The music Little Richard Penniman made in the mid-fifties was a crazed jittering sugar rush—sweet candied yams with marshmallow eyeballs popping. Tutti Frutti, Lucille, and Rip it Up turned the heads of every would be flamboyant front man or woman to follow: James Brown, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Elton John; they all looked up at him the way kids look at their cooler, badder older siblings and decided they wanted to ‘Rip it Up!’ too. While people my age—late thirties—grew up with the cartoonish, commoditized Little Richard of TV commercials and cameos, teens in the fifties and sixties saw him on top of the amplifier stacks, ripping his sequin shirt off, sweating and screaming the lyrics of Tutti Frutti, a song he wrote in the midst of the repression of the fifties about…well…booty sex (‘awwruti’ was originally ‘good booty’). He was the most concentrated and caramelized Self they had ever seen. That is what left an impact. That is what created and defined rock and roll as we know it.
Check out the dude’s face at 0:55 in the video:
Whether he was the first to rock doesn’t matter. Influence evolves and reaches crystallization points; it doesn’t start in a big bang. The fact is, he was not the first. He credits ‘Esquerita,’ a Black, gay rocker from Greenville, South Carolina as just one major influence for example—check him out, the pompadour, the ‘woo,’ and the key banging are nearly identical.
My favorite Esquerita track is ‘Sinner Man’
But, Penniman was the one to break through. He took his hard glittering sole and kicked through all the muddy dams of the music industry allowing a rush of radioactive rivers and streams to flow forth. James Brown followed that stream from early rhythm and blues to rock, soul, funk and finally hip hop; Mick Jagger is still sailing on it today. We owe Penniman everything, not just because of his musicality but because of, what Michelle Obama phrased as, “His exuberance, creativity, and his refusal to be anything other than himself.”
Penniman used to eat at a place called Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in Los Angeles. According to those who encountered him, his exuberance was intact.
A Tweet From Filmmaker Ava DuVernay:
“I served soul food brunch to Little Richard every Sunday for a year while waitressing at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in LA. I was a college student. He tipped me a crisp $100 bill each week on a $75 breakfast with friends. This was 30 years ago. Helped me so much. God rest his soul.”
From Designer Ed Haynes:
“20-some odd years ago we had a family birthday party for our sons at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in Marina del Rey. The guys were a bit confused when the fabulously coiffed man at the table next to us came over and sang Happy Birthday to them. The rest of us were elated that Little Richard was so inclined. R.I.P. Mr. Penniman”
From Filmmaker Tanya Kersey:
“I came to know him during Sunday brunch at Aunt Kizzy’s in the marina. I frequented Aunt Kizzy regularly as did Little Richard. Charismatic & musical as ever, Little Richard held court and caused a full-blown scene of theatrical proportions every time he graced the restaurant. RIP my friend.”
From reverend and spiritual advisor Reverend Lé Seleah:
“In the early 2000s, I made frequent leisure trips to Los Angeles. During one trip I was very fortunate to meet Little Richard at a soul food spot called Aunt Kizzy’s. He was there alone. I will never forget his loving embrace.”
I tweeted at Ms. Duvernay to ask what he used to order as part of the soul food brunch but didn’t hear back (she must be busy or something). Penniman was a vegetarian, so, assuming he stuck to that, one of the few items he could have had on the brunch menu would have been “Aunt June’s Candied Yams.” Aunt Kizzy’s is closed but The Los Angeles Times tracked down the recipe for an enquiring reader back in 1996. I thought it a perfect match for Little Richard’s music and persona. Throw on this music as you cook the recipe below!
Aunt June’s Candied Yams
3 sweet potatoes (they recommend sweet potatoes instead of actual yams)
1 cup Sugar
½ cups Water
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Peel of ¼ lemon
½ cup butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Scrub yams and place in a large pot. Cover with boiling water and cook, covered, over medium heat 25 to 30 minutes, until potatoes are tender but firm. Drain and cool potatoes. Peel potatoes and slice into thick pieces. Butter shallow baking dish and arrange yam slices in single layer in dish.
Heat sugar, water, nutmeg, and lemon peel in saucepan. Add 1/4cup butter and lemon juice. When butter melts, remove from heat and add vanilla. Stir syrup and pour over potatoes in dish. Bake at 425 degrees until bubbly, 30 minutes.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.