Meet the Black, Gay Singer Who Taught Little Richard to Rock
By Alan Richard, Contributing Writer
Little Richard has departed this world, leaving us groundbreaking musical classics and an audaciousness that mesmerized American society—and kicked open the door for so many other performers to prance through.
Turns out, Little Richard got some of his trademark tricks from another flaming wonder known as Esquerita.
Without Esquerita, there might have been no Little Richard, hence no Prince and no Elton John—and no rock ‘n roll as we know it. Little Richard himself credited Esquerita with showing him how to pound the piano with intensity and soul.
There’s no arguing Little Richard’s talent, importance and the daring artistry that influenced virtually every rock ‘n roll and soul performer who would follow. But reading about Esquerita in Martin Aston’s 2017 book on LGBTQ musicians, “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out,” opened my eyes to many other virtually unknown artists who paved the way for all of the popular music we love—country, rock, jazz, soul, gospel, and the blues.
After all, both Esquerita and Little Richard were also inspired by singer Billy Wright, who often appeared in drag.
Esquerita also taught me that the roots of rock ‘n roll were planted not only in Macon and Memphis, but of all places, my relatively run-of-the-mill birthplace in South Carolina.
There’s been much debate among Esquerita’s few fans over how he came up with his stage name, one of several he would use. But when I first heard Esquerita’s birth name—believed to be Eskew Reeder —the mystery was solved. Add a sprinkle of accent from the hills of Carolina and you get “Eskah Rita,” or Esquerita. Made sense to me.
Reeder’s story is filled with the daring, groundbreaking flamboyance that the Big Bang moment of rock ‘n roll’s birth called for. It also had the same tragic ending as many other gays and African Americans of his generation.
But not before blowing through towns and clubs like a tornado.
Eskew Reeder was born in Greenville, a sleepy textile-mill city roughly halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte. The town has blossomed in recent years into a regional artistic, culinary and walkable, bikeable destination for outdoors types. It’s also become an economic boomtown, home to a massive BMW auto plant that employs 10,000 and the many suppliers to the high-tech factory.
More than half a million people now live in Greenville County alone, not to mention neighboring Spartanburg and other smaller cities nearby. Combined with Asheville just up the slope of the green, rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, the region is now a larger television market than Las Vegas, Austin, New Orleans or Memphis.
Greenville was a much different place in the 1940s, as Baltimore writer Baynard Woods reminds us in his excellent profile of Esquerita for The Oxford American’s winter 2019 music issue on South Carolina. It was in 1947 that Willie Earle was taken from the Greenville city jail and killed by local taxi drivers who believed him responsible for another driver’s murder.
That same year, Reeder began playing piano at Tabernacle Baptist Church (the black Tabernacle, not the conservative white one, as Woods’ article points out) where his mother directed the choir.
As a teenager, Reeder ran off with traveling gospel shows of the day. Reeder played with Sister O.M. Terrell, whose rock-and-blues guitar-driven gospel rivaled Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and also with gospel great Brother Joe May. (One of gospel’s most important groups, the Dixie Hummingbirds, had first taken flight in Greenville.)
Reeder was likely in his late teens when he sashayed into the life of a young Richard Wayne Penniman, who was hanging out a bus station café in his hometown of Macon, Georgia.
In an interview clip from a television show, Little Richard explains in his idiosyncratic way: “I met him at the bus station. One night I couldn’t sleep in my hometown. I would sit there all night and watch people get off the bus … you understand. And he got off.”
All 6 feet 2 inches of him. “And I said, oh boy!”
Little Richard credits Esquerita as his primary influence on piano, especially after hearing him play “One Mint Julep” by The Clovers.
“He was one of the greatest pianists, and that’s including Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder or anybody I’ve ever heard,” Little Richard said of Reeder. “He had the biggest hands of anybody I’d ever seen. His hands was about the size of two of my hands put together.”
In a 1983 interview with Kicks magazine also cited by Woods, Esquerita recalled: “When I met (Little) Richard, he wasn’t using the ‘obbligato’ voice. Just straight singing.” [Ed.: it’s unlikely this is the correct usage of “obbligato,” which means the notes you are obliged to sing, rather than the optional “ad libitum” that we know as “ad lib.” Possibly Esquerita meant Richard’s trademark falsetto?]
Reeder proceeded to record some gospel tunes with the Heavenly Echoes in Brooklyn in 1955—the same year Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti.”
Then he moved back South. He played clubs in Greenville’s West End and wore rhinestone gowns and capes at little dives like the Owl Club on Washington Street. White folks were allowed in the black clubs, and, according to Woods, one night a member of Gene Vincent’s band heard him.
That led Capitol Records to sign Esquerita and release his first singles in 1958, then an entire album, “Esquerita!” in 1959. The notes on the back cover declare the music as “truly the farthest out man has ever gone.”
Rockin’ Across the Country
Dozens of Esquerita recordings are available. Some are much better than others.
The early Capitol singles “stand as some of the most untamed and unabashed sides ever issued by a major label,” reviewer Cub Koda wrote.
One of Reeder’s signature tunes was also his most interesting. “Esquerita and the Voola,” named for the spirit he claimed inhabited his music, opens with a rumba drumbeat, cymbals and then his piano. There are no words—literally—as he howls “wooo, wooo.”
Then, the woos become an unnerving wail that must have seemed very strange to early rock ‘n roll listeners. “Voola” ends with an amazing piano flourish that puts Esquerita’s jaw-dropping skills on display. He finishes with an off-key scream that wouldn’t be out of place on a Skinny Puppy industrial-alternative record in the 1980s. It was just too off-center to become the hit he needed.
Esquerita rocks, appropriately, on “Believe Me When I Say Rock ‘n Roll Is Here to Stay,” which features a jaw-dropping piano solo of improvisational soul-jazz.
Esquerita’s groovy “Please Come Home” opens with Esquerita playing some eerie keyboard parts and blues guitar, but then becomes a straight-up blues with some great sax. A more aged Esquerita’s pace and drawl reminded me of white blues singer Delbert McClinton.
Esquerita would move on to Dallas and then New Orleans, sometimes performing and even recording under other names like The Magnificent Malochi, and, while in drag, as Fabulash. He’d met performers Lloyd Price and Fats Domino on the road, so he was welcomed as a regular at the Crescent City’s famed Dew Drop Inn.
In The Oxford American, Woods writes that Esquerita even played for Berry Gordy in Detroit before Gordy founded Motown, and then in the 1960s in New York with drummer Idris Muhammad. Those recordings emerged many years later.
In the 1970s, Esquerita even joined Little Richard’s band. His old friend recorded some of Esquerita’s songs, including the R&B hit “Freedom Blues” and “The Dew Drop Inn” about the club in New Orleans. “Meet your bad friends, baby, at the Dew Drop Inn,” they both would sing. “Come on children to the Dew Drop Inn.”
On a later Esquerita recording, “Wig-Wearin’ Mama,” Reeder sounds noticeably older, but no less daring: “I ran my fingers through her hair,” he sings, “and it fell on the ground!”
Woods writes that musicians and Kicks magazine founders Miriam Linna and Billy Miller later spotted Esquerita in 1983 at a New York City bar called Tramps. They were stunned, and they decided to put him on their cover, quoting his stories about first meeting Little Richard and hanging out with James Brown, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
They also helped Esquerita find old master recordings of unreleased demos. Shortly before the songs were released, Esquerita called from a Harlem hospital and left a message asking for a meal of rice and beans.
By the time Linna made it to the hospital, Eskew Reeder had died. On Oct. 23, 1986, he succumbed to complications from a mysterious new virus called HIV.
He was only 50. Eskew Reeder was buried in an unmarked grave on nearby Hart Island.
As we remember your soul brother Little Richard, we remember you, too, Esquerita– you daring, talented, ground-breaking wild thang.
All of Alan Richard’s writings on country and soul music can be found on his blog, Soul Country.