Way back in the 1950s, a flamboyant, gay African American piano-pounding daredevil came screaming out of the South, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, a face covered in pancake makeup, a pompadour piled to the heavens, and the ability to scream “WOOOOOO!!” like a banshee on a series of leering, innuendo-laden, raw rock ‘n’ roll tunes.
And his name wasn’t Little Richard.
We’re talking about Greenville, South Carolina’s own trailblazer, Eskew Reeder Jr., better known as Esquerita.
It’s impossible not to hear echoes of Little Richard on Esquerita’s most raucous numbers, like the careening 1958 raver “Rockin’ the Joint” or 1959’s “Hey Miss Lucy,” which features the lines, “Hey Miss Lucy, you’re too fat and juicy for me.” And when he lets out a gospel-meets-hellfire wail, the resemblance is uncanny.
And that’s because, as Little Richard happily admitted throughout his life, he learned a lot from Reeder. Born in Greenville in 1938 (some sources list his birth year as 1935), Reeder lived in Greasy Corner (now known as the West End) and was a self-taught piano player who was raised on gospel music. He took off from Greenville in his teens to join traveling gospel shows, playing piano with Little Sister Rosa and Brother Joe May.
He and Little Richard met when Sister Rosa and Reeder stepped off a bus in Macon, Georgia, in the early 1950s and a young Richard Penniman, doing a little people-watching at the bus station, was transfixed by all 6 feet, 2 inches of him.
On that fabled night in 1951 (or ’52; no one seems quite sure), the man who would soon become Little Richard took Reeder back to his house, sat him down at the piano and simply watched the show as Reeder pounded out a wild version of “One Mint Julep.”
“He was one of the greatest pianists, and that’s including Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder or anybody I’ve ever heard,” Little Richard once 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.”
Reeder tried his hand at gospel for years, and even recorded in New York with the gospel group Heavenly Echoes in 1955. Reeder left the gospel world when he moved back to Greenville in the late ’50s and began playing R&B and rock. Wearing rhinestone capes and sporting two wigs, he played places like the Owl Club on Washington Street while Little Richard’s star rose and fell.
But it wasn’t until rockabilly legend Gene Vincent’s guitarist, Paul Peek, “discovered” Reeder in 1958 that he officially recorded under the name Esquerita, unleashing a series of chaotic, raw rock & roll singles like “Oh Baby,” “Rockin’ the Joint” and “Laid Off” for Capitol Records in the late 1950s.
Of those Capitol singles, esteemed rock critic Cub Koda wrote that “they stand as some of the most untamed and unabashed sides ever issued by a major label.”
While none of those singles burned up the charts, Reeder sustained his recording career throughout the 1960s, working in Detroit, Nashville and New Orleans with a dazzling array of musicians, including Dr. John, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Toussaint and eventually Little Richard himself.
Reeder ended up in New York City in the early ’80s, eking out a living playing small clubs before dying from AIDS-related complications in Harlem in 1986. It was a sad end for a performer who deserved better; without Esquerita’s voice, piano playing and over-the-top style, there would have been no Little Richard, an influence on countless eye-catching, androgynous, flamboyant rock and soul icons that we know and love.
So as we pause to remember great African American artists during Black History Month, remember Esquerita’s name, and remember that this unheralded pioneer came from right here in Greenville.
TOP FIVE ESQUERITA TRACKS:
1. “Rockin’ The Joint,” (1958)
A rollicking pile driver of a tune with honking sax, some out-of-this-world high-note piano work and a huskier tone than Reeder would use on his later work.
2. “Hey Miss Lucy,” (1959)
The “WOOOS” come fast and furious on this grinding, leering rocker, one of the most lewd items in the Esquerita catalog.
3. “Oh Baby,” (1958)
Esquerita’s debut Capitol single damn near careens of the rails with a double-time boogie-woogie piano solo and Cro-magnon drums that sound like early heavy-metal.
4. “Laid Off,” (1959)
Esquerita’s woe-is-me tail of getting canned from his job is carried along by a more low-key delivery, right up until the ear-piercing shriek and the atonal piano-pounding solo, that is.
5. “Green Door,” (1962)
This later cut from Minit Records has a serious Booker T. & The MG’s vibe, with Esquerita on Farfisa organ and a piston-pumping rhythm section.