Rock of All Ages : Little Richard Delivers Black History Lesson, With Music

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tanisha Washington, 12, knew little about the man in the all-white outfit. "He originated rock 'n' roll, is that what you said?" Tanisha asked Assistant Principal Lessie Caballero.

Minutes later, Tanisha and 27 other students from Fulton Middle School in Van Nuys got their lesson from one of American music's founding fathers, Little Richard.

Call it history in the flesh.

Onstage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood on Tuesday morning was the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll," a label as close to the truth as any legend in this U.S.-based art form.

Little Richard--Richard W. Penniman--was there in the beginning, along with Elvis--before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones--and at 62, he's still not ready to leave the building.

"I'm still doing it," he told the crowd, which included students from Crenshaw High School and Grape Street Elementary. His appearance was also transmitted by video to youngsters at House of Blues locations in Boston and New Orleans.

It was part of a program put on by the International House of Blues Foundation to educate students about music, as well as African American heritage stretching from slavery in Africa to music in America.

Little Richard, who still performs around the world, did little singing. But he gave a typically stirring version of one of his signature hits, "Good Golly, Miss Molly," which came out in 1958. He banged on the piano with his trademark fury and flamboyance, shouting out the lyrics, probably well-known only to the teachers there.

The seemingly ageless rock star performed with humor, joking that the contemporary pop artist formerly known as Prince "took my suit while I was asleep," and said he would have kept his former opening act, the Beatles, if he had known they were going to amount to anything.

He also got serious, tracing the origins of his music and his motivation. He told the students how he listened to blues music growing up in Macon, Ga., and how much he wanted a hit record so he could help his family escape poverty.

"My mother needed my help," said Little Richard, who was one of 12 children. "I didn't know what else to do."

It was the song, "Tutti Frutti," he told the students, that took him from Georgia to California and put him on the path to stardom.

He also talked about the trouble he encountered as a black artist in the 1950s, and the trouble black artists still encounter in the 1990s. "Black people need more of an opportunity in rock," he said. "They're not getting the airplay they should."

His music and his message Tuesday seemed to make a big impression on both young and old. Each generation clapped to his songs and roared at his banter.

Councilman Joel Wachs, 56, who helped arrange the visit by Fulton students, seemed more thrilled than many of the youngsters.

"He was a big part of my life growing up," said Wachs. "I haven't played his records for a while, but I've saved every one. I even know the words."

Wachs got a chance to meet Little Richard, and told the star how much he meant to him.

Tanisha Washington also met the rock star, getting a hug besides her history lesson.

"It was very inspiring," said Tanisha, who also wants to be a singer. "He talks about the things he's done in his life and that whatever I want to do, if I try hard enough, I can succeed."

She wasn't the only one inspired by Tuesday's lesson.

"It was uplifting," said Little Richard in a later interview. "They weren't afraid to ask questions about personal things, and that's what I like. It's another generation, and it makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing."

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