Mercer honors Little Richard

wcrenshaw@macon.comMay 11, 2013 

Good golly, Little Richard is a doctor.

On Saturday, not far from where he grew up decades ago in poverty and segregation, Mercer University bestowed the music legend with an honorary doctorate of humanities.

At the school’s commencement ceremony, over 500 graduates and a near capacity crowd at Hawkins Arena gave him a rousing standing ovation after school President Bill Underwood presented him with the degree.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman 80 years ago in Macon, he didn’t speak and left immediately after getting the degree. In an interview prior to the ceremony, he said he recently had hip surgery and wasn’t feeling well. He was in a wheelchair.

He has long lived in Hollywood, but said Macon is close to his heart and he was honored to get the degree.

“I feel good getting this degree,” he said. “I appreciate them giving it to me. I have a lot of good friends here in Macon, although they are old now.”

Underwood began his introduction of Little Richard with an attempt at the opening lyrics of his first hit, “Tutti Frutti,”

“A-wop-bom-a-loo-lop-a-lomp-bom-bom,” Underwood said, depending on one’s interpretation. “That is the sound of the birth of rock and roll, a sound born deep in the American South, in a segregated neighborhood, here in Macon, Georgia, in the mid 1950s.”

Penniman’s longtime friend, Macon resident Gary Montgomery, said he first suggested to Underwood seven years ago that the school recognize the singer with an honorary degree. He said they wanted to do it when he wasn’t on tour and could be here to get it, and this year Penniman said he could come.

“I thought it would be good because he is from Macon and he was raised in Macon and a lot of people know him, and he promotes Macon,” said Montgomery. a record producer.

Montgomery said he thought it was particularly appropriate that Penniman would get a humanities degree.

“He loves all people, regardless of whether they are black, white or purple,” he said.

Just before he was given the degree, he was honored with a video montage played on the arena scoreboard featuring many of his hit songs. It was mostly black-and-white film of Little Richard in his prime, showing off the high-energy style that made him a sensation.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, a Mercer graduate, gave the commencement address. He told the graduates the life ahead them was a blank canvas.

“Today that paintbrush is placed in your hands,” he said. “From this day forward you will be painting your future on that canvas.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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