Richard Wayne Penniman, who revolutionized American music and culture as Little Richard, passed away yesterday at the age of 87. I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the history of rock and roll to eulogize him, nor is that my function as a wrestling critic, but when someone of the stature and influence of Little Richard dies, it usually comes out that that influence reaches far beyond their art. With Little Richard, it’s obvious. His style, his mustache, the music he made—there’s an entire universe of human beings who owe their career to Little Richard. One of them was a professional wrestler.
Actually, let’s back up a little. Professional wrestling owes a lot to Little Richard. As a thief’s medium, wrestling is rarely responsible for anything wholly original, and while Gorgeous George created his gimmick and revolutionized the sport over a decade prior to “Tutti Frutti” broke him into the mainstream, later wrestlers whose personas were more and more outsized than their predecessors took their looks from black musicians. Whether or not it was intentional, sequin-bedecked, fringe-covered, and questionably cut out gear of the World Wrestling Federation’s Rock n’ Wrestling and New Generation eras look like they were ripped from a Little Richard stage show, when they weren’t ripped from James Brown’s. When he performed “America the Beautiful” at WrestleMania X, he just looked like he belonged there.
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There’s a bit of Little Richard in Dusty Rhodes, too, at least in the way he talked. Borrowing his affectations liberally from black men like Muhammad Ali and Thunderbolt Patterson, watch a Rhodes promo where he stops mid-stream to talk a little about how he was just a little kid in Texas who grew up to be “oh so sweet.” That’s something Little Richard did when he had a show to promote, trying his humble roots to his transcendent superstardom in a way that was charming, but not entirely humble. In 1991, he was a member of World Championship Wrestling’s booking committee. At the same time, a wrestler named Marc Mero, a little more than a year into his career, was eating pins in tryout matches and television squash matches. Rhodes saw Mero, saw his slight resemblance to Little Richard, and signed him to a contract, packaging him as a flamboyant Little Richard lookalike with a name like a Chuck Berry song, Johnny B. Badd.
Why a Little Richard gimmick? Mero’s place in the broader context of wrestling as an art isn’t large enough for their to be a ton of documentation on the subject—unlike Triple H’s ascendency making something like Terra Ryzing interesting, the disastrous introduction of the Shockmaster character making that as much of Fred Ottman’s legacy as large a part of his career as Typhoon and Tugboat, or the racist overtures of the early pitches for the Harlem Heat gimmick serving as illustrative of how racist wrestling often is, Johnny B. Badd is just the zenith in the career of a midcard wrestler who signed a guaranteed money contract with the WWF, who ended up making his wife a star.
But I can think of two reasons, the first of which is obvious: Wrestling, despite being a television show largely intended for children, has pretty much always been in the control of men old enough to be grandparents, and a lot of their ideas look and feel like regurgitations of their own childhood. Dusty Rhodes was born in 1945. Tutti Frutti became a crossover hit when he was 10 years old. He always had the image of Little Richard as a megastar, a gender bending force of nature whose scream could and frequently did tear the veil of heaven. Second, World Championship Wrestling was a Georgia-based company with a sizable African American fanbase, and Little Richard was from Macon, Georgia. At the time, WCW was experimenting with a (white) rapper gimmick, P.N. News, and Rhodes was moonlighting as the manager of Ron Simmons, a Warner Robins, Georgia native who became World Heavyweight Champion in 1992, breaking the color barrier for the two major promotions who emerged from the rubble of the territory era. So why not try to capture the attention of that fanbase with a gimmick based on someone so outlandishly famous?
Last year, Mero appeared on The Steve Austin Show and spoke about the origin of the character and its role in getting him into the WWF. There’s the anecdote of Rhodes noting the similarity, and his realization that, in signing a contract he’d be allowed to use the talent locker room. Before Rhodes, nobody had told Mero that he looked like the Innovator and Originator, but “once I had the thin mustache, and did my hair, and the outfit, the talk, and everything like that, obviously then I go, ‘damn, I am Little Richard.” Marc Mero was an extremely tan white guy from Buffalo, New York, so it’s hardly surprising that nobody told him he looked like Little Richard before. WCW wisely never made an issue of Badd’s race, but they billed him from Little Richard’s hometown of Macon and paired him with Teddy Long, a black manager who largely seconded black wrestlers, so if you want to look at Badd as one of a thousand instances where professional wrestling went and whitewashed black culture, you’d be right to do so. Check him out:
That’s it. That’s the whole gimmick. At first, Badd was a heel, one who was pushed strong despite Mero’s lack of experience, which often showed in his work. It’s not easy making the transition from boxer to professional wrestler, and making that transition almost entirely on television does nobody any favors, but Mero was a gifted athlete who was adept at learning on the go, and he eventually put together a respectable body of work when he wasn’t trapped in meaningless midcard feuds that dragged on and on for months at a time. What’s interesting about the character is that, as Mero got better at the aspects of professional wrestling that eluded him, the Johnny B. Badd character lost definition.
Looking back at the character in its earlier stages, it’s hard not to call Johnny B. Badd a queercoded villain. Little Richard identified all over the spectrum during his life—homosexual, bisexual, omnisexual, and otherwise completely separate from queerness—but men in this country can’t wear eye makeup and colorful clothing without being called “flamboyant,” which has always been one of the polite ways culture, including professional wrestling, has of calling a man gay. So out walks Johnny B. Badd, the fringe on his tights resembling a thong, single earring worn left ear queer, announcers intimating that he loved wrestling as a little girl. Despite his finish being a punch, he always seemed to carry his wrists limp. When he knocked somebody out with the Tutti Frutti, he’d stick a pair of lips to their cheek.
I love gay gimmicks, even if there’s a crucial lack of top representation in wrestling history, but few of them are based on real human beings, and wrestling’s sexless idiom of the homosexual male does not mix well with the sheer sexual pyrotechnics of a man like Little Richard. Being frank here, that’s why I hate the Johnny B. Badd character—he starts with no edge and gets blunt with time. Eventually he turned face, got one of those mid-90s WCW theme songs that are iconic because they’re bad (the best lyric being “he’s as pretty as a picture / he looks like Little Richard”) and became a decent hand in sequined ring attire, a regular attraction on WCW Saturday Night and pay-per-views where he’d shoot confetti from a pop gun called “the Badd Blaster.” At that point, his only resemblance to Little Richard was his face, and that was always a kinda-sorta good for professional wrestling proposition.
The best thing about Johnny B. Badd is that Vince McMahon, himself an ancient man who once paid real money to put backstage interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund in a recording studio so he could do a cover of “Tutti Frutti” for a record he expected people to purchase, loved the character so much that, according to Mero, he wanted to bring him in as Badd, or some version of him, and strap him up immediately. In the alternate universe where this happened and Badd made his debut at WrestleMania XII (two years after Little Richard sang at WrestleMania XX) in 1996, the year Steve Austin won King of the Ring and lit the fuse for the attitude era, he would have been eaten alive. Instead, he became “Wildman” Marc Mero, a plain ol’ dude who dressed like a less flamboyant Badd who later became jealous of and abusive towards his wife and valet, Sable. He later appeared as Badd in places like the failed XWF wrestling start-up and TNA, but by that point the nostalgia was less for Little Richard than it was for the Johnny B. Badd character, who came and went in the window between wrestling’s 80s and 90’s peaks, so he quietly retired in 1996 and became a motivational speaker.
And if you’re wondering whether or not Little Richard was aware of this homage?
Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock and roll Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead at 87. My character in WCW wrestling that Dusty Rhodes created for me to portray was based on him. Here he is holding a poster of me back in 1993. Some great memories! pic.twitter.com/czdmqRdzqb
— Marc Mero (@MarcMero) May 9, 2020
Yes, he was, and it’s a real shame there’s no quote to go along with the look on his face.