BOP BOPA-A-LU A WHOP BAM BOO! HOW LITTLE RICHARD MADE ROCK AND ROLL HISTORY IN NEWCASTLE

Little Richard Advertisement (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Tuesday, 1 October 1957, Page 10)

 

Video contains two segments of interviews with Little Richard recorded in 1984 and 1986 where he relates the story of his conversion from Rock to Religion whilst on board a ferry to an Australian town, during his 1957 tour of Australia. Interview sources:  David Hinton – South Bank Show – March 1985 (Please note that this documentary contains the interview recorded on the 18th December 1984 at Radio Station KCRW by hosts Tom Schnabel and Roger Steffens with Little Richard, and his biographer Charles “Dr. Rock” White. Please hear the radio interview here: https://www.kcrw.com/music/shows/music-special/little-richard-interview-1984-beatles-piano-performance). The second source is Little Richard Interviewed by Joan Rivers on 5 March 1986.

John Laws relates his eyewitness account of Little Richard throwing his jewellery into Newcastle Harbour on the Stockton Ferry, October 1957. Excerpt from 2SM Super Network “The John Laws Morning Show” 11 May 2020 – Full Broadcast here: https://2smsupernetwork.com/the-john-laws-morning-show-for-may-11th-2020/

 

BOP BOPA-A-LU A WHOP BAM BOO! HOW LITTLE RICHARD MADE ROCK AND ROLL HISTORY IN NEWCASTLE

Roland Bannister

I’m old enough to remember the kerfuffle that followed rock star Little Richard’s spectacularly successful concerts[1] at the old Newcastle Stadium in 1957, and his celebrated re-commitment to his childhood Christianity while he was here. The story of these events has been told, and retold, in Rock and Roll histories for half-a-century now. In Newcastle the story is still a barbeque stopper. A decade ago Herald journalist Alison Branley[2] listed Little Richard’s package as one of the ten biggest acts to visit the Hunter, ever.

The story is that, in a characteristically theatrical rejection of his decadent ways, Little Richard announced his sudden renewed commitment to God and confirmed his faith by throwing his valuable rings into Newcastle harbour. He cut short his Australian tour and returned to the US to train as a preacher.

The problem is that the detail of the story changes with just about every re-telling – sometimes to the point of absurdity and despite the many references we’ve read over the years, hard evidence for the story has been elusive. I asked the Newcastle Herald’s history writer, Mike Scanlon, what he knew. Mike wrote: “The story […] has always been mainly based on hearsay … [it] emerged …, as an item of nostalgia … I’d be happier if there was … documentation … verifying it [has been] difficult.”[3]

I’ve made serious effort to gather the facts, to find documentary evidence, and I’m convinced that the broad outline of the story is right. It is time now to nail down a few truths about this yarn.

Precisely when and where Little Richard made this gesture has long been the subject of debate. Some say he threw his jewellry from the old vehicular ferry, others the passenger ferry, others from Carrington Bridge, and in one bizarre telling of the story, Jeff Apter writes – in his 2013 biography of Johnny O’Keefe – that Little Richard and members of his band were playing cards and drinking on a train during Richard’s visit to Newcastle, and ‘As the train crossed the Hunter, Richard opened the window, and … threw [his jewellery] away’. Train crossing the Hunter? There is no railway line across the Hunter, near Newcastle.

Broadcaster John Laws says that he travelled with the tour: he and the Dee Jays saxophonist John Greenan both say that they were with Little Richard on the ferry when he threw his rings into the Hunter.

So, why were the Dee Jays with Little Richard here in Newcastle? Little Richard’s advertised support acts were Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley ‘the female Elvis’. But the Gene Vincent group were off-loaded at Honolulu airport, some say because their papers were not in order, but others say that they were jettisoned because their behaviour was not up-to-scratch. In any case they missed the first concert of the tour on 1 October, in Wollongong. In what is now part of Australian music history, Johnny O’Keefe and his Dee Jays were engaged to substitute for Gene Vincent, and so J O’K, The Wild One, a devotee of Little Richard, came to fame. While his name does not appear in forward advertising, the Newcastle Morning Herald’s review (3 October 1957) mentions that ‘…the entertainers on stage [included] Johnny O’Keefe and his Dee-Jays (an Australian combination)’. It seems to me that J O’K and the Dee Jays travelled and performed with Little Richard just for the fun of it: like many young Australians, they were smitten by the magic of Little Richard’s performance.

For those cynics who might pose the ‘so what’ question, we can say that Little Richard ‘s withdrawal from the Rock scene brought serious consequences. The Little Richard tour was shaping up as one of legendary promoter Lee Gordon’s most successful Big Shows. Little Richard ‘s sudden partial- exit must have cost Lee Gordon heaps. Arguably, Little Richard’s retreat had a profound impact on the history of Rock and Roll. He left the scene wide open for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and the other great performers of those days. And, as this event has been regarded as a turning point in popular music, it links Newcastle and Australia to the wider world of 1950’s popular culture. It also ignites the career of Johnny O’Keefe, our first great Aussie rocker.

So, Mike’s answer seemed to confirm the worst. The rings-in-the-harbour story seems not to have been reported in newspapers back then. But then, neither was the fact that Little Richard, scandalously, cancelled his second pair of Newcastle concerts about 48 hours before the advertised starting time – without notice, and without explanation, probably, it seems, because he’d seen the light! I remember this well. Fans were mightily cheesed off: adverts had appeared in the Newcastle Herald on the Monday and the Wednesday before the Friday of the concert. If the cancellation did not make the papers, why would the ring throwing episode do so?

In some of his remaining Australian concerts, Little Richard made – to the consternation of his fans – overt demonstrations of religious witness, distributing pamphlets and preaching his beliefs. He spoke of this new commitment in his pre-recorded radio interview with Jack Davey the following week. But the Newcastle Herald’s colourful and noisy review of the concert makes no mention of religion. So, it is most likely that Little Richard saw the light sometime soon after the concert.

I’ve found two bits of persuasive Little-Richard-in-Newcastle evidence – evidence that the ring throwing event did occur, and a hint of where it occurred. Firstly: in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 August 1958 – just 10 months after the event – in a damning review of a Johnny O’Keefe composition, we read – wait for it – ‘[the composition] sounds like the day Little Richard threw his rings over the Newcastle bridge’. Local man Ray Caves’ memory of these events supports this view. Ray told the Newcastle Herald’s Tim Connell that Little Richard threw his rings while he and his mates were on a search for alcohol – straight after the concert. And Ray, recalling those events, says that he threw them from the ‘Carrington Bridge’.

Do we read ‘bridge’? Well, yes, we do, and that is what Little Richard says too, in at least one of his several tellings: in his authorised biography of 2003, he says that he threw his rings off ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’. Sydney?!

Tim Connell asks Little Richard, in a Newcastle Herald piece, to set us right on this story. But, beware, Tim! Little Richard is not, in earthly matters anyway, into ‘truth’: he uses a kind of Rock poetry speak, in which his own reminiscences are often contradictory or just factually wrong. In a web posting of 2012 he forgets the bridge and reverts to ‘Sydney ferry’, as the site of the event. Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo! Little Richard! Where is truth?

Gionni di Gravio, Archivist at the University of Newcastle, reports that ABC1233’s Garth Russell interviewed John Laws in October 2017 about Little Richard’s epiphany. Gionni was so excited by what he heard that he made a note of it. ‘This is an eye witness confirmation that Little Richard “saw the light” on the Stockton Ferry, half way across the river’, Gionni told me in an email. According to Laws, after Little Richard said ‘I have seen the light’ he took his rings from his fingers and threw them overboard. ‘How’s that for the best Newcastle story ever?’ Gionni asks, and of course he is right. According to Laws Little Richard and his band were crossing the river to do a charity show at the Stockton Mental Hospital.

In summary, the evidence suggests that Little Richard’s epiphany occurred here in Newcastle, on the Stocko Ferry, something that old-timers like me have known for six decades. This key event in Rock and Roll history did happen, right here in Newcastle.

Little Richard became Pastor Richard Penniman and remains a cleric to this day, and he continued to perform as a rocker until just a few years ago. After his conversion, Little Richard opted in and out of the pop music scene for five decades. He made a number of religious records from 1959 but re-emerged for a particularly energetic secular period followed the Beatles’ recording of his Long Tall Sally in 1964. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, was the officiating cleric at the weddings of celebrities including that of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis in 1987, and you can watch him on YouTube singing Good Golly Miss Molly at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential Inaugural Gala, and Tutti Frutti (Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo!) at Mohammed Ali’s fiftieth birthday celebration in 1992.

Finally, readers can enjoy a 2013 clip of the great man, at the piano, seated in an outrageous – his favourite word to describe himself – wheelchair replete with extravagant ornamentation, on stage in Vegas, belting out Tutti Frutti, at age 80. Now, at 87 years of age, he says that he is committed to taking it easy.

Dr Roland Bannister is an ethnomusicologist who lives in Newcastle

LittleRichardHerald571010 (1)
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Thursday 10 October 1957, Page 14

Picture caption

At the time of Little Richard’s 1957 Australian tour, the Russians launched Sputnik I – the world’s first satellite – and Britain continued its series of A-bomb tests centred on Maralinga in the South Australian desert. The civil rights movement was generating social foment in America. Little Richard, spooked by these phenomena, turned to religion and cancelled some of his remaining Australian concerts. He simply did a ‘no show’ for his return concert as advertised here in the Newcastle Herald.

A former Mayfield resident recalls that a ‘Russian Satellite’ did appear in Dangar Park for the Mayfield Spring Festival. She suspects it was made by locals from several 44-gallon drums.

_____________________________

Contact: Roland Bannister 0403 324 487

rsbannister@gmail.com

Roland Bannister
402 The Essington Apartments
26 Pacific Street
Newcastle NSW 2300

 

[1] There were performances at 6.00 pm and at 8.45 pm.

[2] Newcastle Herald 7 September, 2013. Branley lists in random order what she sees as the 10 ‘biggest acts’ events in Newcastle’s history: Henry Lawson (1884), Mark Twain (1895), Queen Elizabeth (1954), David Beckham (2010), Sting with SSO (2011), Elton John (2007 & 2011), the Wiggles (several visits including 2013), Don Bradman who played cricket here 4 times in 1930s. Branley somewhat dubiously includes Mary McKillop’s intervention on behalf of a Windale woman (at a distance, and posthumously – she never actually came to Newcastle) on her list of ten. Then of course there’s Little Richard’s 1957 visit.

[3] Email 15 September 2013

 

Postscript  (revised 12 June 2020)

The announcement of his death on 9 May 2020 triggered a frenzy of interest in Little Richard’s life and music. There are endless versions of the story of his 1957 visit to Newcastle and his re-commitment to Christianity while he was here. Some accounts of these events are wildly inaccurate, while others are valuable despite some obvious errors. We felt it important to document the actual events as accurately as we could.

The nub of the story is: Little Richard had been seriously considering entering the church from at least the beginning of 1957. In the six months before he came to Australia he made a number of announcements about his intentions and several performances were advertised as his ‘final concerts’ before retiring to train as a preacher.

His re-commitment to the church of his childhood was a considered, gradual process, rather than a sudden or spontaneous epiphany. But his flamboyant response to provocation by Clifford Burks (Little Richard’s saxophone player) who taunted that if you are sincere about serving God, get rid of your rings was spur-of-the-moment and Little Richard later said he regretted his costly action even at the moment he was doing it.

Little Richard and The Big Show concert party, Johnny O’Keefe and some of his Dee Jays, and radio announcer John Laws were on a bus on the vehicular Ferry that ran across the Hunter River between Newcastle and Stockton, on 3 October 1957. This was the day after his Newcastle concert and they were on their way to play a charity concert at Stockton Mental Hospital before flying from Williamtown to Brisbane – probably on a chartered aircraft – for their evening performance.

Strangely, we have been able to find only one more-or-less contemporary Australian reference to the ring throwing episode (Sydney Morning Herald of 3 August 1958, p.98). Yet we have retrieved nine reports from British and American newspapers in the period mid-October to mid-November 1957. It is apparent that all of these are based on a single news file distributed from Sydney. As the information emanated from Sydney and the overseas press knew nothing of our geography, they were uncertain just where the Hunter is. But we know better: the Hunter is the river on which Newcastle sits.

We thank our colleague Julie-Ann Hamilton for her assistance in retrieving a collection of contemporaneous news reports from British and American papers. The site of the ring throwing gesture is variously expressed in the British and American Press as ‘Sydney’, ‘Sidney, ‘here’, ‘harbour’, ‘there’, ‘An Australian River’:

 

Further evidence:

We have excised the relevant snippets of evidence about the events in Newcastle from video clips, radio broadcasts, and print media sources and posted them on this site.

 

  1. Sydney Morning Herald of 3 August 1958, p.98: A reference to ‘the day Little Richard threw his rings over the Newcastle bridge.’ The key thing here is the throwing of the rings, in Newcastle. ‘Bridge’ is an immaterial error.
  2. Richard Guilliat, 12 September 1998, The Legend of Lee Gordon, Sydney Morning Herald. Max Moore, Manager of Lee Gordon’s Big Shows: ‘And then, of course, on the Stockton ferry to Newcastle he suddenly got God and he tossed all his rings into the drink.”’
  3. Heather Evans, 11 February 1999, Central Coast Herald. Evans writes that Chris Wilson, support act to Elvis Costello at a recent concert at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre told the story of Little Richard’s conversion. He told of how Little Richard saw the light and how ‘Band members were waiting for the ferry across Newcastle Harbour when they finally had a gutful and someone commented that the Lord was not into material possessions. Little Richard then made a dramatic show of removing his rings and baubles and hoiking them into Newcastle Harbour. Chris Wilson made the mistake of saying the incident had taken place at Sydney Harbour when a group of Newcastle lads and lasses at the concert took him to task over it. He admitted that he could have been wrong and then sang the song, politely inserting “Newcastle Harbour” into the appropriate segment.’
  4. Tonite Show 5 March 1986: In an interview with Joan Rivers Little Richard tells the story of the episode on Newcastle harbour. Although he does not mention Newcastle specifically, he does say that he was in Australia, and ‘I was on the ferry boat going over to another little town’. The previous night he had dreamt of a Sputnik going overhead in a ball of flame. This and other phenomena had convinced him to reject his ‘outrageous’ ways and return to the Christian life of his childhood and become a pastor. On the ferry crossing a colleague questioned his commitment and dared him to throw his jewellery into the water as a sign of his commitment. In response to the taunt he threw his rings into the harbour, one at a time. He tells this story in a thoughtful sober manner. He mentions others that were with him including – erroneously mentioning Elvis Presley. Presley was not with him, but Alis Lesley, advertised as The Female Elvis Presley was. We accept this as a slip of the memory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTyOVzdCsuU
  5. David Hinton’s The South Bank Show, March 1985. The Joan Rivers story rings true especially as Little Richard has said substantially the same thing on English TV The South Bank Show. (This documentary contains the interview recorded on the 18th December 1984 at Radio Station KCRW by hosts Tom Schnabel and Roger Steffens with Little Richard, and his biographer Charles “Dr. Rock”) White.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEZ7QZjmZUk>
  6. Meeting the Blues by Alan B. Governar (Taylor Publishing Company, 1988) Source Google Books 87 ‘When he quit the business we were on the Australia Tour and we stayed there for over a month. We were on our way one day, we were on a bus on a ferry and Little Richard said, ‘I’m quittin’. God’s calling me and told me to throw away all my jewellery. So he started pulling his rings off and getting ready to throw them overboard…’ This confirms that the event took place on the Stockton vehicular ferry.
  7. Three Steps to Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story, by Bobby Cochran (Hal Leonard, 2003) Bobby Cochran, nephew of Eddie Cochran who’s band travelled to Newcastle with Little Richard, attests that Little Richard announced that he would forsake show business and turn to God: ‘The next day, as the musicians were in the bus departing on the vehicle-carrying ferry to the next city, Richard made his decision known. No one believed him. To prove his conviction, he tore off his sparkling diamond jewellery and threw it into the river behind the boat.’
  8. Excerpt from 2SM Super Network “The John Laws Morning Show” 11 May 2020: John Laws relates his eyewitness account of Little Richard throwing his jewellery into Newcastle Harbour from the Stockton Ferry, October 1957, a story he has told a number of times. ‘I was with him on the ferry as we were going across to Stockton…there was a “funny farm” at Stockton. Johnny O’Keefe and I and Little Richard and a bunch of others. We were going to perform for the residents and on the way over he decided that he’d had enough of all this jewellery….he threw all that stuff he was wearing into the harbour. He said he was through with jewellery…Johnny O’Keefe and I performed there’. John Laws is referring to the Stockton Mental Hospital.

 

Performances citing Little Richard’s ‘final’ appearances before entering the church include:

  • 6 Aug 1957, Jefferson County Armory
  • 8 August 1957, Louisville Armory
  • 12 Oct 1957, Sydney Australia

 

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM, Newcastle University Archivist.

Roland Bannister, PhD, Ethnomusicologist.

 

Supplementary News-clippings Memorabilia and Media
(Arranged by Year)

 

1957

 

1957 Australian Tour Booklet
(Courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences: https://collection.maas.museum/object/164523)

 

“Little Richard” The Nashville Banner, 23 February 1957 p.14

 

‘Little Richard’ to swing to evangelism. The Corpus Christi Caller Times, 11 June 1957, p.26

 

Rock Singer Says He’ll Be Evangelist. Des Moines Tribune, 26 July 1957 p.9

 

He’ll Trade His Piano For Pulpit. Quad City Times, 27 July 1957 p.7

 

Armory Show. The Courier-Journal Louisville Kentucky, 4 August 1957, p.67.

 

Little Richard Rocks ‘Em, Now He’ll Be Preacher. Long Beach Independent, 8 August 1957 p.20.

 

Little Richard Advertisement (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Monday 30 September 1957, Page 6)

 

Little Richard Advertisement (The Newcastle Sun Wednesday 2 October 1957, Page 16)

 

“Singer Dragged Over Footlights” (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Thursday 3 October 1957, Page 1)

 

“Seek Damage Guarantee Rock ‘n’ Roll Shows At The Stadium” (The Newcastle Sun Thursday 3 October 1957, Page 3)

 

“A previously unpublished photograph of Little Richard arriving in Sydney on October 12, 1957 for his Australian tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. (Sydney Herald)” – Excerpt From: Charles White. “The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorised Biography.” p. 105 iBooks.

 

“Richard studies the Bible after becoming a born again Christian as a result of a plane scare during his 1957 Australian tour. He became a preacher in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and vowed to spread the Gospel. (Dr Rock Collection/Howard L. Bingham)” – Excerpt From: Charles White. “The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorised Biography.” p. 107 iBooks.

 

Little Richard Gives Up ‘Rock’ for Religion. Coventry Evening Telegraph, 12 October 1957 p.3

 

“God Doesn’t Like Rock ‘n’ Roll” Dublin Evening Mail, 12 October 1957 p.8

 

Moon Shine. The People (England) 13 October 1957, p.11

 

Little Richard Quitting Rock-Roll for Religion. Corpus Christi Times, 14 October 1957 n.p.

 

No Title. La Crosse Tribune, 25 October 1957 p.9
No Title. La Crosse Tribune, 25 October 1957 p.9 (Detail)

 

Little Richard Fears World End, Flies Home. Alabama Tribune, 1 November 1957 p.1

 

No Title. Press and Sun Bulletin, 3 November 1957, p.51

 

No Title. The Courier, 4 November 1957, p.4

 

No Title. The Courier, (Waterloo, Iowa) 14 November 1957, p.23

 

1958

Mississippi Enterprise, 18 January 1958 p.1 (Courtesy of https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/)

News-clipping regarding Little Richard throwing his jewels off the Newcastle Bridge. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 1958, p.98. (Courtesy of Roland Bannister)

1978

TIMESPAN Rock ‘n roll doesn’t glorify God, says the new Little Richard (1978, December 21). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 21. Retrieved May 12, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110930629

TIMESPAN Rock ‘n roll doesn’t glorify God, says the new Little Richard (1978, December 21). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 21. Retrieved May 12, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110930629

“But people, especially here in this stronghold of religious conservatism, remain sceptical. A few still remember Richard’s conversion more than 20 years ago when, after a harrowing flight over Australia, he made a deal with God. The story became more notorious when he tossed a fistful of rings off a ferry to prove his sincerity to a band member.”

 

 

1984

Video contains two segments of interviews with Little Richard recorded in 1984 and 1986 where he relates the story of his conversion from Rock to Religion whilst on board a ferry to an Australian town, during his 1957 tour of Australia. Interview sources:  David Hinton – South Bank Show – March 1985 (Please note that this documentary contains the interview recorded on the 18th December 1984 at Radio Station KCRW by hosts Tom Schnabel and Roger Steffens with Little Richard, and his biographer Charles “Dr. Rock” White. Please hear the radio interview here: https://www.kcrw.com/music/shows/music-special/little-richard-interview-1984-beatles-piano-performance). The second source is Little Richard Interviewed by Joan Rivers on 5 March 1986.

 

1985

 

Little Richard’s Accounts of Incident Aboard Ferry During 1957 Australian Tour:

 

David Hinton – South Bank Show – March 1985 (Account begins:  30:51 into video)

 

1986

 

Little Richard Interviewed by Joan Rivers 5 March 1986 (FULL)

(Little Richard’s Account begins at 1:45 seconds)

 

1988

Meeting the Blues by Alan B. Governar (Taylor Publishing Company, 1988) Source Google Books

“When he quit the business we were on the Australia Tour and we stayed there for over a month. We were on our way one day, we were on a bus on a ferry and Little Richard said, “I’m quittin’. God’s calling me and told me to throw away all my jewelry.” So he started pulling his rings off and getting ready to throw them overboard. So the other saxophone player…” – p. 87

1997

17 December 1997. “Days of King Richard and the real wild child” Newcastle Herald, p.5

“ACCORDING to the music reference books, singing and prancing pianist Little Richard tossed his expensive jewellery off the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1957.

But late Australian wild man Johnny O’Keefe, who was with Richard on that day, told his Hunter Region friends a much different story.

O’Keefe informed Speers Point musician and memorabilia collector Rick Pointon that the American performer was actually standing on Newcastle Foreshore when he relieved himself of his gold watch and rings.

This story and many other musical tidbits will be revealed tomorrow when The Herald publishes Hunter Street Beat: Forty Years Of Rock Around The Region.

Compiled by The Herald’s music writer, Chad Watson, the eight-page tabloid liftout will feature the best 20 artists from the Hunter as voted by an expert panel, the region’s top charting songs and albums. Mr Watson will discuss details of Hunter Street Beat from 8.30am tomorrow on radio station NEW FM.”

18 December 1997. “Rock Trivia: Things you didn’t know about rock music of the Hunter; Hunter Street Beat: Forty Years of Rock Around The Hunter.” p.6

“ACCORDING to the music history books, Little Richard chucked his jewellery off the Sydney Harbour Bridge during his ground-breaking rock and roll tour Down Under in 1957.

But a letter that Australia’s own wild one, Johnny O’Keefe, sent to Newcastle musician Rick Pointon, reveals that Richard was 160km north at the time.

O’Keefe explained that Richard had made a solemn promise during a hairy international flight that he would `quit showbusiness’ if the Lord steered him safely through a storm.

Several days later, as the touring party crossed Newcastle Harbour on the Stockton vehicular ferry, Richard’s bass player reminded him of his pledge.

The highly strung American performer denounced rock and roll as the `devil’s music’ then chucked his gold watch and rings into the harbour.

When he returned to the States, Richard recorded an album of preaching called I’m Quitting Showbusiness.”

 

1998

12 September 1998. “The Legend of Lee Gordon. By Richard Guilliatt. Sydney Morning Herald p. 26. Evidence of Lee Gordon’s Tour manager, Max Moore:

“Gordon’s tour manager on these capers was Max Moore, who went on to spend nearly 40 years running rock shows in Australia. “I sat beside Little Richard in the coach going to Wollongong,” recalls Moore, a soft-spoken retiree who lives in a NSW south coast home adorned with framed photographs of his decades in show business. “He talked to me for the entire journey and I didn’t understand one word he said. And then, of course, on the Stockton ferry to Newcastle he suddenly got God and he tossed all his rings into the drink.” Moore shakes his head. “He was a lunatic.”

 

1999

11 February, 1999. Topics. Heather Evans. Central Coast Herald p. 9

“A GROUP of Novocastrians caused a ruckus at an Elvis Costello concert at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre recently. Support act Chris Wilson began a song with an introductory spiel about the incident which inspired it. Apparently Little Richard was touring Australia with Johnny O’Keefe in 1957 and the plane trip from the US was rather hairy. In the darkness the overheated engines appeared to be on fire. Little Richard found God somewhere on that flight and regaled Johnny and the bands with tales of how the Lord had given him a sign.

BAND members were waiting for the ferry across Newcastle Harbour when they finally had a gutful and someone commented that the Lord was not into material possessions. Little Richard then made a dramatic show of removing his rings and baubles and hoiking them into Newcastle Harbour. Chris Wilson made the mistake of saying the incident had taken place at Sydney Harbour when a group of Newcastle lads and lasses at the concert took him to task over it. He admitted that he could have been wrong and then sang the song, politely inserting `Newcastle Harbour’ into the appropriate segment.”

 

2003

The Life and Times of Little Richard The Authorised Biography By Charles White, Little Richard. Omnibus Press, 2003 [Google Books Link]

“I had never liked flying and I had never been so far on a plane before. It worked on my mind. When it got dark and I could see the engines on the wings glowing red hot, I thought the plane was on fire. My mother had a religious book called The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White, which showed angels with yellow hair flying. In my mind I pictured these angels flying up under the plane holding it up. It was like a sign to me. It came to me later that the plane wasn’t on fire it was just that I had never been that far away before. It was very strange to me.

Then, on our fifth date of the two-week tour, we had left Melbourne for Sydney, and forty thousand people came to see me at the municipal outdoor arena. That night Russia sent off that very first Sputnik. It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads. It shook my mind. It really shook my mind. I got up from the piano and said, “This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.”

The very next day we were leaving Sydney on the ferry, and I had told the fellers in the band that I was quitting. Clifford didn’t believe me. So I said, “Would you believe it if I throw this ring in the water?” Clifford tried to grab it and nearly fell into the water behind the boat.

There were ten days of the tour left to run, but I would not work any more. Our tickets home were bought on the basis of a two-week tour, but I demanded passage back to the States for the total entourage ten days early. The incredible thing is that the plane we were originally scheduled to return on crashed into the Pacific Ocean. That’s when I felt that God really had inspired me to do the things I did at the time.” – Little Richard, pp. 163-165

“ARTHUR RUPE: His story is a good characterization of it. I don’t know the real reason. I suspect that the reason was other than that he reveals, which is typical of Richard. He had found religion he says and at that time Sputnik reached its lowest point in Australia where he was on tour. He saw that as a sign, it was Armageddon, the world was coming to an end. And supposedly he took off all his jewelry, threw it into the water, and he was saved-converted. He wouldn’t record the devil’s music any more and wouldn’t work for the devil any more either (laughs). That was Little Richard. We did everything we could to get him to come back, including withholding his royalties. We said when you comply with your contract, we will comply with ours. The money is here, it’s yours. We sued him, he counter-sued and went his merry way and we bought out the balance of his contract. It was very difficult because Richard could have blown his nose and we could have recorded it and sold it-we had the demand. So in the end we put out a lot of records that we had no intention of putting out. Very frustrating.” – Arthur Rupe, pp. 168-169

The story had broken all over the world by the time Richard and his band arrived back in the United States. Journalists and broadcasters let their imaginations run riot The airliner incident and the ring-throwing episode became distorted out of all proportion. A Chicago radio station reported that Richard had committed suicide. Some newspapers announced that Richard was in a lunatic asylum. Others, that he had seen a vision and was in a monastery. Hoping against hope that the worst had not really happened, Rupe ordered a news clampdown from Specialty, and media questions were evaded.” – Charles White, p.169

 

♦♦♦

“Three Steps to Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story” by Bobby Cochran (Hal Leonard, 2003)

“On the October 4 date of the two-week-long tour, the show stopped at an outdoor arena. Forty thousand screaming teens shoehorned into the venue to witness the rock ‘n’ roll mayhem. That night, Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite; the Communists had beaten the Americans into orbit.

Richard was stunned when he saw the big ball of fire course directly over the stadium. Surely it was a sign, he thought. It made no matter how big a star he might be-he must save himself from his own damnation. So he stood up from his piano , vowing to forever after forsake show business for God.

The next day, as the musicians were in the bus departing on the vehicle-carrying ferry to the next city, Richard made his decision known. No one believed him. To prove his conviction, he tore off his sparkling diamond jewelry and threw it into the river behind the boat. Then he gave away the rest of his showbiz trappings, with Gene Vincent ending up with several of his flamboyant suits. Richard soon boarded a plane for religious seclusion in America, leaving half a million dollars’ worth of cancelled Australian bookings in his wake-and “The Big Show” at an abrupt end.” – p. 98 – Read more of the antics from the 1957 Australian Tour

 

2006

Doyle, Peter. Signs and Wonders [online]. Meanjin, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2006: 15-23. Availability: <https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=235303828852704;res=IELLCC> ISSN: 0025-6293. [cited 12 May 20].

 

2011

 

Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Strange Death, and the Birth of Soul By: Susan Whitall, Kevin John (2011) – Excerpts from Chapter 10, A Valuable Science [Google Books]:

“Little Richard was on a ferry when the meltdown began. Yanking the heavy rings off each of his fingers, he threw them out the window and into the Bay of Sydney, ignoring the shrieks of his band. No more rock ‘n’ roll! No more sin, only salvation, the gospel and the Lord!…

The crisis came in the fall of 1957. He acknowledges that, but Richard denies tossing the bling into the drink. “I heard all of that too, that’s not true. People just love to make up stuff and see how it sounds,” he said, laughing. “I would like them to throw some rings in my lap right now!” But two surviving members of his band, the Upsetters , saw it happen. “We were in Australia, south Australia , going to a town on a ferry. He threw them out the window,” said tenor saxophonist Grady Gaines. Drummer Charles Connor agrees. “That’s right, he throwed his rings. It wasn’t a river, it was a canal, like. It was about 25,000 dollars worth of rings.” The Upsetters howled and moaned as they watched the glitter disappear into the depths as Richard renounced all. And he was as good as his word. Tickets were sold out for a big November 3rd show at New Orleans’ Masonic Auditorium, but when he returned from Australia, he canceled.”

 

2013

“Johnny O’Keefe: Rocker. Legend. Wild One” by Jeff Apter (Hatchet, 2013)

“Yet Little Richard’s world came unhinged as the roadshow headed out of Newcastle, at the same time that the Russian satellite Sputnik crossed the night sky. To Richard, Sputnik was a sign, a warning from above. The world had gone mad.

On the train, a card game was in progress between members of Richard’s band and various Dee Jays. Johnny was sitting nearby with Catfish. When Richard spotted the game, he decided it was time to preach. ‘Brothers, this is sin. Look at that,· he proclaimed, pointing to the table. ‘Whiskey, cards and money. The devil’s work .’

Silence.

Finally, one of Richard’s band spoke up. If this was really so sinful, and Richard was so pure, why was he wearing all that fancy, expensive jewellery – wasn’t his gold wristwatch the work of the devil, in its own way?

Richard thought about this and then started removing his jewellery, item by expensive item.

As the train crossed the Hunter, Richard opened the window and, to the disbelief of everyone in the carriage, threw the lot away. Thousands of dollars worth of dazzling jewellery , straight into the drink. Johnny’s jaw dropped wide in shock.

‘There,’ Richard said. ‘I can do without it.’

He walked off. No one could believe what they had just witnessed. If the train had stopped, it’s likely that the river would have been full of musicians in search of gold booty.” – p. 1891-1892

♦♦♦

Newcastle Harbour, Little Richard, and the Death of Rock and Roll” By Roland Bannister [DOWNLOAD]

2014

20 February 2014 Topics, Tim Connell. Newcastle Herald. p. 13

“Conversion version

RAY Caves, of Mayfield, has a different take on Little Richard‘s conversion on the way to Stockton.

Legend has it that while touring Australia in 1957, the Tutti Frutti singer found God on the Stockton ferry. Lucky. We once found a syringe.

Little Richard‘s conversion was sparked by his fear that the Russians, by launching Sputnik 1, had brought on the end of the world. He was so convinced that he yanked the rings off his fingers and hurled them into the Hunter River. Because apparently that would help.

But Ray, 50, has heard a different version over the years from live music types.

Firstly, he says, it didn’t happen on the ferry. It took place on the bridge to Carrington, where the star had set out with his band to find somewhere to buy a drink.

“Everywhere shut at midnight,” says Ray.

“But someone had said there might be a place open in Carrington.”

But on the way to the promised booze, Little Richard had a change of heart. Maybe he realised how far he had to walk. At any rate, the rings sailed over the railing. Plop.

That’s one version. Little Richard, if you’re reading, we’re happy to be set straight. Meanwhile, the river mud beneath the bridge might still harbour the rings”

 

2015

Keep A Knockin’: The Story of a Legendary Drummer By Charles Conner, Ziv Biton (Waldorf Publishing, 2015) [Google Books Excerpt]

“I remember our second ferry ride, Richard kept his oath. This was near the end of the tour. We were coastin’ on the ocean and Richard was starin’ over the side of the ferry, just staring’ hard at the water. Without warnin’ he started pullin’ off his jewelry. He was tearin’ if off, his rings, his necklaces, everything. I counted three rings before I had to look away, I couldn’t bear it. It was like seein’ the final period of Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll days.

I felt weak in my legs. I had to sit down. I just knew that was the end of Richard and The Upsetters. All the great times we had, thrown into that ocean. Everything we had experienced, drowned in the sea.

The other boys were downtrodden, too their spirits failed. we all were mumblin’ to one another about how Richard didn’t have to throw all that jewelry away. He could have given it to us! I mean, that jewelry must have been worth a year’s pay! Maybe even two years’! We understood now that Richard was beyond reproach; he couldn’t be convinced.”

Excerpt from Keep A Knockin’: The Story of a Legendary Drummer
By Charles Conner, Ziv Biton (Waldorf Publishing, 2015)

2016

4 March 2016. “Bid for The King to Play in this Castle.” Newcastle Herald.

“This is a story about Elvis. It’s also a story about an Aussie promoter’s bold plan to bring Elvis to Newcastle. It was told to us by Sheldon Kidd, the Hunter Elvis Festival’s publicist. We can’t completely confirm its veracity, but it’s a good yarn nonetheless.” …

“Long before names like Chugg or Gudinski ruled the local music scene, it was Gordon – an ex-pat American – who transformed our entertainment scene. Up until this point, international stars largely bypassed our shores. Gordon changed all that. He converted the Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay from the “Old Tin Shed” into the city’s first “entertainment centre” of sorts. Removing the boxing ring that had experienced many a famous battle, Gordon replaced it with a revolving stage and produced a revolving door of some of the biggest names in show business to perform down under. Performers the calibre of Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were some of the names that Gordon convinced to make the long and arduous trip to Australia.

Gordon was on the record as stating his admiration for Newcastle and its concert goers. He felt the people of the Hunter responded with fever-pitched ferocity that the larger venues in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane simply couldn’t match. Gordon often used Newcastle as the first port of call when he ran tours. If the act passed the “Newcastle test”, he felt they were sure to succeed in the capital cities.

During one of Gordon’s “Big Show” tours, Newcastle entered into rock”n”roll folklore. While Little Richard was travelling on the Stockton punt, he decided to quit the entertainment scene. Removing all of his many rings, he tossed the jewels into the Hunter River. It apparently had something to do with him having earlier seen the Russian satellite Sputnik shoot across the sky. He claimed it was God’s signal that the end of the world was near. Lee Gordon was able to convince Little Richard to at least finish his Australian tour but, true to his word, once he returned to the US, Little Richard quit showbusiness and became a preacher. It would be several years before the musician left the ministry and returned to rock”n”roll. It was unclear if his rings ever found their way back to the surface.”

 

2017

12 October 2017. “Rocker Little Richard converted by Sputnik” by Troy Lennon. The Daily Telegraph., p. 47

12 October 2017. “Rocker Little Richard converted by Sputnik” by Troy Lennon. The Daily Telegraph., p. 47

“There’s no doubt that coming to Sydney can be a life-changing experience for many tourists, but 60 years ago it was a veritable epiphany for one American named Richard Penniman.

While on a concert tour of Australia, Penniman, also known as Little Richard — one of the biggest rock’n’roll stars of the time — had a vision of angels and saw a fireball in the sky.

In a dramatic scene on a ferry, on October 12, 1957, he announced to his band he would give up show business to become a preacher. To prove he was serious he threw his gold rings into the water.

His conversion marked the start of a troubled period for some of rock’s pioneers, what some have called rock’n’roll’s “dark age”. But while Richard later emerged from religious exile, his career and life would never be the same again.

Richard was surrounded by religion as a youth. Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, his father was a church deacon, but also sold bootleg alcohol and ran a nightclub, while two uncles and his grandfather were preachers. He honed his voice singing gospel at church, but his father discouraged him from becoming a musician. At 13 Richard was thrown out of home when his father discovered Richard was gay.

Over the next few years he fronted bands in small African-American clubs and in 1951 he won a contract with RCA. But his recordings didn’t set the charts on fire. So he continued to hone his vibrant live act.

In 1955 he sent a demo tape to Specialty records in Los Angeles and was invited to a recording session. During a break he played his risque song Tutti Frutti (good booty) in his live show. The producer got a songwriter to clean up the lyrics and Richard recorded the song in his own frenetic style. It was released in late 1955, and rose to 17 on the charts in early 1956.

He followed that with others, including Long Tall Sally, Rip it Up and Lucille. He was then in demand for concerts and movies, including The Girl Can’t Help It.

But in 1957 he became disenchanted with the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Women sent him naked photos and he was mobbed by unruly crowds on gruelling concert or promotional tours, so he started to seek solace in the Bible. At post-show parties he would even do readings.

In 1957 he toured Australia as part of rock promoter Lee Gordon’s Big Show, sharing the bill with Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Alis Lesley (called the “Female Elvis”). He shocked conservative Australians by stripping down to pyjamas or underpants and throwing his clothing to crowds.

On a flight from Melbourne to Sydney he saw the engines glowing red hot. Thinking they were on fire he prayed and imagined the plane was supported by angels. Before his Sydney show he saw a fireball in the sky. It was actually Sputnik, launched just days before, but it was enough to convince him they were signs from God.

Stories vary, in interviews and memoirs Richard says he was on a ferry “leaving Sydney”, but another version says he was on the Stockton Ferry travelling to a show in Newcastle when he told his band he was quitting show business and threw thousands of dollars in gold rings into the river. He cut short the tour and flew home, but later discovered the plane he was scheduled to fly home on crashed, killing all aboard. He saw it as another sign.

His recording company made him sit through a last recording session before he went off to study theology in 1957. He began a preaching tour, got married in 1959 and started recording gospel music.

It was a bleak time for rock’n’roll. In March 1958 Elvis went into the army for two years. Later that year it was revealed Jerry Lee Lewis had married a 13-year-old girl. In February 1959 Buddy Holly was killed in plane crash and in December Chuck Berry was arrested and served time in prison. Softer rockers such as Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Bobby Vee emerged and the Brill Building Sound dominated charts, along with a re-emergence of jazz and country.

But Richard tried to make a comeback in the early ’60s, doing tours of Europe and TV specials, but his time at the top of the charts was over for the time. Although he was still an idol to the new generation of chart toppers, like The Beatles, he was already a musical relic.

When he returned to Australia in 1974 he played to packed, but more sedate, houses.

Coming out publicly as gay in 1984, his popularity again began to soar. In ’85 the song Great Gosh A’Mighty put him back on the charts.He officially retired from show business in 2013.”

12 October 2017 (Thursday) at 07:40 UTC+11 (Gionni Di Gravio FB Post):

“Just heard the most amazing story on ABC1233 with Garth Russell interviewing John Laws about Little Richard’s epiphany on the Stockton Ferry. Not sure of the year, but John Laws says that he, Little Richard and Johnny O’Keefe were on route to Stockton to perform a show for a mental hospital there, and half way across Little Richard uttered “I have seen the light” and then proceeded to remove all his rings off his fingers and throw them into the Hunter River. Wow. Jill Emberson’s interview with various people back in 2012 is here: https://soundcloud.com/abc_radio/1233-jill-emberson-little (Dead Link) One commentator on the ABC FB page for Jill Emberson’s interview in 2012 says the date that Richard was in Newcastle on October 2, 1957 from http://australianrockpoptours50s60s.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/little-richardgene-vincenteddie-cochran.html Garth’s interview with John Laws confirms what “Robert” told Jill.”

 

2019

13 April 2019. “Little Richard found God in Newcastle.” Newcastle Herald p. 29

13 April 2019. “Little Richard found God in Newcastle.” Newcastle Herald. p. 29

“Roland Bannister is old enough to remember the commotion that followed rock star Little Richard performing in Newcastle in October 1957.

“The story of these events has been told and retold in rock’n’roll history for half a century,” he said.

Roland told Topics that, while in Newcastle, Little Richard suddenly renewed his commitment to God. This, we’re led to believe, happened while he was aboard the Stockton ferry.

A key part of the yarn is that, in declaring his faith, Little Richard threw his rings into Newcastle Harbour.

It should be said that this story has taken on mythic proportions.

Roland said the detail of the story “changes with just about every retelling, sometimes to the point of absurdity”.

“Evidence from all those years ago has been elusive,” he said.

“I’ve made a serious effort to gather the facts and I’m convinced that the broad outline of the story is right.”

Intriguingly, Little Richard cancelled another Newcastle concert about 48 hours before the advertised starting time, without notice or explanation.

“I remember this well. Fans were mightily cheesed off. Adverts had appeared in the Newcastle Herald on the Monday and Wednesday before the concert,” Roland said.

Precisely when and where Little Richard threw his expensive rings in the drink is somewhat of a mystery.

“Some say he threw them from the old vehicular ferry, others the passenger ferry, others from Carrington Bridge,” Roland said.

In his 2013 biography of Johnny O’Keefe, Jeff Apter wrote that Little Richard and members of his band were playing cards and drinking on a train.

“As the train crossed the Hunter, Richard opened the window and, to the disbelief of everyone in the carriage, threw the rings away,” Apter wrote, adding that O’Keefe witnessed this.

However, Roland said broadcaster John Laws had travelled with the press during the tour.

“He and the Dee Jays saxophonist John Greenan both say that they were with Little Richard on the ferry when he threw his rings into the harbour,” he said.

He said another key piece of evidence was a Sydney Morning Herald report on August 3, 1958.

The report, which featured a review of a Johnny O’Keefe song, said it “sounds like the day Little Richard threw his ringsover the Newcastle bridge”.

Roland asserts that Little Richard’s exit from the music scene was “regarded as a turning point in popular music”.

“It links Newcastle and Australia to the wider world of 1950s popular culture,” he said.

“He left the scene wide open for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and the other great performers of those days.

“It also ignites the career of Johnny O’Keefe – our first great Aussie rocker.”

Roland reckons all the evidence points to Little Richard’s epiphany occurring on the Stockton ferry.

“Old-timers like me have known this for six decades,” he said.

19 June 2019 (Wednesday) “Why Little Richard’s Australian Tour Put Newcastle on the Map.” ABC Radio Jenny Marchant and Dan Cox Interview with Roland Bannister [DOWNLOAD]

“The events of Little Richard’s 1957 Australian tour have been told, and retold, in Rock and Roll histories for over half-a-century now.

The story of the rock stars’ visit to Newcastle is still a barbeque stopper, over fifty years later.

So, how did Little Richard change rock n roll history in the Hunter?

ABC Newcastle’s Dan Cox and Jenny Marchant spoke to Dr Roland Bannister, an ethnomusicologist who lives in Newcastle, who’s been looking into this iconic piece of local history.”

 

2020

Sunday, 10 May 2020 “Did Little Richard “Find Religion” in Newcastle. ABC News Radio Interview with Roland Bannister [DOWNLOAD]

“News of the death of Little Richard at the age of 87 has brought back memories of the extensive touring that he did here as an emerging rock and roller in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s..

It’s also re-ignited debate about an event in Newcastle in 1957. It’s believed that whilst on tour he was on the Stockton Ferry, when he threw his rings into the Hunter River to return to his religious roots.

Roland Bannister is a former music academic at Charles Sturt University, who has researched the story about Little Richard in Newcastle.”

11 May 2020. Letters to the Editor. Sydney Morning Herald, p. 22

“Little mystery of Richard’s rings

Vale Little Richard. What a shame he died before clarifying the mystery of exactly where and when he committed to God and threw his gold rings into Newcastle Harbour in 1957. Was it from the Stockton ferry, the Carrington Bridge or the train? We’ll never know.
Robert Hickey, Green Point”

ABC Sydney. Afternoons with James Valentine. Monday 11 May 2020 (Circa 13:45pm) – Note by Dr Ann Hardy

“On ABC Sydney radio this afternoon a listener phoned in to say that he saw Little Richard preform at The Stadium, Newcastle in the 1950s describing how Little Richard threw his gold rings into Newcastle Harbour from the Stockton Punt. He also said John Laws was with him. Apparently, the performer flew into Williamtown airport and the quickest way to the city was by punt. The presenter said many people believed that Little Richard threw his rings into Sydney Harbour, others listeners reported the rings were thrown from a train. The caller was adamant the jewellery was thrown into Newcastle Harbour and another listener messaged the station to back up the claim saying that John laws confirmed the story on his radio show this morning.  The presenter did a call out to John Laws to contact the station to talk further about the account.”

Listen to full show here

John Laws relates his eyewitness account of Little Richard throwing his jewellery into Newcastle Harbour on the Stockton Ferry, October 1957.

Excerpt from 2SM Super Network “The John Laws Morning Show” 11 May 2020 – Full Broadcast here: https://2smsupernetwork.com/the-john-laws-morning-show-for-may-11th-2020/

14 May 2020 Letters to the Editor Newcastle Herald

“Gem of a Story
Regarding the mystery of where Little Richard was standing when he threw his gold rings into Newcastle Harbour in 1957 after committing to God (Letters, May 11). My father was a witness as he was taking Little Richard to Williamtown Airport and the event occurred on the Stockton vehicular ferry. My father always stated that at least one of the rings had a diamond.” – John Swan (Qld)

 

Little Richard found God in Newcastle, Newcastle Herald 19th May 2020 p.13

 

“Little Richard story verified in records” Newcastle Herald 22 June 2020 p.13

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