Politics

He put the R in rock ‘n’ roll: Remembering Little Richard

Artist and Musician Biographies provides this background of his beginnings:

In 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was born the third of twelve children. Living on a dirt road in a very poor section of Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s father, Charles “Bud” Penniman supported the family through his work as a Seventh Day Adventist preacher and his profits from being a part-time moonshine salesman.

Little Richard’s life with his family was disrupted by his father’s suspicion that Richard might be homosexual and he was forced to leave home at the age of 14. His first record contract came as a result of winning a talent contest in Atlanta that led to his signing on with the RCA Victor label in 1951. Only eighteen at the time, he recorded four albums with little success. Not having accomplished fame yet, Richard went home to Macon in the winter of 1952 after his father was murdered. He took a daytime job as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at the local Greyhound bus station and performed the blues at the Tick Tock Club in the evenings.

Also in 1952, Richard met Bill Wright, a blues singer from New Orleans who would influence him greatly. Wright’s stage appearance consisted of loud, colorful attire as well as a hairstyle that was piled high upon his head and full of pomade, called a pompadour. But most of all, Little Richard was taken by the eyeliner and face powder that Wright would don for shows. Richard would later become known for his made-up and flashy appearance on stage, a look that he adopted from Wright. In many respects, Little Richard would become the most outrageous rock star of the 1950’s. His concert work was characterized by unrestrained gospel like shouting, sustained and heavy piano stomping and a highly energetic and very sexy stage act.

I think this photo of young Richard is gorgeous:

The “True Kings of Rock” series, produced by Bugsy Cline for Black Sheep Entertainment, covers his history.

Little Richard’s first hit single, recorded in 1955, was “Tutti Frutti,” which he wrote with Dorothy LaBostrie. Here he is performing it in the 1956 movie, Don’t Knock the Rock.

“Tutti Frutti” was then covered by Elvis and Pat Boone. I hate to do this, but I have to ask you to compare.

Richard commented about this in Richard Harrington’s 1984, “A Wopbopaloobop“ story in The Washington Post:

“They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way,” he says testily, not naming them. “I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of the rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out, Elvis was immediately put on me, dancing and singing my songs on television. They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting. Later on, I looked back and I thanked Elvis and Pat for doing my stuff because they really opened the door for me into the pop market.”

“Tutti Frutti” was immediately followed by another hit, “Long Tall Sally.”

Songfacts notes:

There really was a “Long Tall Sally,” but she was not a cross-dresser as sometimes reported. Little Richard explained that Sally was a friend of the family who was always drinking whiskey – she would claim to have a cold and would drink hot toddies all day. He described her as tall and ugly, with just two teeth and cockeyed. She was having an affair with John, who was married to Mary, who they called “Short Fat Fanny.” John and Mary would get in fights on the weekends, and when he saw her coming, he would duck back into a little alley to avoid her […]

Richard’s producer, Bumps Blackwell, had him record the vocal exceptionally fast in an effort to thwart Pat Boone. Boone’s version of “Tutti Frutti” sold better than Little Richard’s, so Blackwell tried to make it very difficult for Boone to copy. He had Richard work on the line “duck back down the alley” over and over until he could sing it very fast. He figured Boone could never match Richard’s vocal dexterity.
Despite the efforts of Blackwell, Boone covered the song in 1956. His version was very clean and sterile, making it acceptable to white audiences who couldn’t handle Little Richard. Unlike his cover of “Tutti Frutti,” however, his version was not a bigger hit than the original – it hit #8 in the US.

Like all of Little Richard’s hits, it was covered by multiple white musicians—including The Beatles.

This is a fascinating 1972 interview with him on the BBC Program, Late Night Line-Up.

For a deeper dive and a wild ride, Richard’s biography is probably one of the most interesting music biographies I’ve ever read. This is an excerpt from The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography by Charles White:

When Little Richard burst onto the scene in the early 1950s, he sounded like nothing on earth. Drenched in sweat, screaming, hollering and pumping his piano, he made all who followed soud tame. His stage act was so explosive that for years people assumed the real man could never match the flamboyant public image. Here comes Charles White’s sensational book exposing the even more astonishing life and times of Richard Wayne Penniman from Macon, Georgia. Illustrated with pictures from Little Richard’s own archive and including a comprehensive discography.  

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In 2000, Robert Townsand directed an NBC biopic called “Little Richard,” which was based on White’s book. I haven’t seen it yet—I am looking for a streaming link, so if you know of one, drop it in the comments!

When he died on May 9, 2020, there were many tributes to Little Richard’s genius and impact. This piece from The Guardian’s Tavia Nyong’o minced no words.

From “Too black, too queer, too holy: Why Little Richard never truly got his dues,” this excerpt gives a fuller context to the reasons Little Richard has been minimized in music history, despite his many achievements and innovations. 

How did a turbaned drag queen from the sexual underground of America’s deep south ignite rock’n’roll? We unravel the mystery behind Little Richard’s subversive genius

As the world marks and mourns the passing of Little Richard, many have been asking: how was someone so unapologetically black and queer present at the origins of rock, a world-shaking music still associated, to this day, with white male musical acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?

All these artists and more, including Bob Dylan in a Twitter thread, would be quick to acknowledge Little Richard’s formative influence on them. But “influence” is perhaps too weak a word here. Rock’n’roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him. The longstanding pissing contest over who can claim the title “King of Rock’n’Roll” – Elvis? Jerry Lee Lewis? – is a case in point. While his authorised biographer went celestial in choosing to style Richard “the Quasar of Rock”, perhaps we might do better to listen to the artist, introducing himself at the Club Matinee in Houston, Texas, in 1953: “Little Richard, King of the Blues … and the Queen, too!”

Might we hear in this brash boast an invitation to think in non-binary terms about Little Richard’s place in black musical history? At 20 Little Richard was already a showbiz veteran of half a decade, performing first as a turbaned mysterio and then as a drag queen named Princess LaVonne in the travelling shows that plied the southern black entertainment circuit of the late 1940s. Other queens and “freakish men” – as the black speech of the period named gender-non-conforming males – taught Little Richard the musical, performative and sexual ropes: performers like Esquerita, whose flamboyant persona and piano technique inspired Richard (the question of who wore the pompadour first will probably go for ever unanswered).

I’ll close with a full Little Richard concert, this one from Paris in 1966.

Little Richard Live in Paris November 1966. Backed by UK band, Johnny B. Great & The Quotations. (1) Lucille   (2) Good golly miss molly   (3) Rip it up    (4) Long tall sally  (5) Tutti frutti   (6) Jenny Jenny   (7) Send me some lovin   (8) Ready Teddy   (9) She’s got it  (10) Whole lotta shakin goin on

Hope this music has you rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ around the house today. Join me in the comments section below for more from Little Richard and some of his contemporaries.




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