Orgies, Beatles, and Cadillacs: Little Richard's 1984 KCRW interview was as wild as you'd expect

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KCRW's Tom Schnabel met and interviewed Little Richard on December 18, 1984. Clockwise from top left: Ariana Morgenstern, Tom Schnabel, Janis Siegel, Roger Steffens, Geoff Gans, Little Richard, and Charles “Dr. Rock” White. Photo credit: KCRW.

In late 1955, with our parents out at dinner, my brother, sister, and I fired up the big Magnavox tube console hi-fi my dad had purchased at a Navy PX during World War II. We dropped the heavy needle onto the fresh, new Specialty Records 12” single “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. The three of us went crazy and danced as though St. Vitus was there with us. It was the most powerful music I had ever heard, and I still feel that way whenever I listen to Little Richard. I honestly think that this moment ignited my lifelong love of music, especially 1950’s rhythm and blues. For me and countless others, Little Richard was and remains the alpha and the omega of pop music.

I met and interviewed my musical hero just once, on December 18, 1984, in the new KCRW studios. British author Charles “Dr. Rock” White had just published a biography of the king of rock ‘n’ roll titled The Life and Times of Little Richard. White and Little Richard visited Morning Becomes Eclectic that December day on the book tour. Many fans waited in KCRW’s performance studio for their arrival and to witness the event, among them Roger Steffens, host of KCRW’s popular show The Reggae Beat; Ariana Morgenstern, MBE producer; Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer; and Geoff Gans, designer for Rhino Records.

The fun and joyful visit was at times wonderfully raucous. Roger Steffens said to Little Richard, “You’re not little,” to which Richard replied, “Everything’s big with me.” A great start. I loved it when Richard talked about Lloyd Price, another Specialty Records artist, who had bought a new Cadillac with his royalties. Richard lamented that the only Cadillac in his hometown was at the funeral home, so you’d have to be dead to ride in it! Little Richard would often let out his famous whoop. When I was listening to the cassette air check I recorded that day in preparation for this tribute, my cat would startle and fly out of the office with every whoop.

Little Richard told us about his childhood in Macon, Georgia, and his early love of fashion—he pulled the curtains off the wall and wore them down the street. He talked about the Tiny Tots Quartet, a gospel group he started as a child. He named his musical influences—Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Clara Ward Singers, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino, and his main fashion influence, Esquerita.

My favorite part must be Little Richard talking about the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Richard witnessed it fly through the sky while on an ocean liner en route to Australia in October 1957. He was very superstitious and a divided self, both a devout Christian and a closeted gay man. Thinking that it was the end of the world—nobody had ever seen such an object in the sky—Richard repented, throwing all his gold rings and jewelry into the sea. Upon returning to the U.S., he enrolled in bible college. In the KCRW studios that day, Richard pleaded, “Fish, I want my rings!  Release my rings!” At the end of our hour together, Richard sat down at the piano and played the gospel hymn, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

Little Richard was an icon who changed music forever. I’m grateful to have met him and to have heard in person about his colorful life and amazing music. I hope you enjoy listening to what we all experienced that December day so long ago.

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Tom Schnabel