The Video that is not Little Richard as a Child Performer, or, How to Unfail Musicology One Post at a Time
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.
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-
* If you have access to ProQuest, here is a link to that document.
Entry filed under: musicologists, musicology, Ryan Raul Bañagale. Tags: american music, Little Richard, Louis Jordan, musicological meme, musicologists, musicology, Performance, popular music, Sugar Chile Robinson, viral video.