Little Richard made the kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll you think only exists in the movies.
Richard pounds the piano, scats out some vocals, the weak of heart faint, the old women scold, and the only thing the sundress-&-white-gloves-wearing, fan-carrying bastions of middle-class Americana can think to say are words like “Well, I never”, and “Land sakes!”.
There was never anything ‘little’ about Little Richard – the hair was huge, the performances were grandiose, and the character was most definitely larger than life.
Little Richard’s music was monumentally important to the early years of rock and roll, but just as important to the future of rock was Richard’s irrepressible personality, the kind of flamboyant rock diva that some would label a menace to society, while others would hail as a living legend.
Born in December 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was one of 12 children born to Bud and Leva Mae Penniman of Macon. His father sold bootleg liquor and owned a bar called The Tip In Inn, while his mother ran a rapidly growing household.
Richard had two powerful influences in his youth: His family’s strong Seventh Day Adventist faith (his paternal grandfather was a minister) and the gospel music that went along with it.
Both would play into Little Richard’s later life, but the music came first.
Little Richard had taken his stage name as a child, and by the mid-1940s, he was already building a reputation as a manic performer on the Atlanta-area R&B club scene.
A series of recording gigs followed, and in 1955, Little Richard signed with Specialty Records and producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell.
Under the Specialty label, Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti at the end of 1955, a song that would soon make his career.
Under Blackwell’s direction, the song was recorded with Little Richard’s sense of wild spontaneity intact: The singing was over-the-top, the piano keys were practically assaulted, and the lyrics were borderline obscene.
The obscenities were rewritten and re-recorded before the song’s release, but that did little to dampen the charms of Tutti Frutti.
The song hit #17 on the US pop charts at the beginning of 1956, and Little Richard’s flamboyant rock and roll was officially launched at the world.
The establishment tried hard to sanitise Richard’s style for the masses (Pat Boone even recorded his own version of Tutti Frutti, which hit #12 hot on the heels of Richard’s original), but it would take an elephant tranquillizer to slow Little Richard down – and even that might not work!
The high-pompadoured, pencil-moustached (and openly gay) rock and roller went to on record a string of hits for Specialty over the next year – Long Tall Sally (also immediately covered by Boone), Slippin’ and Slidin, Rip It Up, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Jenny, Jenny, Keep A Knockin’ and others – and his live shows set off scandal alarms across the country and into the UK.
Little Richard also began popping up in the Rock & Roll films of the day, from Don’t Knock the Rock (1957) to The Girl Can’t Help It (1957) – the perfect venue for his outrageous looks and vibrant energy.
By the end of 1957, Little Richard had racked up an impressive string of hits on the R&B and pop charts, but that second powerful influence from Richard’s youth was about to make its presence felt. Little Richard had more than proven his ability to shock, but no one expected the announcement he made in October of 1957: He was quitting the rock world to study religion.
Little Richard made good on his promise, enrolling in an Alabama theological college to become a Seventh Day Adventist minister, but not before Specialty convinced him to lay down a few more tracks at the studio.
From these sessions came some of Richard’s most memorable songs: Good Golly, Miss Molly (a Top-10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic), Ooh! My Soul/True Fine Mama, Baby Face and more.
Little Richard focused on his ministry for several years, recording gospel tunes and such, but for a man this comfortable in the spotlight, a comeback was inevitable. R&B-styled rock and roll had always been bigger in Britain than it was in the US, and it was in the UK that Richard returned to rock and roll in late 1962.
Touring with such future British Invasion superstars as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – both of whom were greatly indebted to Little Richard as an influence – and The Dakotas (pictured below backing up Richard) the wild child returned to classic form, recording a few new numbers like Bama Lama Bama Loo to remind listeners where rock and roll came from.
Little Richard continued to tour for several decades, occasionally recording new material but mostly focusing on the nostalgic appeal of his classic hits.
A 1986 tune written for the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills (in which Richard appeared), Great Gosh A-Mighty (It’s a Matter of Time) nearly cracked the US Top 40, and Richard has recorded cover versions of everything from children’s sing-along’s (Itsy Bitsy Spider) to show tunes (I Feel Pretty).
But for most, Little Richard will always remain that pioneering showman who scandalised a nation and galvanised a generation of manic, piano-pounding rock and rollers.
Little Richard passed away on 9 May 2020. He was 87.