How did a turbaned drag queen from the sexual underground of America’s deep south ignite rock’n’roll? We unravel the mystery behind Little Richard’s subversive genius

As the world marks and mourns the passing of Little Richard, many have been asking: how was someone so unapologetically black and queer present at the origins of rock, a world-shaking music still associated, to this day, with white male musical acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?

All these artists and more, including Bob Dylan in a Twitter thread, would be quick to acknowledge Little Richard’s formative influence on them. But “influence” is perhaps too weak a word here. Rock’n’roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him. The longstanding pissing contest over who can claim the title “King of Rock’n’Roll” – Elvis? Jerry Lee Lewis? – is a case in point. While his authorised biographer went celestial in choosing to style Richard “the Quasar of Rock”, perhaps we might do better to listen to the artist, introducing himself at the Club Matinee in Houston, Texas, in 1953: “Little Richard, King of the Blues … and the Queen, too!”

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