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When Little Richard gave up rock 'n' roll for Jesus

Little Richard shown in Los Angeles in 1986.
Little Richard shown in Los Angeles in 1986.Mark Avery/Associated Press

This story by former staff writer Steve Morse, originally headlined “Little Richard now the Rev. Penniman," appeared in the Globe on Feb. 25, 1979.

FT. CAMPBELL, Ky. — The needle barely dips below 80 miles-an-hour as Little Richard’s yellow Eldorado, being driven by a friend, purrs through the countryside between Nashville and this 15,000-man Army base on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee.

We are deep in the backwoods, not far from where Sheriff Buford Pusser, the prototype for the film “Walking Tall,” used to root out the wages of sin to keep his township pure.

As we turn off the highway, the Army base becomes visible. There is a long succession of gates, outside of which is a motley neon strip. Donnie’s Tattoo Parlor. Soft-hearted Sam’s Pawn Shop. The Star-lit Drive-In (showing porn flicks). Pinball and pool halls.

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There’s also a sign pointing down a side road toward the First Baptist Church in Oak Groves. The sign reads: “Jesus loves you, warts and all.” It brings a smile to the face of Little Richard, for Jesus is the reason he has come to this remote land. Tonight he is scheduled to preach in a fieldhouse on the Army base, bringing the Word of God and not the rock 'n' roll he had brought on his last visit, more than 20 years ago, with songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille.”

During the hour-long drive from Nashville (where he is now a traveling salesman/preacher for Memorial Bibles International), Little Richard had in fact denounced rock 'n' roll, even though it was he who once had Jimi Hendrix as a guitar player and had the Beatles and Rolling Stones as opening acts on his European tours.

“You see, rock 'n' roll music does not glorify God. There are rock 'n' roll people that are possessed, that know they are possessed. Then there are some that are possessed and don’t realize it. I was one . . . You got to remember that the devil was a master musician. He sang four voices at one time. He was Lucifer the archangel. He was the director of the heavenly choir, so he’s more successful working through entertainers and musicians.”

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Tonight the 43-year-old Little Richard Penniman, who comes from Macon, Ga., from a 12-child family whose father, a bootlegger, was killed during Richard’s youth, will explain his full-scale conversion to Christ. His exotic robes, jewelry and mountainous coiffure are gone. As a man of God, he now wears three-piece suits and calls himself “a pilgrim in a strange country, looking for a world with better foundations.”

After catching a quick supper, we head directly to the fieldhouse. The car is detained at the security gate, but Little Richard promptly bends over from his passenger seat and says to the guard, “Hey, I’m Little Richard. How you doin'? God bless. I’m a minister now.”

The guard recognizes him, but is stunned. "Oh yeah?"

"Here, take this," Richard adds, handing him a card. "Send in and get a free gift." It is the chance to enroll in a Bible correspondence course.

Safely through, we arrive at the fieldhouse. Before leaving the car, Little Richard motions that we bow our heads in prayer. “Oh God, help us to be what you want us to be. You do the speaking for me and you do the singing, Lord.” (Richard plans to sing two gospel songs — “God’s Beautiful City” and “It’s No Secret” — accompanied by a reel-to-reel tape of instrumental arrangements.)

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The Army brass is already inside. A colonel, general, captain and several post chaplains shake Little Richard’s hand. The brass is seated up front. In the middle are families, and in the back are soldiers in green fatigues and crewcuts, including a group of drug offenders from the post’s halfway house. The crowd, however, is disappointingly small, about 200 people.

Little Richard ascends a red-white-and-blue rimmed stage that looks like a boxing ring minus the ropes. He opens with "God's Beautiful City," his voice still rich with that famous tensile strength although the sound system is a tinny nightmare.

He begins his testimony by going back in time three years, just before his transformation. “I was singing rock 'n' roll, playing the piano, screaming, with hair all over my head. Just out there screaming and making $10,000 an hour.”

Drugs were an integral part of his life, and he gives a grisly account of it all. Angel dust: “It had me crawling around on the floor like a dog.” Cocaine: “I was paying $1,000 an ounce for it . . . I would get so high that I’d blow my nose and you’d see flesh and blood comin’ out.” Heroin: “Some call heroin ‘the boy,’ but I want to tell you he’s the bad boy. He’s the champion.”

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Each drug reference brings a shudder from his listeners. Some murmur “Amen” when he accelerates into a fire-and-brimstone warning: “Don’t you know the world is going to end very soon, and you’re drinking and smoking and using everything in your bodies?”

Then he tells of the deaths of several friends close to him — a portent, he says, that God was trying to tell him something. Two friends were murdered, one a 21-year-old. The shocker, however, and the ultimate catalyst for his conversion, was the death of his younger brother Edward, of a sudden heart attack.

It occurred right after Little Richard filled in for an ailing Ike & Tina Turner at a Miami Beach hotel. “I went to scream in their places,” he says. “I came back with a pocketful of money, and my brother, who was a school teacher, called me and said, ‘Richard, I want you to loan me some money so I can pick out a station wagon.’ But instead of going to see my brother — I didn’t want to go there — I went to Hollywood. I wanted to let it all hang out. I wanted to do everything. So I checked into a Hollywood hotel and come to find out that my brother had gone out of his house, walked his son, his little boy, and come back in and dropped dead.”

He tells the story with such power that it induces tears in his audience. He invites everyone up close to the stage to hold hands and pray with him. "Never put a question mark where God has put a period," he says, leaving to a standing ovation.

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Well-wishers mob him as he comes down. He patiently greets them, urging all to read and study their Bibles. One of the post's chaplains, Thomas Hines, remarks on "the 180-degree change in this man."

Afterwards, Little Richard attends a reception at a church on the base. There is a cake reading “LITTLE RICHARD.” The Army brass is all there, surrounding him in a semi-circle, addressing him as “sir.” The colonel’s wife bemoans the fact her children missed Richard’s testimony, although her sixth-grade son, a KISS fan, didn’t want to come anyway. “If it wasn’t hard rock, he said no thanks.”

Little Richard, sparkling with scriptural quotes, exclaims to the select few that “I’ve asked God I want to be a walking Bible . . . I cut off my crown of hair for a crown of life. I gave up rock 'n' roll for the Rock of Ages.”

Back in his hotel, located next to one of the neon strip's pool halls, Little Richard says he is tired but plans to stay up a while reading the Book of Job. He reads the Bible between three and six hours a day.

“You know, some people say I lost my mind. Well, that’s the truth. I lost my mind and Jesus took it.”