Long hair. Facial hair. British Rock. Bell-bottoms. Free love. Potheads. Burning bras. Burning draft cards. Acid Rock. Acid casualties.
By 1969 popular culture couldn't have been more distant from what it had been in Little Richard's heyday of the 1950s. Contrary to what aging '60s Boomers choose to remember, the '50s were not only about rosy-cheeked all-American innocence. No siree, at a venue like the Brooklyn Paramount, a performer like Little Richard could incite his teenage audience into a seat-slashing, fist-fighting, aisle-dancing orgy, ranging from joy to violence at the flash of a switchblade.
But after several years of increasingly self-important Rock-as-Art, there was a longing in 1969 for something more basic, something that did not need the approval of Rolling Stone critics. Hcll, in Little Richard's day, the very notion of a "rock critic" would've been laughable.
Something was in the wind. It wasn't just the nostalgia of rock 'n' roll 's first generation of War Babies, now grown up and supporting families. In August an appearance at the Woodstock Festival by a group of Columbia University '50s parodists calling themselves Sha Na Na, despite their snarky intentions, charmed a couple hundred thousand stoned-out hippies. Kids found themselves wanting something simple, music to make them happy. The stage was being set for a revival ... a rock 'n'roll revival.
At the time. Richard hadn' t been on the charts in any meaningful way in over a decade and was searching for a way to remain viable. He still drew crowds. Hc was a favorite on The Johnny Carson Show, always looking outrageous in his current Bronze Liberace persona, always saying something crazy ("Shut UP!"'). CaThOn lov",t! him. But black audiences were into James Brown and Aretha Franklin. And the white kids were listening to this _.. this stulf He needed to do s.omething impactfuL
That something turned out to be a September 13 concert at Varsity Stadium in Toronto - one month after Woodstock - which was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, who'd documented Bob Dylan in his film Don't Look Back. Billed as the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival (aka Toronto Peace Festival), the show, which wound up lasting over 13 hours before some 20,000 fans, featured such seminal rockers as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. along with contemporary acts such as The Doors, Chicago Transit Authority, Tony l oe While and Alice Cooper. lohn Lennon and wife Yoko Ono, the King and Queen of hippiedom, were asked to host, but decided to perform themselves as the Plastic Ono Band, leading to confusion over the order of appearances,
For his part, Richard seemed determined to make sure it would be impossible for Lennon ~ who had not performed before a large audience in over three years - to upstage him. Refusing to go on until all the stadium lights were extinguished, he demanded, for his entrance, a single lead spot. Backstage his valet brought out his most outrageous mirrored jumpsuit. Richard put on his biggest, craziest wig and piled on the makeup, grooming himself as "the prettiest man in show business."
Moving into the driving riff of "Lucille," Richard pulled out all the stops, digging deep into his signature bag of tricks, jumping up on the piano and inviting the audience onstage to dance. Those tried-and-true show biz tricks worked, driving 20,000 fans into a mad frenzy, as Richard had always done. Only this time he worked thm crowd with a vengeance.
Using his gospel-flavored zeal to whip the crowd into a lather, Richard put on a riotous show that resurrected the red-hot energy of original rock ' n' roll. Hits such as "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Tutti-Frutti" and "Keep A Knockin'" came fast and furious as Richard took command orthe stage with hi s fervent declanlations and flamboyant antics. At one point he tore ofThis mirrored s hirt and flung it into the audience, where it was promptly tom to shreds by fans looking to get a piece of his greatness. Whatever his intentions when he took the stagl':, Richard concluded by firmly staking his claim as the rock 'n' roll originator that he was.
One month later Richard would appear at Richard Nader's first Rock 'N' Roll Revival Spectacular show at New York's Madison Square Garden, kicking off several years of '50s mania that emerged in movies such as American Graffiti and TV shows like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, The public's thirst for nostalgia would mean revived interest and big bucks for '50s rockers such as Little Richard ~ although his career would take numerous turns as he continued to waver between the life of a musician and his religious inclinations.