By the time I started listening to Charlie Parker, he’d been dead for five or six years. I was in my early teens, too young to have heard “Parker’s Mood” and “Ko Ko” and the rest of his music as it emerged, first as 78s on the Savoy and Dial labels and then on Verve albums, interacting in real time with everything else around it. That didn’t stop me forming opinions and eventually writing about it. But it was a long time before I realised that older listeners might consider their opinions to be worth more than mine, simply by virtue of their perspective on the music’s initial impact.
I think the penny dropped in the 1970s during a bad-tempered exchange of letters with Derek Jewell, then the jazz and pop critic of the Sunday Times. Twenty years older than me, he tried put me in my place by telling me that he’d been listening to Parker’s records when they were new, while doing his national service in, if I remember correctly, the RAF. With the arrogance of youth, I answered back. But I did so with the uneasy recognition that, however much we both loved Parker’s music, his feelings about it might be intrinsically different from mine, his connection more intimate.
Now, half a century later, it’s my turn to have the sort of feelings that underpinned his words. Occasionally I find myself wondering how someone in their twenties or thirties today can possibly understand the music of Jimi Hendrix, or Martha and the Vandellas, or Albert Ayler, or Anne Briggs, or Curtis Mayfield, or Laura Nyro the way I think I do. I mean, you had to discover “Heat Wave”. “Quicksand”, “Live Wire”, In My Lonely Room”, “Dancing in the Street”, “Wild One” and “Nowhere to Run” in sequence, at the time, to make proper sense of them, didn’t you?
Soon nobody alive will know how it felt to experience that music as it came into the world, all brand new. But people will still want to have opinions about it. And there’s a possibility — heavens above! — that their opinions will be just as valid as mine, and possibly a lot more interesting.
This came home to me while watching Lisa Cortés’s new documentary about Little Richard in order to review it for Uncut magazine (seen above in a page from the June issue). I found it an extraordinary piece of work, on two levels. First, and most obvious, is the enduring charisma of Richard himself, who sets fire to the screen every time he’s shown either performing or giving an interview. The second and more unexpected level is the one on which it made me listen to the director’s choice of talking heads: young academics of colour, female and male, some gay, from American institutions, discussing Richard in terms of his self-presentation — derived from a sexually fluid segment of the black entertainment world — and its wider impact.
White rock critics of my generation, in other words the sort of people who generally get rolled out for such projects, are conspicuous by their absence from this project. But, as I say in the review, I listened to the views of Zandria Robinson, Fredara Hadley, Jason King and others, threaded throughout Little Richard: I Am Everything, with the feeling that I was hearing a new kind of voice discussing a familiar subject from a different and extremely valuable perspective. It gave me a jolt, but an inspiring one.
It’s possible that none of those young academics could list Richard’s first half-dozen Specialty singles in chronological order. Certainly none is anywhere near old enough to remember the precise cultural explosion each one caused on its release, just as I’ll never know how it felt to absorb Duke Ellington’s compositions as they emerged, one after another, on 78s in the 1920s and ’30s. But at this stage, perhaps there are more interesting things to know, and more important things to be said.
* Little Richard: I Am Everything is in selected UK cinemas on 28 April. The June issue of Uncut is out now.