Little Richard on The Magic School Bus
If Little Richard hadn’t had such a forceful public persona, he’d surely have been forgotten from the history of rock. That we remember Little Richard as the pioneer that he was is due to his singular talent for self-promotion, and larger-than-life personality. Had Richard Wayne Penniman been more of a shrinking violet off the stage, he’d have gotten lost in the in our collective memories for being, as the Guardian put it, too black, too queer, and too holy; in other words, too hard to categorize.
There was a moment at the 1988 Grammys when Little Richard was presenting the award for best new artist, alongside protopunk pioneer David Johansen. Little Richard went spectacularly off-script, declaring himself the winner, and gave the Academy an earful for not giving him his due. The awkward moment was short-lived, as Little Richard revealed himself to be too classy to pull a Kanye, and announced the real winner.
Anyone who argued that he had been given his due was missing the point. He had been, but only because of stunts like that. In the 90s, when Little Richard should’ve been secure in his position in the pantheon of inventors of rock ‘n’ roll, he was still working for it. In that context, it would be easy to infer a degree of calculation from his decision to write and record a theme song for a children’s show. He recorded other kids' songs around that time; it sure felt like he was targeting a younger audience, not just playing the role of a hired gun musician.
But it worked. I was a part of The Magic School Bus generation, and I was aware of Little Richard far earlier than I was aware of any of his contemporaries. I was aware he was a rock star from before my mom and dad were born, but nothing about him seemed old. He was paranormal, immortal, most likely a vampire. When he passed away in 2020 at the age of 87, the media carried sober cookie-cutter obituaries, but it was people my age remembering that he sang The Magic School Bus theme.