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Little Richard Documentary celebrates the talent — and mystery — of a legend

Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard is the subject of a new PBS <em>American Masters </em>documentary. He's shown above rehearsing at London's Wembley Stadium in 1972.
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Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary. He's shown above rehearsing at London's Wembley Stadium in 1972.

In 1956, Elvis Presley exploded onto the music scene, changing music history. One of the songs on Presley's introductory album was his rendition of "Tutti Frutti," a song released the previous year by singer, musician and composer Richard Penniman, famously known as Little Richard.

It wasn't Little Richard's only quickly covered song. In 1956, Little Richard followed up "Tutti Frutti" with "Long Tall Sally"; in 1957, with "Lucille"; and, in 1958, with "Good Golly, Miss Molly" — but by then, Little Richard had walked away from rock 'n' roll.

As we learn in the new PBS American Masters documentary, Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock 'n' Roll,Little Richard came from a tradition of gospel music, which he returned to after quitting rock 'n' roll in the late '50s. But he also played R&B, and what became rock 'n' roll, and he never let himself be defined for long by any one musical category — or, in his private life, by any one sexual identity.

Over the years, at various times, Little Richard described himself as gay, as being equally attracted to men and women, as being what he called "omnisexual," and later, as renouncing homosexuality on religious grounds. Yet in the late '50s, when he released some of rock music's most seminal recordings and lit up the screen in such films as The Girl Can't Help It, Little Richard influenced generations of performers with his uninhibited, flamboyant, androgynous style.

The documentary gives Little Richard credit for inspiring everyone fromElton John andPrince to Harry Styles and David Bowie. Two members of the British Invasion of the '60s,Ringo Starr and Keith Richards, give new interviews acknowledging as much. Both of their respective bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, adored Little Richard and his music. The Beatles recorded some of his songs, and Paul McCartneymimicked his style — to embrace Little Richard, not to exploit him. And both the Beatles and the Stones, when they started out, took turns serving as Little Richard's opening act. The Beatles did it in Germany before getting their recording contract withGeorge Martin, and the Stones opened for Little Richard on their very first rock tour in October 1963, when the Stones were total unknowns.

James House, the director of this new American Masters entry, is on firm ground establishing Little Richard's talent, impact and continued legacy. Later TV clips, from the '80s and '90s, give a sense of delayed but heartfelt recognition for the man who was one of the original architects of rock music as we know it. The portions of the documentary about the singer's somewhat fluid sexuality, and statements about it through the years, are less conclusive — because Little Richard himself, on this topic, proves more elusive.

As a person, Little Richard Penniman was a bit of a mystery — and remains so, even after watching this full-length TV biography. But he also was a dynamo, as a performer, on stage and on record. And that, without question, American Masters conveys completely.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.