Esquerita: The Other Originator of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp

To some [camp] means that which is fundamentally frivolous, to others the baroque as opposed to the puritanical…and to others — a load of poofs.– Kenneth Williams

Once upon a time, there was a piano-pounding R&B “shouter” from the South who would take the stage sporting a six-inch pompadour, rhinestone shades, brocaded shirts, heavy lipstick, and heavier jewelry — and his name was not Little Richard. In style, image, and performance mayhem, Esquerita taught Richard Penniman how to be Little Richard. Thus, there is more than a little selective memory when Little Richard routinely proclaims himself the “originator” and a dose of hypocrisy when he periodically claims that Prince stole his act. This is not to diminish the monumental contributions of Little Richard in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll, though, and observers have oft-commented on how the influence of Esquerita on Little Richard was a two-way street, the former borrowing many of Richard’s subsequent innovations. Either way, the flamboyant physical humor that each brought to rock ‘n’ roll’s developments established a strain that has coursed through rock history.

The visual and gesturing humor that Esquerita and Little Richard inducted into rock ‘n’ roll is often referred to as “camp”. A term first used in print during the early years of the 20th century, camp referred to variant types of ostentatious expression, usually featuring extreme affectations and theatrical effeminacy. (Indeed, the word “camp” derives from the French se camper, which means “to pose in exaggerated fashion”.) It soon became associated with — and typed and cast as — male homosexual articulation, both verbal and visual. Largely maligned and/or codified as vulgar bad taste by the dominant heterosexual culture, camp was seen as the art of the sexual outsider, of the abject, of the “other”; that is until Susan Sontag wrote and published her seminal “Notes on Camp”essay in 1964.

She recognized the pervasiveness of camp within contemporary popular culture, and associated its form and tone with ironic humor, while recognizing its thinly veiled aspects of social dissent and resistance. Since, camp humor has become a central tenet of postmodern aesthetics. No longer repressed or dismissed as the articulation of aberrant subcultures, nowadays camp is mainstream fare, celebrated via the movies of John Waters or in the musical iconography of David Bowie, Elton John, and Boy George. Their over-the-top displays of “queer parody” are often credited with providing tongue-in-cheek critiques of mainstream sexual identity norms, though arguably their subversive challenges have somewhat softened as camp has become more accommodated into broader social acceptance. Such was not always the case with camp, though.

Esquerita – Believe Me When I Say Rock´n´Roll Is Here To Stay

Prior to the swinging ’60s — with their gender-bending, free-form fashions and youthful parades of socio-political dissent — was the so-called “tranquilized ’50s”, where “the grey flannel suit” was both a filmic and stylistic signifier of dominant cultural requisites. Buttoned-down and rigidly demarcated into tacitly understood generation, gender, racial, and sexual roles, the conservative ’50s culture had little tolerance for outsiders, transgressors, or non-subscribers to the official regimen. As such, the emerging rock ‘n’ rollers were — to many — not only irritant upstarts but juvenile delinquents who posed real threats to the social fabric, particularly to the socialization of youth. And if, as transpired, Elvis Presley’s shaking leg, Gene Vincent’s leather jacket, and the clean-cut Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” could create a paranoiac commotion across the national body politic, then one can only imagine how mainstream society perceived the outlandishly camp (code: gay) gestures of the likes of Little Richard and Esquerita.

For these artists, however, their camp humor served as a life-preserver in the midst of surrounding prejudicial forces. A style crafted from within subaltern confines, camp operates via the implied rather than the explicit; its craftily coded slang serves to include the sexually marginalized and silenced within its “camp” as it simultaneously mocks the hypocrites of sexual repression (both straight and gay) who have themselves been (unwitting) participants in forming this humor of hint and allusion.

The camp “queening” that constituted the stage shows of Little Richard and Esquerita operated through what humor critic Andy Medhurst describes as a “reciprocated conspiracy” between artist and intended audience, where the latter “laugh at the gap between what is known and what can be said.” Of course, unintended audiences are ironically excluded from this in-“camp”, themselves marginalized into the role of outside observers. The humor of camp from their perspective — should it exist — is not one of inclusiveness and belonging, but one of scornful “superiority”, a laughing at rather than with, a reassignment of subject as object.

The camp humor of Little Richard and Esquerita, while critically contextualized against the mainstream white heterosexual adult culture, must also be mapped within the framework of the black R&B musical subculture of the ’40s and ’50s. While Little Richard and Esquerita certainly ushered in an effeminate twist and turn to outrageous performance styles, they were hardly the sole originators of such developments. Swing-setters Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and blues-jumpers Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris had long been recognized for their peacock-strutting looks and gestures, their smiles as wide as their ties and lapels, their gesticulations as “colorful” as their baggy suits.

These forerunning hipsters of young black urbanity wore their colors with similarly coded humor, though theirs was more class-conducted and race-related than sexuality-serving. Their gratuitous displays of success and upward mobility — as with many rappers a few decades later — mocked their real lower-class status while laughing in the face of racist whites perplexed as to why these poor players were refusing to perform their socially-scripted roles as “subservient negroes”. Whereas these trailblazers’ camp displays of kitsch gratuitously proclaimed the riches of the poor, Little Richard and Esquerita adopted and adapted their trickster codes into the more perilous minefield of homosexual identity. For that, camp was as much a means of survival and a marker of self than it was a comic stagecraft medium for showing off.

The Little Richard saga has, of course, been widely documented (much by the man himself), but little has been told (or known) of Esquerita, a maverick of similar stature, though one of more multitudinous marginality. The ultimate “odd man out”, besides being homosexual, black, bizarre-looking, crazy-behaving, and even crazier-playing in the midst of the “straight”-laced ’50s, Esquerita has also been a designated outsider to official rock ‘n’ roll history, pushed into the shadows beyond the bright lights of Little Richard. Furthermore, Esquerita’s life story is one shrouded in mystery, giving him a certain mythical “lost rocker”, outsider aura.

Born in the “Greasy Corner” section of Greenville, South Carolina, in 1935, Eskew Reeder Jr. grew up — like Little Richard and so many other early rock ‘n’ rollers — in a religious environment. He taught himself piano as a young child and was playing gospel in churches by the time he was ten years old. As part of the Heavenly Echoes gospel group he got his first tastes of the road and the recording process. When the band disbanded in the early ’50s, the by-then-named Esquerita took that road often traveled, drifting into the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene. It was while he was slugging out a living on the “chitlin’ circuit” in the Deep South during the early 1950s that Little Richard first caught his doppelganger’s act.

Apparently, Esquerita proceeded to pass on some hard-hitting piano tips to the young upstart and, more significantly, taught him the arts of visual shock humor and stage eccentricity. Fellow rebel Gene Vincent. along with his guitarist, Paul Peek, also admired the outrageous antics of Esquerita and introduced him to the A&R representatives at their label, Capitol Records, in 1958. Ironically, just as Capitol, two years prior, had signed Gene Vincent in an effort to get their piece of the Elvis Presley persona, so they welcomed Esquerita, hoping he would be their Little Richard.

Esquerita’s 1958 Capitol recordings were bold and brassy, as expected, courting the rollicking, raucous, piano-based New Orleans style that had been popularized by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and others.

As with Little Richard’s material, the lyrical content of the songs was largely innocuous and betrayed little of the sexual innuendo so pronounced elsewhere — in the trill ‘n’ whoop vocal delivery and camp-styled artist cover shots. Songs about “Lucy” and “Hattie” — like Little Richard’s about “Miss Molly”, “Lucille”, and “Sally” — served as masks and surface distractions for the sexual and gender-bending subversions that resonated elsewhere in the artist’s arsenal. Yet, despite Esquerita’s careful avoidance of explicit lyrical controversy, and despite following many of the musical and image templates that had served his fellow R&B peers so well in the mid-’50s, neither he nor his songs ever managed to catch on with the mainstream public; it appeared that one Little Richard was more than enough.

Songs from the 1958 sessions (later released on his debut and only album the following year), like “Rockin’ the Joint” and “Oh Baby”, revealed powerful boogie-belters, but they ultimately suffered from being too tightly tied to the then-established Little Richard sound. Though unusual and outrageous by any other ’50s rock ‘n’ roll criteria, Esquerita unfortunately arrived at a time when his niche had already been carved out. That 1959 eponymous LP, introducing our hero’s “rocking vocals and rolling piano”, is of primary interest today for its striking cover shot of Esquerita in camp full bloom, the bright colors and glistening sparkles of his attire and adornments bursting out from the sleeve. Nowadays, that original picture-sleeve disc, along with the one for the 1958 single “Hey Miss Lucy” / “I’m Battie Over Hattie”, are much sought-after on the collectors’ market, valued at around $2000 apiece.

Recognizing there was to be no second coming of Little Richard after the less-than-impressive sales of Esquerita, Capitol cut their ties and the original originator drifted off into a series of encounters and experiences shrouded in murky history. He attempted comebacks in the early ’60s, hooking up with Big Joe Turner and even Little Richard, but his was a spark that refused to light. The mystery that surrounds these post-Capitol years is exacerbated by the fact that he was not only constantly jumping from one independent label to another (Minit, Everest, Motown, Instant, Brunswick), but he was also constantly changing his stage name (Professor Eskew Reeder, Esquetita, Milochi, Voola, the Magnificent Malochi).

By the 1970s his performance schedule had been reduced to playing small-time shows in back-alley New York City gay clubs under the moniker “Fabulash”. Far from fabulous by this point, though, his career was in freefall, as was his personal life. After doing some jail time at Rikers’ Island under the name Mark Malochi, Esquerita spent his final years wandering the streets of New York, begging for change as an itinerant car window-washer. He died of AIDS, impoverished and largely forgotten, in Harlem in 1986. He was 48 years old.

Rock ‘n’ roll, like any history, abounds with the neglected, forgotten, or unfairly overlooked, as it does with its prominent and victorious. Esquerita still remains a footnote to biographical profiles of Little Richard, despite the fact that those characteristic falsetto trills, yelps, and screams first emanated from Esquerita’s mouth, and despite the fact that the rich and long-standing tradition of camp physical humor is as rooted in the legendary performances of Esquerita as with other rock ‘n’ rollers. Some have attempted to re-dress history’s shortcomings. Mick Jones, of the Clash fame, recorded a tribute song to Esquerita in 1988 with Big Audio Dynamite in which he described his subject as “Black Flash Gordon Rocket ’58”. The Cramps and other punkabilly acts have also either openly cited Esquerita as a source of influence or have adopted his camp charms or rambunctious methods.

Even Little Richard, not noted for his due deference, has made concessions to Esquerita’s influence and skills, recognizing the original source of many of his own chops and even calling him “one of the greatest pianists”. If the art of rebel-rock humor is one where characteristics of flamboyant physicality, ever-child eccentricity, and unabashed abandon play prominent roles in subverting the societal norms and expectations of race, gender, sex, and generation, Esquerita must surely be appreciated as more than a mere addendum.

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The above essay is an outtake from
Rebels Wit Attitude, a forthcoming book about subversive rock humorists to be published in November 2008 by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.