I was — God, do I have to admit this? — about 13 when I first heard Little Richard. There were two people like that in 1956 or ’57: him and Jerry Lee Lewis. I watched Elvis Presley on “Ed Sullivan,” but I have a more vivid memory of the first time I saw Jerry Lee or Richard, because they were wild. Elvis moved his hips, but with [Richard and Lewis], the hair flew and the fingers flew and the body language was startling.
It was everything our parents hated, so that made it that much more dangerous, and part of it was probably because he was African American. I really wanted to play piano like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. I knew I couldn’t, but I spent a lot of time trying. It wasn’t hard to play what they played, but it was impossible to play the way they played.
For the 25th Grammys in 1983, I got Little Richard, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Count Basie together on piano. This was a dream come true. But that was during [Little Richard’s] gospel period. It started out with everybody taking a verse on “What’d I Say.” Count Basie sang, “See the gal with the diamond ring / She knows how to shake that thing.” Jerry Lee sang, “See the girl with the red dress on / Do the burlesque all night long.” Richard sang, “Met God in ’74 / I don’t sing rock ’n’ roll no more / I got Jesus!”
And then for his own song, he did “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy (Down in My Heart).” Richard would not do any of the hits. There was a showdown: “Ken, I can’t do that. You want me on the show? I’m gonna sing the Lord’s music, not the devil’s music.” And I bought it. Anybody have a problem with that? No. If you have that lineup — that’s Mount Rushmore; it really is.
For the 2008 Grammys, he sang “Good Golly Miss Molly” in a medley with Jerry Lee that my friend John Fogerty helped put together. The whole idea was to get them to play together, but it was still very competitive between them. They were very cold to each other when we first started rehearsing, and then there was some kind of a warming. Still, they faced away from each other when they played!
You could see Richard turn on when he was in front of people, as opposed to when he was just with you. But despite the perception of his personality being on the edge, every time we worked together, he was just lovely.
As told to Chris Willman
Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Little Richard died May 9 of bone cancer at age 87. Ken Ehrlich, the producer of the Grammys for the past 40 years, counted him as one of his youthful heroes and had the singer on the awards telecast several times.