“He really is Jewish” — Little Richard’s lifelong love affair with Judaism

Little Richard, the rock and roll pioneer who died on May 9 at age 87, brought a galvanic charge to live performances of such songs as “Tutti Frutti,” “Heebie Jeebies” and “Lucille,” drawing sustained inspiration from what he considered to be a Jewish identity.

This self-definition went beyond what some writers have identified as emotional parallels between Little Richard’s music and Jewish culture. Music historian Steven Lee Beeber described Little Richard’s “Heebie Jeebies” as identical to the agitated feeling of pins-and-needles known in Yiddish as shpilkes. Little Richard’s explosive stage shows were an extended restless leg syndrome, like a Pavlovian response to electric current. The singer himself repeatedly avowed that Jewishness played a part in this expression of energy.

In a 1972 BBC-TV interview to publicize The London Rock and Roll Show, a concert held at Wembley Stadium in August 1972, he described how other talents were inspired by him: “All of them came from me, po’ little bitty me, a lil’ Jewish boy, black bottom, from Georgia.” The BBC interviewer Francis Fuchs, clearly nonplussed by this unsolicited remark, exhaled with an embarrassed giggle and changed the subject.

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