The Night Little Richard Reminded America He Was the True King of Rock
In 1988, the legend took the stage at the Grammys not to accept an award, but to give one — and to demand what he deserved
In the late 1980s, Little Richard became a sought-after guest in movies and on television shows — a reversal of sorts after a long, difficult period. The bulk of the ’70s had been hard on the legend; the rock and roll revival circuit didn’t take well to him, and as the decade wore on, his notoriously high-energy shows became marred by sluggishness and vocal issues. He’d complain about the lighting and the microphones. He was weighed down by drugs and alcohol and years of partying. By 1977, he returned to the comforts of the lord, releasing the 1979 gospel album God’s Beautiful City before going silent. But in 1985, Charles Wright’s biography Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard reignited public interest in Richard, who stepped back out into the world, insisting on reconciling his faith, music, and public persona. It gave him new life and a new audience to appeal to.
In these late-’80s guest appearances, there were those who would become enamored with his comedic timing: the way you might not know what he would say or do next, or the way he could beat even the best comedians to the punch. The work was undoubtedly a blessing, but there are also drawbacks to the caricaturing of the self, even if it isn’t intentional. An audience, trembling with laughter, might forget they are the punchline. They’ll be laughing so loud that they might forget to check for the truth underneath the joke. So it was at the 1988 Grammy Awards, when Little Richard was tapped to present the Best New Artist Grammy.
Richard had never won a Grammy, nor had he ever been nominated for one. While a good portion of his most well-known tunes were recorded and released before the Grammy Awards were established in 1958, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was first given in 1963, with the stated mission to highlight “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of…