The Night Little Richard Reminded America He Was the True King of Rock

The Night Little Richard Reminded America He Was the True King of Rock

In 1988, the legend took the stage at the Grammys not to accept an award, but to give one — and to demand what he deserved

In the late 1980s, Little Richard became a sought-after guest in movies and on television shows — a reversal of sorts after a long, difficult period. The bulk of the ’70s had been hard on the legend; the rock and roll revival circuit didn’t take well to him, and as the decade wore on, his notoriously high-energy shows became marred by sluggishness and vocal issues. He’d complain about the lighting and the microphones. He was weighed down by drugs and alcohol and years of partying. By 1977, he returned to the comforts of the lord, releasing the 1979 gospel album God’s Beautiful City before going silent. But in 1985, Charles Wright’s biography Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard reignited public interest in Richard, who stepped back out into the world, insisting on reconciling his faith, music, and public persona. It gave him new life and a new audience to appeal to.

In these late-’80s guest appearances, there were those who would become enamored with his comedic timing: the way you might not know what he would say or do next, or the way he could beat even the best comedians to the punch. The work was undoubtedly a blessing, but there are also drawbacks to the caricaturing of the self, even if it isn’t intentional. An audience, trembling with laughter, might forget they are the punchline. They’ll be laughing so loud that they might forget to check for the truth underneath the joke. So it was at the 1988 Grammy Awards, when Little Richard was tapped to present the Best New Artist Grammy.

Richard had never won a Grammy, nor had he ever been nominated for one. While a good portion of his most well-known tunes were recorded and released before the Grammy Awards were established in 1958, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was first given in 1963, with the stated mission to highlight “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.” Bing Crosby won the first award in 1963. Frank Sinatra won in 1965. Elvis Presley in 1971. In 1987, a large class of winners included Ray Charles, Fats Domino, B.B. King, and Hank Williams. In 1992, one went to James Brown, who came up with Richard, who counted him as an influence; another to Jimi Hendrix, whose gig with Richard’s backing band ended in 1965 after the young guitarist tried to be more flamboyant than the architect of the band himself. It wasn’t until 1993—30 years after it was first given — that Little Richard would be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

I think about how much of Little Richard’s life was spent shouting with exhaustion into the halls of history about what he’d accomplished and what he’d earned. How even if a Black person is twice as good as their counterparts, they sometimes also have to be twice as loud about it.

So it’s little surprise that he appeared to be in a particularly devilish state of mind when he took the Radio City Music Hall stage alongside Buster Poindexter in 1988, smirking on the slow stroll to the podium. Poindexter was an alter ego of the musician David Johansen, who in the early ’70s had been a member of the New York Dolls. When a part of that outfit, he’d wear heels and high platform boots to perform, sometimes dresses, often makeup. While much of the punk scene around them leaned into understated and simplistic street fashion, the Dolls pulled off glam androgyny as messy and brilliant as the noise they made on stage. And it doesn’t take much to wander down the history of rock music to find out where that particular type of glam began — to see the pictures of Little Richard in the 1950s, tenderly adjusting his hair or applying makeup to his eyes.

Picture it, then. When Poindexter and Richard arrive at the microphone to present, Richard leans over and stares at Poindexter’s perfectly shaped wave of hair swooped high on his head. As the applause from the audience dies down, Poindexter seems to grow increasingly nervous before giggling out a “What?”

There’s Richard. “I used to wear my hair like that,” he says, not missing a beat.

The audience breaks into a small bit of laughter. Poindexter grins and looks to the side. Richard continues: “They take everything I did. They take it from me.” He’s not laughing, but the audience is. There is no joke, really, beyond Richard doing what he’d always done, what he increasingly did in the ’80s and ’90s: remind people who built the house that everyone lived in. The house that those same tenants stole from.

Poindexter, eager to get into the actual announcement of the award, begins to read from the teleprompter — but Richard, who wants to dwell a bit longer on the moment, cuts him off. He is off script and eager to engage his new target, the audience tilting toward the edge of excitement. “Wait, now look at the hair!” he shouts, as Poindexter plays to the crowd, showing off. He, too, has decided to become a part of the joke that isn’t a joke at all.

Finally, it comes time to announce the winner. “And the best new artist is…,” Richard says. Then, before even opening the envelope, he leans into the microphone and says, firmly, “Me.” The audience laughs and applauds, but Richard, again, isn’t laughing. He puts a hand on his hip and points a finger at the front row. “Y’all ain’t never gave me nothing,” he says. “I ain’t never won no Grammy, and I been singing for YEARS!” The applause grows.

“I am the ARCHITECT of rock and roll” — shouting now — “and they ain’t never gave me nothin’!”

The audience begins to rise to its feet, cascading applause drowning the stage. It’s like watching Richard onstage in his prime: knowing what strings to pull to drive an audience to the edge of rapture and when to keep going. Over the thunder of cheering, he shouts, “I AM THE ORIGINATOR!” before walking briefly away from the microphone to give the audience a chance to calm, ever so slightly. Before returning, opening the envelope again, starting off, “And the winner is…,” then smirking and saying, “Still me!”

Richard is smiling now, laughing, leaning forward and grabbing his chest while Poindexter looks offstage as if to say, “Someone get me out of here.” “I had to get that in,” he says before tearing open the envelope and laughing hysterically — and just one more time saying, “The winner really IS me!” while an increasingly annoyed Poindexter scolds, “Richard… Richard…,” into the microphone. Eventually, finally, Richard announces the award for Jody Watley.

I have often found that I have a different reaction to this clip than most people do. When I’ve seen people share it, or talk about it, or write about it, they often focus on the theatrics of it all: Richard being funny or being irreverent in the ways people knew he could be. I have always thought the clip to be sad. Sadder now, of course, now that Richard is gone. Dead without the respect he craved and deserved.

It is easy for me to say that there is more to art and creativity than awards and respect from institutions, especially for Black artists. I believe that, but I also have not invented anything that I had to watch myself be removed from. I have not innovated anything worthwhile. I have not inspired generations of people who never spoke my name in praise.

For Little Richard in 1988, I imagine he felt that the least that he could have been given was a trophy. Something material to acknowledge his greatness, since he’d been cheated out of royalties and cheated out of history books. I think about how much of Little Richard’s life was spent shouting with exhaustion into the halls of history about what he’d accomplished and what he’d earned. How even if a Black person is twice as good as their counterparts, they sometimes also have to be twice as loud about it. And, of course, I think about how easily that loudness can be placated or passed off as something else — dismissed as arrogance, or comedy, or cheered along as entertainment but never reckoned with as truth.

Little Richard spent decades in the position of having to offer corrections or reminders. In 1988, he stood next to a White musician and took him to task for jacking his style — because if he didn’t, people would have forgotten where it all came from. There is heartbreak in the amount of effort Richard had to put into being heard as the 1980s and ’90s went on. He was often clawing at dead earth in search of the roses he should have been given a hundred times over. He was shouting but never heard. In his interviews from that time, he is sometimes sad and sometimes angry. He seemed to make peace with it all, at least outwardly, as he got older and grew less connected to the world. Richard believed in a greater, better kingdom than this one. I hope, whatever that may look like and however that might exist, he can be at peace with all he gave. I hope he can rest, finally unconcerned with history, legacy, and the endless field of roses that never arrived for him.