I Am Everything looks at one of the most mesmerizing and complicated figures in music
At the time I’m writing this, Carolyn Bryant Dunham has just died.
She was the white woman who, in 1955, falsely accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American, of flirting with her. This led to him being beaten, shot and drowned by Dunham’s husband and brother-in-law, immediately branding her a sworn enemy of the Civil Rights movement, which was just getting started.
Till is mentioned briefly in the new Little Richard documentary, I Am Everything. At the time, the first stirrings of rock & roll were starting to take place, with the likes of Bill Haley & the Comets, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry.. As the movie will remind you, rock & roll was a prime mover as far as breaking down barriers between the races, with white teenagers all of a sudden filling the seats at R&B revues. Even with the hope of integration, the Emmett Till incident was a sobering reminder that not everyone was ready for this new reality just yet.
In the middle of all this came Richard Penniman, a/k/a Little Richard, a flamboyant, church-trained singer-pianist from Macon, GA, who’d cut a few jump-blues singles with no success, until he struck paydirt with “Tutti Frutti.” Coming as he did at the start of the rock & roll revolution, the powers that be cringed at the thought of teenaged white girls openly swooning over dapper black singers on the stage. As Richard implies in the movie, even though he was bombastic and boastful, the white establishment didn’t have to worry about him stealing the white girls. They seriously doubted he was into girls at all.
Directed by Lisa Cortes, I Am Everything does a pretty good job of looking into one of the most complicated and conflicted musicians, in a field full of other acts who could be described the same way. Interviews with several musicians, historians, lovers, friends, associates and family members from all phases of Richard’s life are used. Billy Wright and Esquerita were two performers that the un-humble Richard always gave credit to; the movie gives both artists their due. Because he was such a visual performer, there is no shortage of TV clips from different phases of his life.
When he was proselytizing for the church, you saw a conservatively-garbed dark-skinned man. However, when he was ready to go “showbiz,” and needed to make some money, on went the flashy mirror suits and the pancake makeup that lightened his skin considerably. If you’ll notice, the early ’80s was really the only time he publicly admitted his gayness, and that was only when he was testifying for the Lord. The rest of the time, it just sort of hangs in the air, as something that was widely known but rarely addressed directly.
The interviews hit the right notes, with interview segments from R&B veteran Lloyd Price, as well as backing musicians Red Tyler, Earl Palmer and Charles Connors. (For some reason, Connors required subtitles for his segments, even though I clearly understood him.) Rock & roll purists might be put off by the sociological notes, but for context’s sake, its just good to know why he was so shocking, especially in modern times when he would have been just one among many doing the same thing.
Fredara Hadley, ethnomusicologist at the Julliard School of Music, traces the lineage up through latter-day black rock bands like Fishbone, Living Colour and Bad Brains (although one significant black rocker, Barrence Whitfield, isn’t mentioned at all – and his music is more Little Richard-influenced than the other three put together). There is the requisite clip of Pat Boone singing “Tutti Frutti” in a make-believe malt shop, surrounded by white teenagers clapping off-time.
And then there’s Richard himself. At different points in his career, he backed off from the secular world to be a messenger for God. If you’ve ever heard his gospel recordings, you’ll notice he’s singing in a controlled Marian Anderson manner, just to make sure we don’t confuse this Richard with the guy who sang “Good Golly Miss Molly.” However, just because he was doing the Lord’s work doesn’t mean he was entirely egoless. He was still calling himself “Little Richard,” still drove a garishly-colored Cadillac, and as the movie points out, the title of one of his gospel albums proclaimed him the King Of The Gospel Singers. This movie does a good job of placing that conflict under the magnifying glass.
Also, as bitter as Richard was about not receiving his rightful credit as a rock & roll pioneer (as well as the monies he was owed), one gets the impression that the world would have come around, even if Richard hadn’t reminded them.
By his own admission, he did it all “from wah-wah to woo-woo,” and the impact is hard to miss.