The Video that is not Little Richard as a Child Performer, or, How to Unfail Musicology One Post at a Time

June 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm 33 comments

Oh, the internet.

It is an amazing resource for research: the perusal of on-line indexes and archives, locating out-of-press recordings and movies on YouTube, discovering random memorabilia on eBay.   Nearly the entire run of the Boston Globe just became available via ProQuest.  It allowed me to find a photograph of Isaac Goldberg (George Gershwin’s first biographer) at his 1905 high school commencement.* Amazing.

But, as we know, instant access leads to misinformation.  Google in particular easily leads people astray.  See the results of Ann Curry’s commencement speech or the flub made by a Fox News by using an image of Tina Fey for a story about Sarah Palin.  See also, countless student papers and test answers that embrace a similar cut-and-paste approach to research.

The results are frustrating and increasingly difficult to combat, especially given the nature of information exchange in the twenty-first century.  Today’s rapid-fire on-line interactions provide ample opportunity for misinformation to go “viral.”  Take, for example, the pacifistic quotation attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the days following the death of Osama Bin Laden.  It turned out to be a fake, though not identified as such before ubiquitous postings to Facebook–at least among my group of friends–made it appear as “fact.”

I recently received an email along similar lines that piqued my musicological interest.  It was an email forward containing a link to a video claiming to feature a rare film appearance by Little Richard as a child.

Click through and take a look:  http://www.wimp.com/oldschool/

Talented kid, no doubt.  But Little Richard it ain’t.   As indicated by the link at the bottom of the page on which this video appears, the clip is from a 1946 film titled No Leave, No Love staring Van Johnson.  Little Richard (aka Richard Wayne Penniman) was born in 1932, which would have made him about 12 at the time.  The pianist in this clip looks a bit younger.  Some Googling reveals that I haven’t been the only one to question the identity of this performer.

Image from varietyinblack.tumblr.com

It turns out that this is Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson (b. 1938) a little-known boogie-woogie pianist who was only 8 when he appeared in No Leave, No Love. He was dubbed a prodigy at an early age, which earned him the opportunity to perform with legends such as Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.  He left show business at the age of 14 to pursue his education, an intriguing choice given his talent and popularity. He went on to earn a PhD in psychology.  He is still alive, resides in Detroit, and plays the piano publicly from time to time.

The song featured in this supposed Little Richard video–“Caldonia”–was first recorded by the esteemed Louis Jordan in 1945.  It is about a girl with “big feet” who is “long, lean, and lanky,” thereby not conforming to expected standards of beauty.  Nonetheless, we are informed: “She’s my baby and I love her just the same.”  “Suger Chile” Robinson’s filmic performance closely replicates Jordan’s recording, right down to a spoken dialogue interlude.  In both we learn that Caldonia doesn’t meet his mother’s approval to which he not-so-subtly retorts: “But momma didn’t know what Caldonia was puttin’ down.” Although it isn’t Little Richard, it is easy to imagine him offering a similar performance.

And that is the allure of this video.  Little Richard remains a well-known figure, a household name, whose fame derives from his on-stage persona, frenetic piano playing, and high-energy vocal performances of draws.  This video reveals such qualities in their supposed infancy: banging out boogie-woogie figures with fingers, fists, and elbows; delivering dialogue direct to the (white) audience while riffing through a chorus; there is even a punctuated, high-pitched “woo!”

Because of the star power of Little Richard’s name and public expectations of what he sounded like in his youth, this video has gone viral.   From what I can surmise, Richard’s name was attached to this video in late May (though it has been online for several years).  Doubtless, the clip would not have circulated as widely recently without such association.  I don’t know how many times the video has been accessed via the email circulating whimp.com link.  But it has nearly 800,000 facebook “likes,” suggesting the likelihood of several million views.

Academics constantly lament misinformation.  As we (and our students) become ever more tethered to the internet, we must find ways to deal with misinformation beyond just pointing it out or complaining.  I think it is interesting to consider why such misinformation is so appealing, why it persists.  Furthermore, in a world where a new multimillion-hit recording “artist” emerges every “Friday” it seems more urgent than ever to think about how the history of music is being represented and written online.

Though I’m a bit tired of the term, this “Sugar Chile” Robinson video provides a “teachable moment.”  Here we have a document that brings an obscure figure to light, even if under false pretenses.  We have the opportunity to correct the record and bring forward more information about Robinson.  As I mentioned, he is still alive.  As a result of this new-found publicity, it would be nice if someone would the time to do a formal interview with him.  I’m looking to you, musicological friends at the University of Michigan.

A final thought:  There has been a lot of talk on the American Musicological Society’s email list-serve about the “failure of musicology on a national level” and what can be done to correct this.  Bloggers are already on the case.  They write on events and scholarship daily–not everyone at once, but that’s what keeps it interesting.  It may not be as glitzy as the Sunday  “New York Times” but it has the potential to reach even greater portions of the population.

Amusicology is always accepting guest posts.  Our motto is “Musicology in 1,000 Words or Less.”  Please be in touch!

-Ryan Raul Bañagale-

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* If you have access to ProQuest, here is a link to that document.

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Acknowledgements That Didn’t Make It Into The Dissertation Better Late than Never: Musicology Job Wiki Roundup 2011

33 Comments

  • 1. Jake  |  June 10, 2011 at 1:59 am

    there’s something horribly weird about watching an 8 year old play Caldonia, whose lyrics are a thinly veiled sexual reference.

    he plays with his fists – Ives would be proud

  • 2. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  June 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Jake: agreed.

    But the sexual undertones of the song contribute mightily to the supposed vision of Little Richard as a child that this clip promotes. A different song might have lead to a different missidentification completely.

    I hear Ives was a big fan of the film. [This is how internet rumors get started...]

  • 3. Announcer Ace  |  June 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I did research some Van Johnson movies trying to find a reference, but struck out. Given the wealth of mis-quotes and phony attributions laid on the internet by idiots with no sense of truth or knowledge, these was just another that seemed out of proper spacial and temporal balance. I thank you for this link.

    Now, I have to twitter a senator to remind him the potato should go in the front.

  • 4. Announcer Ace  |  June 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I should probably proof-read and correct my own post first…

  • 5. Chester Davolt  |  June 17, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I for one am glad we found the true identiy of the this performer
    and wish the Best. Hope he gets some notiriety for such a great performance

  • 6. Lucille  |  June 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I was suspicious from the get-go. Little Richard’s father was a preacher and as such banned virtually any music not strictly devotional. It caused a huge rift between father and son for many years. I agree with others: A child singing a song with sexual implications made my skin crawl.

  • 7. Frank Gado  |  June 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Louis Jordan, OK, but the rendition I remember was by Little Jimmy Rushing.

  • 8. Eli M. Marcus  |  June 24, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Thank you for that well researched item.
    I just received this video clip today, and already the sparks of conjecture were flying in our little Blues lovers community…
    I’m glad someone has the common sense to publish the facts.

  • 9. Joe in Brooklyn  |  June 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Great piece.

    Someone emailed me the link this afternoon and my first reaction was “Huh? Little Richard was in an MGM musical in the mid-1940′s with some of the studio’s biggest stars, and it’s never been mentioned in all the articles about him and interviews I’ve seen over the years? People are only discovering this now?” Plus I didn’t think the kid looked like him.

    Announcer Ace, if you pull up the movie title on the All Movie Guide or the IMBd and go to Cast & Crew you will see that Frank “Sugarchile” Robinson is credited as the “Boy Piano Player.”

  • 10. Joe in Brooklyn  |  June 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Oops, that should have said IMDb

  • 11. jazmaan  |  June 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    On a slightly weirder tangent, what is likely the earliest existing video footage of Jimi Hendrix was discovered (by me) last month, in a video of Little Richard appearing on American Bandstand!

    Jimi is on the left at 1:29 into the clip.

    While the discovery is not without some controversy, the majority consensus is that this is indeed Jimi Hendrix in a Buckingham Palace Guardsman costume!

  • 12. cultivatedstyle  |  June 29, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I recently posted a piece on Little Richard on my page, I am a huge Richard fan.

    I, too, have seen this becoming misquoted and attributed to Penniman! Also, that is for sure Hendrix!

    Hendrix got his start playing guitar for Richard, and also picked up a thing or two about dress from him.

    For my editorial on Richard check it out here:

    http://cultivatedstyle.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/little-richard-a-study-of-ego-and-being-fabulous-in-american-music/

  • 13. Jay Davidson  |  July 12, 2011 at 11:24 am

    I really can’t afford one second to care about the accuracy of something I posted on Facebook. I’ve assumed the style of most politicians insofar as putting uncorroborated shit up. Oh well, back to actually playing and creating some art of my own- without Little Richard or Sugar Chile….and without Van Johnson.

  • 14. Yasas A.  |  July 18, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Dr. Bañagale,

    I am a new fan Amusicology. Enjoy reading these articles very much.

    A little correction, those 800,000 something likes on Facebook are for the wimp.com website’s fan page. Not for this video.
    You might be right about this video having so many views though.

    Hope to read more like these. Thanks.

  • 15. iam4peace  |  July 20, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I received the misinformation in an internet email ten minutes ago and now found the correct information in an internet google search. Thank you for setting the record straight. An amazing performance. Now I can go see if I can “like” Sugar Chile Robinson . . .

  • 16. Barbara F. Wallace  |  July 22, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Yes in deed.

  • 17. Big Cheese  |  August 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    There’s nothing in the clip that claims this is Little Richard. When I get any link in an e-mail from somebody making these kinds of claims, without providing proof, my first response is to do a search and prove it, one way or the other.

    For instance, I discovered just in time 18 years ago that Bill Gates was not going to send me $5000 for forwarding this message to everyone I know. Okay, I’m lying. Sure he will. Go ahead — try it. ;)

  • 18. Toni Bushnell  |  September 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    many believe it is LITTLE RICHARD…….a music teacher friend sent it to me, she shares with her class that it is little richard………great lesson for teachers/students and everyone….CHECK YOUR SOURCES/RESOURCES…..DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE ON THE INTERNET and read the information on the video carefully

    as a teacher I am always telling students to check and recheck sources/resources and information and to NEVER, NEVER, EVER BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE ON THE INTERNET

    SHAKING A FINGER AT MYSELF——-> bad teacher, bad, bad, bad, teacher…LOL

  • 19. Chuck  |  January 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    All you have to do is look at the movie credits. The piano player is Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson who played with Lionel Hampton. He had a pretty good career and played for then President Truman.

  • 20. M Dawn  |  February 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    The name of the child is : Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson

    Sugar – Boy Piano Player

  • 21. Cheryl SImpson  |  March 18, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Sugar Chile Robinson:

  • 22. Flo Murdock  |  April 3, 2012 at 5:31 am

    One more bit of debunking is necessary – 46-32 does not equal 12.

  • 23. Alistair  |  April 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    And Little Richard was actually born on 5th Dec 1935 (not 1932) – just over 2 months after Jerry Lee Lewis was born, and just under 11 months after Elvis was born.

  • 24. William  |  May 12, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for the truth. It’s hard to find on the internet.

  • 25. strathdee  |  May 23, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Thanks so much for setting the record straight. Sugar Chile Robinson deserves his due – I think Little Richard is doing quite well without this “boost”.

  • 26. Gladys Kravitz  |  July 13, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Who did the math here? If Little Richard was born in 1932, then he would’ve been 14 in 1946, not 12. Seems like more proof that this young boy isn’t Little Richard. Simple math.

  • 27. RompinRonny  |  September 11, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    here are relevant links to movie and Chile Robinson:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038779/
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0732630/
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0732630/bio

  • 28. Alfonso Anzures Jr.  |  January 26, 2013 at 5:45 am

    Like Gladys Kravitz, above, I also noticed the math error but thought maybe the movie was made in 1944 and released in 1946. Still, I get lots of emails from friends that don’t check/verify what they’re sending and accept most things as true. Pretty sad. Even if I send them “proof” or question the validity of the email, most don’t seem to care. I guess ignorance is bliss.

  • 29. strathdee  |  January 26, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Thus, the myth about Little Richard / Sugar Chile is perpetuated …

  • 30. Richard  |  January 28, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Your whole theory here is based on the premise that LR was born in 1932. My source (Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles) says 1935 – and he’s published well beyond an inet blog. Who ya gonna believe?

  • 31. midnightman84  |  February 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Richard, Joel Whitburn also said Elvis had 18 number-one hits on the Top 100/Hot 100 when he had 14 (which isn’t a shabby number). Plus Little Richard himself said he was born in 1932 so that settles it. Also it’s laughable anyone would believe a local church boy from Macon, Georgia would’ve traveled to California to do a film spot for MGM Films LOL anyone that knows about music and films of that period will know Little Richard wasn’t in this. Besides, he was still in high school around this time.

  • 32. Teri Dunham  |  April 19, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    OMG what difference does it make…. I thought and believed it was Little Richard” because the kid was talented… The talent is the thing… So it was Sugar Chile…. he was a very talented kid…. I got this as an email and was blown away that a little kid could play this great….

  • 33. Paul Zingrone  |  May 10, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Goodness gracious! how so many can be so blind. Yes, it is Little Richard in the first clip stated here (Van Johnson) and no, it’s not him in the second clip, which is Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson. Forget the ‘facts’, use your eyes – and ears.


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