Many adjectives could be applied to rock music pioneer Little Richard, who passed away at 87 after a long battle with bone cancer — “shy” and “retiring” would not be among them.
“I am the innovator. I am the originator!” he famously yelled, raucously.
One of the ten original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Little Richard was everything a rock star should be, right down to the glass bead shirts and pink stucco mansion. Although his time as a hitmaker was relatively short, his musical influence over decades was phenomenal.
He was born Richard Wayne Penniman on 5 December 1932 in Macon, Georgia. One of 12 children, he had an impoverished upbringing that resulted in his small stature and awkward gait (one leg was actually shorter than the other).
“I was born in the slums,” Little Richard once confided to Rolling Stone magazine. “My Daddy sold whisky — bootleg whisky.”
Nevertheless, Little Richard grew up around uncles who were preachers and sang at the local church. This conflicted with his natural flamboyance, setting Little Richard up for a lifetime battle between God and the Devil (or the “Devil’s music”, to be precise) for possession of his soul.
At the height of his fame, Little Richard said, “I would get off an orgy and go pick up my Bible”.
One day, Little Richard’s pious father came home early and found his 15-year-old son prancing around in his mother’s curtains, clothes and makeup, accused him of being gay and threw him out of the house. Little Richard’s sexuality could best be described as “fluid”. He gave a number of conflicting interviews about it and seemed to enjoy teasing the media with his gender-bending ways.
Little Richard took on a succession of menial jobs and was exposed to R&B, blues and country music while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium. He also started performing in his own right in clubs and at talent shows, sponsored by various well-wishers.
Early performances were relatively tame, although Little Richard began experimenting sartorially with outrageous outfits and the high black pompadour that became his trademark. When he cut a strange single called 'Little Richard’s Boogie' in 1956, he admitted he “didn’t know what to do with the thing I had”.
One day – bored to death washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station – Little Richard suddenly shouted: “A wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom!” How he didn’t get the sack on the spot is debatable but this became the chorus of one of his best-known songs 'Tutti Frutti' (released in 1956).
It set the music world on fire. Peaking at 17 on the pop chart, the crossover hit was a glorious mix of jump blues, tricked-up gospel and boogie-woogie. The original version was deliciously filthy – reminiscent of later Prince tracks – and had to be cleaned up considerably before public release.
Just as an aside, while being interviewed by Joan Rivers in 1989, Little Richard turned to Prince and addressed him as “the Little Richard of your generation”. He cheekily added, “I was wearing purple before you was [sic]wearing it!”
Little Richard’s follow-up track to 'Tutti Frutti', 'Long Tall Sally' (also released in 1956) was again composed when he was up to his elbows in soapsuds and dirty dishes. It became his most successful track, reaching number six on the pop charts and appealing to rock and rollers of all backgrounds and races.
Little Richard said in an interview,
“From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites.”
Like his contemporaries Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard attracted rabid fans and jam-packed concerts, but his stage persona was much wilder, with a pounding piano, outrageous outfits and screaming lyrics that reportedly shredded his voice after each performance.
“That’s what the kids of America were excited about. They don’t want the falsehood — they want the truth.”
Modesty wasn’t one of his strong points but Little Richard blazed on, pumping out hit after hit. These included the glorious 'Rip It Up'.
'Good Golly, Miss Molly' also became one of his signature tracks.
In addition, the screaming lyrics of 'Lucille' displayed Little Richard’s musical prowess, as did 'Jenny, Jenny'.
Paul McCartney of the Beatles later said:
“I could do the Little Richard voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out of body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You actually go outside yourself.”
In 1957, Little Richard experienced a religious conversion. He had a vivid nightmare about the end of the world and his own damnation. He also saw the Sputnik 1 satellite crossing the sky during an Australian tour and thought it was a plane engine on fire. He took this as a sign that he had to turn his back on the “Devil’s music”.
Consequently, he quit rock and roll in 1957 and went to Bible school, where he was eventually ordained as a minister. He released a gospel album in 1959 called 'God Is Real'. However, the conversion didn’t last and he soon returned to secular music. Although the hits had stopped, Little Richard did well on the nostalgia circuit.
Little Richard has been covered by an astonishing array of artists from the Beatles and the Kinks through to Elvis Costello, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Scorpions. His death prompted a flood of tributes.
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys said:
"If you love anything about the flamboyance of rock and roll, you have Little Richard to thank. He was the first. To be able to be that uninhibited back then, you had to have a lot of not-give-a-fuck."
Bryan Ferry, formerly of Roxy Music, said:
“ [Little Richard] hit me and the rest of my generation like a bolt of lightning”.
Describing the first time he heard 'Tutti Frutti', Patti Smith guitarist and writer Lenny Kaye said he:
“fell to the floor in uncontrollable laughter, inexplicable joy and unbridled release and madness”.
Arguably, the best tribute came from Brian Johnson of AC/DC, who recalled seeing Little Richard on television for the first time:
It was a Saturday, it was one o’clock and it was a sunny day. And this woman was going, 'And now, from America, we have Little Richard'. And it was this fucking black guy with this fucking ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was fucking prettier than a woman. And it was Tutti Frutti. [I was like] What the fuck? There was nothing, and then there was this!
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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