BOP BOPA-A-LU A WHOP BAM BOO! HOW LITTLE RICHARD MADE ROCK AND ROLL HISTORY IN NEWCASTLE
I’m old enough to remember the kerfuffle that followed rock star Little Richard’s spectacularly successful concerts 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 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.”
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 Cochrane, 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 doing 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
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.
Not for publication
Contact: Roland Bannister 0403 324 487
402 The Essington Apartments
26 Pacific Street
Newcastle NSW 2300
 There were performances at 6.00 pm and at 8.45 pm.
 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.
 Email 15 September 2013
Thursday, 12 October 2017 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.