SALT LAKE CITY — The first phone call came around 4 a.m.
Garry Moore had left his phone in the kitchen to charge overnight, so he didn’t answer.
A few hours later, once Moore woke up and got some coffee in his system, he checked his phone. He had more than 15 text messages. He had also been tagged in several Facebook posts.
The reason: Little Richard, the pioneering music icon known as the “architect of rock ‘n’ roll,” had died. He was 87.
For many people, Moore was the first person to come to mind when they heard the news.
“My condolences Garry!!! You will carry on his legacy.”
“It’s up to you to keep his legacy alive.”
“It is up to you more than ever to carry on rocking his music.”
Those were just some of the messages that flooded Moore’s phone that Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day.
Moore isn’t related to Little Richard, whose given name was Richard Penniman. And while he did meet the rocker four times — and got to perform with him once — he considers himself more of an “acquaintance” than a friend.
But even still, in many people’s eyes, Moore is inseparable from Little Richard. In fact, when Moore stumbled upon a collage of Little Richard photos on social media following the artist’s death, he was surprised to see his own face in the center of that collage.
For 30 years, Moore has made a career out of impersonating Little Richard — from growing out his hair and styling it in a pompadour to wearing flashy outfits to screaming “Shut up!” and howling “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!”
Moore’s approach to his job hasn’t changed over the years. For three decades he’s looked and acted the part. “You want to stay on course with it. Don’t let your own personality slip into it,” he says.
But for fans across the world mourning the loss of Little Richard, Moore’s job is starting to take on new meaning.
“Even that day (Little Richard died) people said, ‘We wanted to interview Little Richard for a documentary thing that we’re doing,” Moore told the Deseret News from his home in Hawaii. “And, well, maybe we’ll interview you now because you’re the next best thing.”
Impersonating Little Richard
If he rushes, Moore can transform into Little Richard in 30 minutes. But he typically likes to take an hour — 30 minutes for the makeup and 30 minutes for the hair.
He applies liquid foundation to his face and sets it with powder. He puts on eyeliner and mascara and highlights the pencil mustache. And then he styles the hair. Moore wears a wig now because his own hair has thinned, but it still takes time to fluff it up and give it volume.
Then it’s showtime. Moore hits the stage in a sequined top and, with all of the rasp he can muster, sings Little Richard’s biggest hits — everything from “Good Golly Miss Molly” to “Lucille.”
This isn’t a career Moore ever imagined for himself — initially, he wasn’t even drawn to Little Richard’s music. Growing up in Hawaii, he was more into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones than he was the 1950s rockers like Elvis and Little Richard. But now, after 30 years, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
Moore was fresh out of the U.S. Army when the job fell into his lap. Vegas acts were visiting the military bases in Hawaii, and Moore, who was then 29 or 30, met an Elvis impersonator named Tony Roi.
Until then, Moore had always considered himself to be a “professional shower singer.” But Roi thought better of his voice — and he thought Moore looked like Little Richard.
Fascinated by impressionists like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin, Moore was open to the idea of the impersonator world.
So he spent three months watching every Little Richard video he could find.
He listened to Little Richard’s inflections. He studied the singer’s movements and mannerisms. He turned the volume down as he sang, blending his voice with the rock ‘n’ roll star’s.
Now, it’s hard for Moore — who can effortlessly slip into impressions of Elvis, James Brown and the Beatles — to sing in his regular voice. In fact, he said he finds it “boring.”
The first time Moore took the stage as Little Richard, he sang two songs — “Tutti Frutti” and “Lucille.” He wore an off-white beaded jacket, bedazzled with rhinestones, and did his best to portray the Little Richard of the 1950s.
Moore didn’t know it then, but that brief moment would lead to a long career — a unique path that would bring him face-to-face with the rock ‘n’ roll legend.
Meeting Little Richard
Little Richard was often surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards, and that was the case the handful of times Moore met the star.
Even offstage, the man put on a show.
“Every time I met him he was always like that, flamboyant, showing off around people,” Moore said, imitating Little Richard and shouting “Shut up!” in a high-pitched voice.
One of Moore’s first moments with Little Richard came in the mid-1990s. Back then, Moore was performing on the Las Vegas strip in a show called Legends in Concert. Little Richard was performing across the street at Caesars Palace. One night, between shows, Moore paid a visit to the man he had been impersonating for a few years.
It was like looking in a mirror.
“He was impressed that I was dressed up as him, saying, ‘Man, my hair was bigger than yours!’” Moore recalled with a laugh. “It was fun.”
But Moore’s most memorable moment with the music icon — and a highlight in his career — would come a decade later. In 2007, while competing on the ABC impersonator show “The Next Best Thing,” Moore got a chance to perform with the rock ‘n’ roll icon.
Little Richard, then in his 70s, was frailer and having trouble walking due to sciatica in his left leg. But he could still pound away at the piano.
What happened off the stage, though, is what Moore remembers most.
For once, Little Richard didn’t have his usual entourage. He was just a man in a dressing room. And in that moment, Moore saw a side to the entertainer he had never seen before.
“We just sat, two people. He wasn’t Little Richard; he was just like me,” Moore said. “He was Richard Penniman, just a normal guy, really.”
In that brief time, the two talked about the reach of Little Richard’s music — how it emerged during an era of segregation and helped break the color line. And how his music has since gone on to influence artists across countless genres.
“He said, ‘God bless Elvis and Pat Boone, because if those guys weren’t around, you wouldn’t have heard us. … They helped knock the doors down,’” Moore recalled, noting that Boone’s version of “Tutti Frutti” was initially a bigger hit on the Billboard charts than Little Richard’s.
But at the same time, Little Richard didn’t want it to be easy for people to emulate him, Moore said. So he sang fast and shrieked loud.
“It’s not singing to me, it’s screaming,” Moore said with a laugh. “We talked about God, religion a little bit. But we talked mostly about how hard it was to sing like him.”
“He wanted to be different.”
Little Richard lives on
Moore wasn’t surprised when he heard Little Richard died. The singer, who had bone cancer, had been in poor health for some time.
“I was mad more than sad,” he said. “Why now? With the pandemic … there’s not going to be a big sendoff kind of thing, like with Prince or Michael Jackson. That’s the sad part. Couldn’t he have just hung in there for another year?”
Little Richard was laid to rest in a private ceremony in Alabama on Wednesday.
Over the last few years, Moore had received calls about flying out to Tennessee and participating in a birthday bash for Little Richard, or performing in a tribute concert for the legendary artist. But those events never happened. And amid the coronavirus pandemic, they’re likely not to happen for some time.
But as Moore scrolled through his phone that Saturday, May 9, reading the influx of messages about keeping Little Richard’s music alive, he knew the rocker wouldn’t be forgotten anytime soon.
And as long as he’s performing on stage, he’ll see to that personally.