles, Joe Lutcher took me to church services with him… This denomination stresses scholarship in its followers especially in those who teach. I wanted to teach and someday preach…

“Nearly two years have passed in which I have been working at preparing myself to serve God as enthusiastically as I once served Satan. Participating in evangelistic meetings, constant prayer, Bible study, and a desire to serve mankind have humbled me. No task is too menial to teach me something of the humility which must characterize every true Christian.

“At the present time, a quartet of boys from Oakwood and I are touring various sections of the country, appearing before audiences in municipal and school auditoriums. Our purpose is threefold: first, to praise God in spiritual songs; Secondly, to make money to enable these young fellows to finish their education; Thirdly, it is necessary for me to pay off thousands of dollars as result of the contracts broken when I abruptly left the entertainment field. God will uphold us in this effort because of our strong faith that he overrules every act for good.”[2]

Little Richard preaches. Courtesy of The Penniman Estate.


During the summer break of 1958, Little Richard gave his testimony at various churches and made a special appearance with former entertainer and Oakwoodite Joyce Bryant at the Capitol Arena in Washington, D.C. before an audience of 4,000 people. His favorite evangelist, E. E. Cleveland, had invited them to the final night of his 12-week evangelistic series. Thousands came to hear the two who had left show biz and returned to Christ. Evangelist Cleveland baptized hundreds. Little Richard could draw a crowd and could work a crowd.[3]

In the 1958-59 school year, my second year at Oakwood, we formed a quartet called the Excelsians. John Dennison, who would later become Oakwood’s choir director, was the leader of the group. I sang baritone, Dennison sang first tenor, Everard Williams sang bass, and Willie Hucks sang second tenor and lead. We found it a great honor that Little Richard liked our group (since there were several really good quartets at Oakwood) and asked if we would go with him on the weekends since he went to large Adventist churches and sometimes to tent meetings giving his testimony and singing gospel songs.

The Excelsian Quartet. From left to right: Willie Hucks (seated), John Dennison, DeWitt Williams (author), Everard Williams (seated). From the 1958-59 Oakwood Acorn. Courtesy of the author.


We would travel in his Cadillac on the weekends to our destination and we usually sang five or six songs before Little Richard came on the stage. They would introduce him as Brother Richard Penniman, born again Christian, formerly known as Little Richard. The crowds were always anxious to hear his testimony and he had a way of really inspiring them. “I always meant to be a gospel singer and evangelist like Billy Graham, but I took my eyes off Jesus,” he would say as he began his testimony. “I gave up world fame for a sweeter name.” Then he would sing, with so much emotion that people started tapping their feet, clapping their hands, shedding tears. He had a way with crowds. “With his arms wide open, Jesus will pardon you. It is no secret what my God can do.” He would talk some more and sing “Precious Lord take my Hand.” By this point, his face was streaming with sweat and his arms outstretched from the pulpit. He was mesmerizing.

Around December of 1958, Little Richard announced that he wanted to take our group on an extended tour with him. It was in the middle of the school year and I didn’t want to drop out of school and lose my credits. My girlfriend, Margaret Norman, whom I would marry when we both graduated in 1962, did not think it was a good idea at all. Even though Little Richard promised to make us rich and pay us $500 for each concert during the eight months we were gone, we had no guarantee of getting paid. A new quartet was quickly formed, and the group took off from Oakwood in Little Richard’s Cadillac. (Paul Monk, pianist; Donald Monk, bass; Madison Cole, baritone; Stanley Gelineau lead; Leonard Mullins, first tenor; Marvin Brown as treasurer/bookkeeper and of course, Little Richard).

Donald Monk says that they were indeed paid the $500 after each concert and they performed about two concerts a week and one week they performed three. The problem was that they had to use their money for food and hotels. Little Richard stayed in the best hotels and they were not cheap. Occasionally they were able to stay and eat with church members and save on their funds. They ended up in Los Angeles after eight months on the road. “I was broke when I got back,” says Monk. “The car had a mechanical problem and I had to loan Little Richard the $500 I had saved in travelers checks to get the car fixed. We were all broke.” That was the end of Donald Monk’s educational career at Oakwood and the end for Little Richard, also.  

Little Richard never received a certificate, degree, or ordination of any kind from Oakwood College. He was eventually ordained as a minister in the Church of God of the Ten Commandments so that he could establish his own Little Richard Evangelistic Team and perform weddings.[4]

Little Richard preaches. Courtesy of The Penniman Estate.


In 1964, seven years after coming to Oakwood, Brother Richard Penniman slipped back into Little Richard. God draws you to Him with His love. Satan pulls you away from God and His love. Once Satan pulls you away from God and His love, he ties you up with addictions so you can’t get free. This time Little Richard fell hard and became addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and all sorts of sexual immorality. He says it was not unusual to spend $1,000 a day on cocaine. But God had not given up on Little Richard. In 1977 he left Rock ‘N Roll for the second time and returned to the Adventist Church. He lived quietly in Riverside, California, with his mother, and commuted to Nashville, where he accepted the vice presidency of Black Heritage, a wholesale Bible publishing company that published King James Versions of the Bible with a short feature of Black history and color pictures.

It was during this period that Little Richard again went around sharing his testimony of how God had called him back to Jesus and the Church. Little Richard loved working with evangelists Harold Cleveland, E. C. Ward, and G. H. Rainey and would sing and help in their meetings. I believe Little Richard realized that evangelism is what God really had planned for his life and in some way he was actually fulfilling his calling by being with these men.   

I didn’t see Little Richard again until about 20 years after I left Oakwood. He had once again returned to the Church. He was speaking at an afternoon program in 1978 at Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington D.C. sharing his testimony. I had my little eight-year daughter, Darnella, with me. As we started to leave the church I told my daughter that I once sang with Little Richard and maybe we should wait until all the people had left and I could go up to see if he remembered me. There were a lot of people around him commenting on his message and asking him questions. I went up close to where he was waiting for the crowd to get smaller. All of a sudden I heard him shout out in his loud voice, “Hey, DeWitt! How are you? How’s Paul Monk and his cousin?” I said, “Little Richard, it’s good to see you. God is still using you. This is my daughter.” “She looks just like Margaret,” he shot back.

I didn’t see Little Richard again until about 30 years after that. Richard never forgot a face. He regularly attended the Oakwood Alumni meetings held at Werner Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Little Richard loved Oakwood and Oakwood loved him. He would sit up in the balcony with a retinue of his people and try to stay obscure. Sometimes when appeals were made for a special offering he would pledge something. He would always leave before the service was over so that he wouldn’t be swamped with a lot of people. I was surprised in 2008, I believe, when I was leaving with my daughter and I heard Little Richard calling out a greeting to me and my daughter once again.

After seeing the special program for Little Richard’s 85th birthday on 3ABN arranged by Danny and Yvonne Shelton, I was very moved to see how they honored our friend. I said, “Let me call Willie Hucks and see if he has Little Richard’s phone number so I can wish him a happy birthday.” Willie’s wife, Louise, answered the phone and I was so sorry to hear that Willie had passed away. I got Little Richard’s phone number from Louise and called Little Richard. He picked up the phone and when he heard my voice, instantly he said “Hello, DeWitt, how are you? We had a really good time in the Lord reminiscing over how the Lord had blessed both of us! And how his testimony and songs on the 3ABN program had blessed us! Happy Birthday!

Little Richard reminds me so much of Samson in the Bible. Samson was given an extraordinary gift by God and he used it mightily for God, but he squandered much of it on ungodly pursuits. His problem was Delilah and the Philistines. Samson neglected to dedicate himself daily, so his gift could be fully used by God. Little Richard was given a charismatic gift that needed to be dedicated daily to God. Fame, money, and addictions kept him from reaching his full potential in the faith. But he loved the Lord and he loved people and he loved his Adventist Church. I believe Oakwood University and Oakwoodites had a big impact on the life of Little Richard. Is his name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? I don’t know. Is Samson’s? Our God remembers where we were born and that we are all frail.

Yes, Little Richard was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, but I believe he got more joy while planning his last days on this earth. I just spoke with Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University. He said “Yes, we will have a special ‘in your car’ service for our friend Little Richard on Wednesday, 11:00 a.m., May 20, 2020. 3ABN will be there to record and share the event with our world church. We will place Little Richard in Oakwood Memorial Gardens next to the evangelists he loved — E. E. Cleveland, Harold Cleveland, Eric C. Ward, and George H. Rainey.” Dr. Pollard mentioned his own memories of how kind Little Richard could be to the homeless and hurting and how he never forgot a friend. 

Sherman Cox, who became a pastor, conference president, and Oakwood professor, says that Reader’s Digest used to have a monthly feature “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Cox continues, “I have personally met Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and most of the leading political figures. But none of them had the charisma, kindness, love, and concern that Little Richard had. He is my most unforgettable character.”

Little Richard will soon be buried in one of the places he called home, surrounded by friends and colleagues. Soon we will all see Jesus! What a day of rejoicing that will be. Home!

 

Notes & References:

[1] J. B. Conley, "The Battle for the Human Mind," The Australasian Record, March 30, 1959, page 10.

[2] Richard Penniman, “It Took a Miracle” Message, July, 1960, pp. 24,25; Nydia Walters, “Joe Lutcher’s ‘Converted Saxophone’” Message, 1962, pages 13, 22.

[3] A. V. Pinkney, “Cleveland Meetings in D. C. Close,” Columbia Union Visitor, June 26, 1958, pages 4, 5.

[4] David Burke, “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” Vintage-Rock Little Richard, p. 76

 

DeWitt S. Williams, EdD, MPH, MA, CHES, gave 46 years of denominational service lastly serving as Director of Health Ministries, North American Division. He traveled to over 100 countries and all 50 states lecturing about the importance of good health. He has been a pastor and missionary, and has written or co-authored nine books, among them She Fulfilled the Impossible Dream, about the life of Eva B. Dykes.

Main image: Little Richard studies at Oakwood, courtesy of Huntsville Revisited (1958). All images compiled by the author, image credits as listed under each photo.

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Magazine Donation Page: Help Support Independent Adventist Journalism