Ron Onesti: Another King Is Gone
We lost one of the very last founders of Rock ‘N Roll recently, Richard Wayne Penniman, otherwise known as Little Richard. As flamboyant as he was entertaining, he was often called the “Architect of Rock and Roll”. As I often refer to my career in the music biz as a culmination of countless “pinch me” moments”, allow me to share with the time I worked with two “Kings of Rock and Roll”, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
I would imagine if you would ask the question, “Who is the King of Rock ‘n Roll?” most people would do the quiver-lip thing and respond, “Elvis Presley, thank you very much.” Try and ask that question to Rock ‘n Roll pioneers Chuck Berry or Little Richard, and you may get a music lesson you will never forget. I got that lesson as I did not realize what a “sensitive” issue this was.
I was putting together a very cool Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame show with the two legends. But who would open this show and who would occupy the coveted headliner spot on the bill? For me the answer was simple. Berry was five thousand dollars more than Richard, so Chuck would be the headliner and Richard would open.
Richard found out about this billing after he arrived. “Excuse me!” he said, after hearing that he was to open the show. “Son, the King of Rock ‘n Roll don’t open for nobody. You better change that in a hurry,” he said.
I went to Chuck and explained the situation to him, thinking that he would see it in his heart to flip-flop the bill and save us from an uncomfortable situation. “You wouldn’t ask Elvis to open the show, what makes you think that this King would do it?” he said ironically. “There is a reason they did the “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N Roll” movie about me!
I held my ground and Little Richard opened the show. He definitely was not happy about it, and his mind was set on getting the last laugh.
Richard did get the last laugh, ultimately. He went on to do almost eighty minutes of a show that was only to be forty-five minutes. NOW I see how this was going to go! Richard was waving a bible in his hand musically preaching and doing nineteen verses of “Tutti Fruiti” just to prove a point!
So by now, Chuck was getting upset. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to follow him to the stage. With Richard doing a third encore of “Lucille,” Chuck pointed to the floor as he put one foot on the stage and said, “My contract says I go on at nine. See my foot? It’s nine and your time starts now.”
“I’m doing the best I can, Chuck,” I said. “You see what’s going on here! Your fans will be the ones cheated. Please, Chuck, a true king wouldn’t treat his loyal subjects that way!”
Chuck wound up doing more than the hour he originally said he was contracted to do, and way more than he threatened to cut his show down to. So in the end, the crowd got two great performances with two headliners, even though I lost a little more hair in the interim.
I must have said goodbye to several hundred people at the end of the show, each one giving me what I thought was an appreciative stare. They all did the double-take thing as they looked at me, and because I hosted the show, I was sure it was because I was the big-time producer who crafted this memorable evening for them. It wasn’t until the very last person, a young girl about twelve years old, who pointed out the real reason why the throngs of people were looking at me with such love and admiration.
“What’s on your head?” she asked. Apparently, when Richard took the picture with me, a large clump of his light brown pancake makeup stuck to my forehead, a souvenir I wasn’t planning on receiving. “Oh, that’s what everybody was looking at,” I muttered.
Quite the hand the crowd wound up with that day…two kings and a joker!