This story was originally published April 15, 2004, in ‘The Immortals’ issue of Rolling Stone
A LOT OF PEOPLE CALL ME THE ARCHITECT OF ROCK & ROLL. I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true. You’ve got to remember, I was already known back in 1951. I was recording for RCA-Victor — if you were black, it was called Camden Records — before Elvis. Then I recorded for Peacock in Houston. Then Specialty Records bought me from Peacock — I think they paid $500 for me — and my first Specialty record, in 1956, was a hit: “Tutti Frutti.” It was a hit worldwide. I felt I had arrived, you know? We started touring everywhere immediately. We traveled in cars. Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn’t go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car. You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car. I had a Cadillac. That’s what the star rode in.
You remember the way that Liberace dressed onstage? I was dressing like that all the time, very flamboyantly, and I was wearing the pancake makeup. A lot of the other performers at that time — the Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters — they were wearing makeup, too, but they didn’t have any makeup kit. They had a sponge and a little compact in their pocket. I had a kit. Everybody started calling me gay.
People called rock & roll “African music.” They called it ‘Voodoo music.” They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan — the same thing that they’re saying about the hip-hop today. Only it was worse back then, because, you have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me. We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were “white spectators.” But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.
I didn’t get paid — most dates I didn’t get paid. And I’ve never gotten money from most of those records. And I made those records: In the studio, they’d just give me a bunch of words, I’d make up a song! The rhythm and everything. “Good Golly, Miss Molly”! And I didn’t get a dime for it. Michael Jackson owns the Specialty stuff now. He offered me a job with his publishing company once, for the rest of my life, as a writer. At the time, I didn’t take it. I wish I had now.
I wish a lot of things had been different. I don’t think I ever got what I really deserved.
I appreciate being picked one of the top fifty performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because it won’t be who I think it should be — it’s not going to ever be any of the entertainers from the past. The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made a record — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me. I fed them, I talked to them, and they’re going to always be in front of me.
But it’s a joy just to still be here, to have stood the test of time. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear the old-time rock & roll. And I’m just glad that I was a part of that. There’s only a few of us left: myself, Bo Diddley, Chuck, Fats, Jerry Lee, the Everly Brothers. It’s getting thin. So I think this is the last of it, the last of the good days. Soon there’ll be a totally new thing. But it won’t be the same. Never.