Listen to this track, a primordial slice of rock ‘n’roll from one of the founding fathers of the genre; Richard Penniman, otherwise known to the world as the flamboyant Little Richard.
This song has been well-covered by fellow rock ‘n’ roll architects like Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. British Invasion groups from the Beatles (who recorded it, and titled an EP after it in 1963) to the Kinks (who had a debut single with a version of it), and beyond also recorded versions of the song. And what a tune it is, a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll anthem about ‘havin’ me some fun tonight’.
But, one thing that seems to have passed under the radar of many is the narrative that runs through this tune. Behind the celebratory tone of the joyous sax/piano/rhythm section, and Richard’s ebullient vocal, lies a dark tale of deception, of hidden desires, of a love that dare not speak its name.
Uncle John has needs, and Long Tall Sally has everything he is looking for, unbeknownst to Aunt Mary. This is a bit of a seedy tale, perhaps which is complicated and made more tragic somehow because Sally is also ‘bald-headed Sally’. Uncle John is in the closet, as Penniman himself was when he recorded this song in March of 1956, being as he was a threat to the status quo even without being gay.
Little Richard’s onstage style, his flamboyant manner, and his wild, androgynous appearance seemed to confirm everything conservative critics believed about rock ‘n’ roll – that it was a corrupting force, that it threatened the fabric of society. And in a certain respect, they were quite correct. It certainly showed teenagers that there was more out there imagined in the philosophies of post-war America and Britain. And if this song isn’t exactly an anthem to gay pride, Little Richard’s delivery of it certainly has a lot going for it in this respect.
Fear of change, fear of ‘mixing the races’, homosexuality, and other related societal issues seemed to be reaching a boiling point by the mid-to-late Fifties with rock ‘n’ roll musicians and the Beat poets presenting alternative visions of how life really is, or can be. And they took a lot of the flak as being dangerous voices. But, what became evident as the years progressed was that Uncle John’s married life to Aunt Mary wasn’t the whole picture, societally speaking. And by the 1960s and 70s, this was more than evident.
This is what great art does – it challenges expectations and assumptions. Rock music would come into its own in the 60s in this respect. But, challenging the status quo certainly didn’t start there. In this respect, Little Richard is something of a visionary, even if he was , in the end, a pure entertainer on the surface.