We lost some colorful and influential musical artists in 2016–David Bowie, Prince, George Michael. On the other hand, Boy George & Culture Club are still performing, and they blew a lot of minds at their Hollywood Bowl shows this past summer. Little Richard is also still around, but we haven’t heard much from him lately. All these artists have been both genre and gender-bending. Then there was the American R&B singer Esquerita. Like Bowie and Prince, he had tremendous energy, charisma, and fashion sense. Few could rival his pompadour, too. But sadly, few remember him today even though he influenced Little Richard and was one of the earliest performers to push the gender boundaries with his makeup and flamboyant style.
Esquerita was born Steven Quincy Reeder, Jr. (later shortened to Eskew Reeder) in Greenville, South Carolina on November 20, 1935. He came of age the same time as Little Richard, and both hailed from the South (Little Richard was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932). Their early life trajectories were similar–both grew up in the church singing gospel, both learned how to play a mean piano (Esquerita was self-taught), and both recorded their albums around the same time as well, in the mid-to-late 1950’s. Like Little Richard, Esquerita made potent early R&B pop, and enjoyed success and notoriety both here in the U.S. and in England. Rockabilly giant Gene Vincent liked him so much that he convinced Capitol Records to sign him.
He adapted his name Eskew Reeder into Esquerita, though he also later called himself the Magnificent Malochi and other stage names. For his Capitol major-label debut, he recorded 21 songs, 12 of which came out on Esquerita! (Capitol T 1186) in May 1959. By the late 1950’s, however, popular tastes were changing, at least in the U.S., and his album got little notice. The same was not true, however, in England and France, where his music continued to be popular. Esquerita later recorded for labels like Okeh, Instand, Minit, and Brunswick, but he faded from the music scene by the 1970s and never achieved the lasting fame of Little Richard. Esquerita died of complications from AIDS in 1986.
Roger Steffens (KCRW’s The Reggae Beat, 1979-1991) and I interviewed Little Richard on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1986 for a BBC TV show and this is what Little Richard said about Esquerita:
On this cut you can hear the influence he had on Little Richard’s piano playing: