Last fall, George T. Cooper, Jr. was pleased to present the Fisk Jubilee Singers Heritage Award to a man who co-created a musical genre. Cooper, a Fisk Jubilee singer from 1975 – 1981 and a very active member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers Alumni organization, would finally meet the piano legend himself.
Richard Wayne Penniman, known professionally as “Little Richard,” received his award with grace, dignity, and honor. In his acceptance speech, all he talked about was love. Sitting in his wheelchair, the performer and Seventh Day Adventist preacher, spoke graciously, almost giving a sermon.
“Richard said that we are here to give love to one another, the way our Lord wants us to love each other,” said Cooper. “He talked about how we are to treat each other, as God commanded us to do so.”
When Little Richard died on May 9, Cooper fondly recalled why he was selected for the award from his college last year.
“There are three people who created Rock and Roll…Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard,” said Cooper. Many musical entertainers copied his musical compositions and performance style. “Richard was used by so many other entertainers and songwriters, but everyone knew that was HIS music,” said Cooper.
Cooper was indeed correct about the lifetime Grammy award winner, who received overflowing tributes from The Rolling Stones singer, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, and Quincy Jones. Jones had produced one of his albums in 1962.
Little Richard was 87 years old when he passed away in Tullahoma, TN, He had bone cancer, hip replacement surgery, and other ailments, according to the press. He was one of 12 children and kicked out of his parent’s home by the age of 13 years-old. When he graduated high school, he attended an HBCU, Oakwood University.
However, Little Richard had already started recording music in 1951 and kept recording more songs, which eventually blew the young performer up internationally. The Beatles were his opening act. With songs like the 1956 hit Tutti Frutti, Richard was selling more than 500,000 records to white and Black fans. His album, “Here’s Little Richard,” was released in 1957, along with other songs like Long Tall Sally and Ain’t That Good. He was a favorite at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY.
He married and divorced Ernestine Campbell in 1959. Little Richard was married to show business for almost seven decades.
He became a minister in 1980 and spoke at funerals and married couples. He took his religious background very seriously, as it was his pillar for living, said Cooper.
Cooper was doubtful if Little Richard would actually attend the Fisk award program because the ceremony had to start after the sun set, according to church doctrine.
Another Fisk alumni, Gertie Rodgers, thought Cooper was calling her for a donation for the program. “I asked Ms. Rodgers to ask her classmate personally if she would ask Richard to come to our ceremony and personally receive his award. She said, ‘All Richard use to do was beat on the desks, like he was playing the drums in class,’ The next thing Cooper knew was that he was sending a limo to pick Little Richard up after sundown.
Cooper said Little Richard arrived with his son, Danny Jones Penniman, with humility and a long message about following God’s laws.
“He was so inspiring,” said Cooper. “He said that we have to get our life right with God. That we have to be a loving people.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers Alumni Award has been presented to music legends for the past four years. The next award ceremony is tentatively scheduled for October 6, 2020.
“We will always remember Richard for what he brought to us that night, but he will always be remembered for what he brought to our world with his gift and genius for music, ” Cooper said.
Fisk Alumni and former Fisk Jubilee singer, George T. Cooper, Jr. has served as the founder and director of the Ella Sheppard School of Music, in Chicago, Il. Ella Sheppard Moore was a Fisk Jubilee singer for 11 years and was the core teacher of the Negro spirituals. Mr. Cooper has perfected and preserved her historical style and sound of music, as he studied music history and theory. Deacon Cooper is the Director of Music at Park Manor Church in Chicago, Il and the sponsor of the classical music and opera programs for young, Black musicians and singers.
Professor Cooper formerly served as the music department chairmen at John Marshall High School (which is a West side Chicago Public School). He also served as an assistant director of chorus for the All City music programs for CPS.
Photos courtesy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers Alumni and George T. Cooper Jr.