Elvis’s two greatest contemporaries were Little Richard and Buddy Holly, each standing at either end of the spectrum upon which nonsense flourished. The Memphis King claimed the middle ground between his rivals’ two extremes: the strategic outrageousness of Richard Wayne Penniman, the original Black Weirdo, bursting every seam apparently for the hell of it, but really as a way of sharing subterranean secrets of two centuries’ worth of racial and sexual nonconformists; and the shy, bespectacled Charles Hardin Holley, archetypal White Nerd, stumbling over his words and music as a way of pushing them into shape. Little Richard represented what happens to unspeakable desires after they’ve been dug out of the dirt where society buried them. Buddy Holly’s singing embodied desire in formation: thoughts that seem unspeakable because they’ve never been spoken before. Elvis came off as wiser than Holly and more innocent than Little Richard. All of them had the same basic mandate – to turn fearful feelings into fun.
Richard Penniman was uncontainable from the beginning of his life in Macon, Ga., a little queer boy whose penchant for dressing “beautiful” scared his father but whose precocious piano playing saved him from utter marginalization or an even worse fate. Inspired by gospel music and jump blues, he developed a vocal style that was, above all, loud. When a band touring through the South picked him up as a singer, his father finally granted approval of Richard’s pompadour hairstyle – because that’s how artists looked, after all. His early life as an entertainer included tours with drag queens, minstrel shows and girls who would, as he said to his biographer Charles White in the early 1980s, “roll their bellies and stuff” – Little Egypt’s granddaughters carrying exotica into the nuclear age.
Unsurprisingly given the company he was keeping, Richard developed a wild act on the road and made a bunch of relatively successful rhythm and blues sides for labels like Peacock and RCA-Victor. But by the autumn of 1955 he was still mostly a Deep South sensation, and when he entered Cosimo Matassa’s famous J&M Studios in New Orleans with producer Bumps Blackwell nothing was working. Richard felt uptight. He couldn’t get noisy enough. Only when he and the studio musicians took a break at the nearby Dew Drop Inn and Richard decided to show off by playing a very dirty number that made the queens go wild in drag bars did Blackwell hear the lunacy that he knew the singer could deliver.