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‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ dissects the Rock ‘n’ Roll singer’s 60-year career

Photo caption: LITTLE RICHARD AND Director of “Little Richard: I Am Everything” Lisa Cortés

The first film in the 2023 Doc10 Documentary Film Festival will be “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” and it promises to knock the ball out of the park in its peeling away the layers of the man who proclaimed himself, “the bronze Liberace.”

A sparkling, spirited, and stirring portrait of the “Quasar of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the film follows the trailblazer’s turbulent and luminous life and musical career. Tracing his early days in Macon, Georgia, as the gay son of a minister, to his sexually charged 1950s hits “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” and beyond, the film is both a tribute to his galactic cultural influence and a complex portrait of a Black gay man who would later renounce both rock music and his own queer identity.

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932 and later as his career took off renamed himself Little Richard.

Little Richard’s mother had 13 kids, and his father was a minister with a nightclub and bootleg joint who told Richard, “I wanted seven boys and you’re messing it up.” One of his early appearances was with blues matron Rosetta Tharpe, who brought him out to sing in Georgia. Afterward, it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show, where he sang the Louis Jordan hit “Caldonia.”

He started doing shows in drag and later in 1955 with his band, the Upsetters, their members started wearing makeup, as well. To better position himself gig-wise, Little Richard said he had to look feminine in order to work white clubs.

By the time Little Richard was singing “Tutti Frutti,” which was described by the government as having lewd lyrics and “contributing to the delinquency of teenagers,” he was moving his mom and family to California.

Other immediate songs like “Long Tall Sally” in 1956 had the white girls swooning over him in one of the first movements of integration on the dance floor. “My music broke down the walls of segregation,” he said, while he said music summoned danger for him. He was arrested and beaten in Georgia for “singing nigger music.”

After a trip to Australia where he thought he saw angels from the plane and a ball of fire, Little Richard felt that God was speaking to him. In 1957 he enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville Alabama—a 7th Day Adventist school, and started singing gospel music. Shortly after, he married Ernestine Harvin.

While many artists looked up to Little Richard, like the Beatles, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, he admired Ike Turner and Billy Wright and attempted to emulate their styles.

In 1966, he was back to dazzling audiences on the Rock ‘n’ Roll front until his brother and some associates passed away. He was heartbroken and circumspect and made another switch that caused some to say that he had “a complex legacy.” He told David Letterman in the early 70s, “The only rock I have now is the rock, Christ Jesus.”

He also later proclaimed, “God let me know he made Adam to be with Eve, not Steve.”

He started selling bibles and protested for residuals from his many recordings. He hadn’t received a Grammy, although he was “the innovator, creator and King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and felt he had never been accepted by society, as he was Black, queer and disabled (one of his legs was longer than the other).” He said that Elvis and Pat Boone made more money covering “Tutti Frutti” than he did.

In 1986, Little Richard couldn’t attend the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame honors because he was in a bad car accident. He eventually had a few choice words for folks during the 1988 Grammys.

With tears in his eyes at the age of 74, while accepting prestigious honors at the AMA’s he said, “R ‘n B [Rhythm and Blues] had a baby and somebody named it Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

During the doc, Bo Didley said, most appropriately, “We built a hell of a highway and people are still driving on it,” and Little Richard added, “and they aren’t paying any tolls.”

Little Richard died in 2020, at the age of 87–-but not before telling folks many times, “Shut Up,” while reminding everyone that he was “pretty—not conceited but confident.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” will be featured during a special one-night only Chicago premiere, Doc10 preview event on Thursday, April 13, at the Gene Siskel Film Center followed by a Q&A with Director Lisa Cortés and other special guests. Tickets are $16, with discounts available for students, seniors, and military, and are available at, The 8th annual Doc10 Documentary Film Festival runs May 4-7 at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave., and at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. For information, visit

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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