Little Richard, from gospel singer to Jewish star

Little Richard started as a gospel singer but converted to Judaism in the 1980. Gerald Jacobs recalls an encounter with the star


I’ll always associate Little Richard, who died last weekend at the age of 87, with the first time I heard the phrase: “It’s more than my job’s worth.” But more of that later. Most astonishingly, the Macon, Georgia-born former gospel singer, “Little” Richard Penniman, the most flamboyant of all rock stars …was Jewish.

He seems to have converted around 1985, in which year, when filming Down and Out in Beverly Hills, he dumbfounded its Jewish director Paul Mazursky by refusing to work on a Friday evening because it was “Shabbos”.

Not long after that film was made, LR was severely injured in a car crash. He was treated at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and later told journalists: “All I remembered when I awakened was I was in a Jewish hospital and I said: ‘Thank God’.” He was visited there by his “blood brother” Bob Dylan, who, LR told an interviewer, “spent seven hours at my bedside talking about the importance of keeping the Sabbath”. On several subsequent occasions, Richard spoke of keeping kosher and attending synagogue.

The self-styled “originator”, Little Richard was the most influential of rock musicians. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and David Bowie were all devotees.

As was my schoolfriend Gilmour, with whom I once went to see the great man perform on the stage of a huge South London cinema. At the height of his act, Richard sang while standing on top of his piano. Suddenly, he tumbled to the floor. Pandemonium. The whole audience was on its feet. Stagehands rushed in from the wings, one with a microphone pleading: “Is there a doctor in the house?” I was more concerned for Gilmour’s health than Little Richard’s, so shaken was he. Then we saw that the singer was whispering into the microphone. And sitting up. And getting louder. And leaping up. And… wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!

Afterwards, Gilmour insisted we went to the stage door to see his idol. Eventually, he came out and sat in the front of a coach waiting to take him and the band to a party at the home of another rock legend, Gene Vincent who, implausibly, lived in Kent. Richard wasn’t altogether well. He had a cold and, in another piece of incongruity, was sticking a Vicks inhaler into his nostril. But the front passenger door was open and he chatted to the two of us amiably and invited us to Gene Vincent’s party! (We were about 14.)

And that was the point at which the coach driver informed us that it would have been more than his job was worth to allow us aboard.

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