Oh man, Little Richard for me growing up was everything. I first saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show, wearing this cape made out of small mirrors and a pompadour haircut. I was like, woah! He was a powerhouse of a musician, his vocals were so over the top and he was a heck of an entertainer – he put those three things together and just let it all out. Talk about self-expression. And to be black and [openly] gay at that time, something that was beyond taboo. I mean, if he’d come along today, he’d have so much to fight against. But even then, he didn’t let nothing back. He just spilled his guts!
The idea of being gay was never, ever discussed in the black world at that time. It had to happen on such a low-key level – believe me, the idea of being found out was really scary. But Little Richard didn’t care and what I picked up from him early on, a black, gay man, was the freedom he took for himself. No one gave him that right. He just took it. He did just what he needed to do to be who he wanted to be.
I first met him in the early 70s when I was out on the road playing in the band with James Brown. We didn’t become friends until I was doing Parliament-Funkadelic. We’d bump into each other at festivals, hang out, talk and vibe all the time and I found out that that personality wasn’t put on. What you saw was what you got. When we got closer, it struck me how much he’d had to fight against within the music business from day one, too. He got crapped on so much because of who he was, then bands let him down, and he got so many rejections, but he just kept going. The two of us even got asked to speak to Congress in 1983 about how people take advantage of artists’ money and royalties, but, man, I let him do the talking. He had so much to tell and did it so well. He also just talked to the politicians on Capitol Hill the way he talked to me.
Little Richard had that confidence because of the toughness of his early life. He used to talk about how his dad [a deacon who ran a nightclub] used to treat him [his father disapproved of his sexuality and beat him] and how he kept his head up. He was torn between rock’n’roll and the gospel all his life and he talked about that too – it affected him a lot and it was a battle that couldn’t be won. He’d often give me little books he’d made, little bibles. In the 80s, he’d drive up and down Hollywood Boulevard in his limo, stopping to give them to people. Once in the late 80s, he did that to me [laughs]: “Bootsy, man!”
We performed together for the first time when James Brown got out of prison in 1991. I’ll never forget James calling Little Richard on to the stage and how he even blew James away. His charisma was so powerful. We played together in 2006 too, for the NFL’s Monday Night Football [a highly rated weekly live broadcast of NFL games in the US]. He was 74 then, but still amazing. Everybody had to just bow down.
I last saw him four years ago in Memphis, when I was on tour. He was performing another show on the same night and he was in a wheelchair by then, being pushed around, which was hard to see. But he was still upbeat. He didn’t stop fighting. We talked about the same stuff: the difficult times and how he’d got through and how he was happy to be here. It was a beautiful thing.
I loved him, man. He had to push, push, push for everything and I don’t think there was one popular entertainer– from Elvis onwards – who he didn’t affect. I really don’t think he knew how much people were affected by him, but that was probably a good thing. It made him who he was. He was still the guy who took all the ingredients of rock’n’roll, prepared the meal and served it up, who still had that passion for being himself to the end – for letting himself go free.
This article was edited on 15 December to amend a direct quote from Collins.