Sunday, May 15, 2016
Little Richard: Bronze Liberace
I woke up this morning to a great shot of Little Richard rocking the piano and ‘bop a lula’in’ - “Long Tall Sally” back in ’56, courtesy all those clip-diggers on Facebook. What’s remarkable about this vintage black and white is the band is solid African American - front loaded with saxophones and scattered about - a “bippy crowd” – corner to corner smiley white folks. Those be the days my friends. This got me thinking about a gig I dig back in the early seventies at Queen’s University when my band was the opening act.
It's been decades since I've smoked a bowl of hashish, and none finer than the one I shared in January of 1971 with Little Richard, the Bronze Liberace.
At that time, I was the keyboardist and vocalist with Homestead, a Toronto act that had caught the attention of Guess Who producer Jack Richardson in 1970.
Our Homestead concerts were testimonials against the Vietnam War and protests over degradation of the environment. I wore more Canadian flags than springtime on Parliament Hill. Jack understood my position and my opposition to the war. He just rolled with the situation, doing all he could do to rectify it--although I made his task nearly impossible.
We were invited to do a 7:30 pm set at Queen’s University, opening for Little Richard. The stage was outfitted with humongous Traynor speakers. Back then they were cheap, with a sound quality like stampeding caribou when fully exercised.
So we play our opening set, which at first is received as if we’d been sentenced to an embalming. Then I gave my 'save the planet' pitch, and things warmed up. Round one: we scored.
Now we are downstairs in the dressing area; Little Richard has yet to show, due to a bomb scare somewhere over Cleveland. Richard refuses a chartered flight to London, Ontario, apparently fearing the plane would crash. At 11 pm, he finally arrives by car, half an hour after the second show was due to start.
On my own, I'm killing time with a quarter ounce of Lebanese hashish. Suddenly, Little Richard's band arrives and catches the action.
“Hey bro,' what's that you smoking," says the horn section.
“Hashish,” I reply.
“Les have some.”
Smooth talkers. So I cut a couple grams loose and the horn guys disappear in the john to find a toilet roll, unravel foil from a cigarette pack, punch a few holes--et voila. Big high.
I'm shooting the breeze with the promoter when Little Richard walks in and demands his pay. The promoter tells him to play first. Richard's bodyguard is close at hand, packing heat and a sinister look.
“Pay me, motherfucker, or I don't play,"says Richard.
The promoter pauses. “Well, I have to go up to the box office and count the money, I hope they’ll agree to do this."
“Get moving," urges Richard.
I'm sitting, staring at this rock & roll icon, in heavy pancake makeup, not knowing what to expect. In a huff, he starts lecturing about “taking care of business.”
Then the lead horn man returns, and says, "Give me more of that good shit."
I can't believe the audacity of this snake. Quickly, Little Richard jumps into the conversation. "What shit?”
“The hippie got some bad hashish," says viper man.
Richards looks at me. “Is that so, I ain't never smoked hashish - is it any good?"
I look at him, thinking: fucking Little Richard! "Yeah man, this is Lebanese. It's got a nice froth on it."
“Light me some, hippie guy - I need to get high." I do just that and LR gets his love on. "This shit is outrageous."
The next 30 minutes, we continue bowl lighting. "What's your name? It's Bill! Your band? Homestead, huh? Tell you what Bill - I like you, man. Paul McCartney is playing on my next album and me on his - then I'm playing on yours."
I'm young and cynical and don't give a shit. Little Richard is in the house. And he's playing me for my remaining gram.
The promoter returns, Richard collects half his pay, hits the stage, and rocks the room. Next to Little Richard, I feel like a stage figurine, a miniature entertainer. This is big bold history and I'm a witness. The amplified sound is horrible but who gives a damn. Richard's foot hits the floor like a sledgehammer and he sings in ungodly tones: first “Lucille,” then “Blueberry Hill,” “Bebop A Lula,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Midnight Special,” “Tutti Frutti” and on and on.
Three years earlier, I'd rocked with Chuck Berry but in no way did it compare to this jam.
Half time! We're back in the waiting room.
"Hey B, got anymore of that killing shit?”
“Then light me a bowl." That I do, and the band quickly shows up with a chorus of “give us more."
Are you kidding? I'm with the man and I ain't blowing more on no greedy horn section.
Little Richard is seated when the paymaster shows up again. This time he says, “Sorry, Mr. Richard. We have to wait until closing time to pay you.”
Richard: “What are you saying? Get my money or the night is over.”
The paymaster dude reaches down and touches Little Richard, who says, “Get your fucking fingers off me, queer.”
Smoothly, the bodyguard moves in, clutching his hidden gun.
Richard nods, saying to the paymaster, “You get the message? Get my money.” The Bronze Liberace looks over at me and says, “Fill the bowl, Bill---looks like a long night. You say that shit is Hebanese?”
Eventually, the promoter pays up front and Little Richard does the second show.
Afterwards, we're on our way home and stop at one of those unfriendly late-night diners. I walk in with Kris and the catcalls start. “Hippie, dick sucker, fuck face...”
Suddenly a tall and lanky black dude in a pimp suit strides in and heads for the can. It’s Little Richard’s enforcer. All talk ceases.
Everyone hesitates. A few minutes pass, and the guy reappears. You can see a gun under his short jacket. He taps it, swings around, giving me one of those stares that freezes the fearful, then exits.
The last words I heard that evening were: "Fuck me, who was that?”
Looking out for Little Richard and other black musicians of the time was a full-time job. If you wanted to get paid, you had to have someone with a cold, cold look, an intimidating bulge under the vest and willingness to use it.