Little Richard, the Great Innovator of Rock and Roll ~ The New Yorker

Little Richard standing while playing the piano on stage
The core of Little Richard’s music career was brief, but his influence was, and is, everywherePhotograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

 

One of the most foolish things that you can do is to begin the day by checking the news. This Saturday morning, the news came that Richard Wayne Penniman—Little Richard—had died. He was eighty-seven and had been in failing health. A different President might take the time to commemorate the passing of a great American, one who shaped the culture and its national sound. Don’t hold your breath. But please do play his music and watch his performances: “Tutti Frutti” will lift your heart. “Rip It Up” will get you out of the chair. And isn’t that what you need?

The core of Little Richard’s career was brief—he recorded an incandescent string of hits in the mid-fifties and then went off to rediscover his faith. In the years that followed, he’d dip in and out of show business, and there were some inspired moments, but he was a comet, not a planet. The trail of light that he left behind was, and is, everywhere. Try to imagine Muhammad Ali without Little Richard’s winking persona, his swing and swagger (“I am the King!”). Try to imagine James Brown, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Elton John, and Prince without his electrical charge. Little Richard was an original, and he did not hesitate to remind his students of their debt. He once looked into a television camera and, with affection, told Prince, “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”

Rather than watch the news–––it can wait––go to YouTube and watch Little Richard’s performances of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “She’s Got It,” “Lucille,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Banging boogie-woogie time with his right hand and singing miles beyond anyone’s idea of a “register,” he is a human thrill ride. There is more voltage in one of those three-minute performances than there is in a municipal power station.

One of the underrated books in the pop music library is “The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock,” an authorized biography/oral biography, by Charles White. Calling on multiple voices, it tells a revolutionary, ecstatic, sometimes heartbreaking story. Richard Penniman was born in 1932 into a large, poor Christian family, in Macon, Georgia. His father was a brick mason and a bootlegger. One of Richard’s legs was shorter than the other, making him a source of mockery among other children. “They thought I was trying to twist and walk feminine,” he once told Rolling Stone. “The kids would call me faggot, sissy, freak.”

As a boy, Richard was raised in the Pentecostal Church and sang gospel on Sundays with a family group called the Penniman Singers and another group called the Tiny Tots Quartet. His earliest musical influences included Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Brother Joe May, the “Thunderbolt of the Middle West.” Even as a child singer, Richard was known for his high range and incredible volume. But, in his father’s eyes, he was unbearably effeminate and not to be tolerated. When Richard was a teen-ager, he was thrown out of the house and went to live with Ann and Johnny Johnson, a white couple who ran a local venue, the Tick Tock Club.

Richard was a poor student but, musically, he was a fast learner. He first learned to play the piano in church, but after hearing Ike Turner’s recording “Rocket 88,” and studying the style of S. Q. Reeder, Jr., better known as Esquerita, he adopted a pounding, mesmeric style. Throughout his teens, he was in and out of outfits like Buster Brown’s Orchestra (where he got the name Little Richard) and the Tidy Jolly Steppers. He sang, sometimes wearing a red evening gown, under the name Princess Lavonne, in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show. He was serving his musical apprenticeship in the last days of these minstrel shows; he also inhabited a world of strippers and drag queens and brash comedians. He studied the flashy showmanship of Atlanta-based performers like Roy Brown, who had a hit with “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and he adopted the pompadour and pancake makeup of the jump-blues singer Billy Wright. He played the Dew Drop Inn, in New Orleans, where the m.c. was a famous female impersonator and performer named Patsy Vidalia.

Little Richard signed with RCA Victor in the early fifties, but his career didn’t quite ignite. He was still washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station to make a living. Things changed in 1955, when Art Rupe of Specialty Records put him together with some stellar New Orleans players, including the drummer Earl Palmer and the saxophonist Lee Allen. On September 14th of that year, they recorded “Tutti Frutti,” a bawdy boogie-woogie that Little Richard had been performing in countless drag bars. It included lewd verses such as “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” At the instruction of the producer Robert (Bumps) Blackwell, a songwriter named Dorothy LaBostrie worked with Little Richard to tone down the lyrics. But it wasn’t so much the lyrics as the beat and the ecstatic yowl—“A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”—that made the song a hit. The record sold widely to blacks and whites. (And it did even bigger business among white listeners when Pat Boone recorded it.) For the next couple of years, Little Richard was a star at the highest level of the new art of rock and roll.

In the late fifties, while touring Australia, Little Richard said that he saw a powerful vision in the sky that caused him to give up rock and roll, come home, and enroll in Oakwood Bible College, in Huntsville, Alabama. In the years to come, he made forays back into music, secular and religious, but he was always torn. When Little Richard played the Star Club, in Hamburg, the Beatles were his opening act. “He used to read from the Bible backstage, and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen,” John Lennon told an interviewer.

Despite Little Richard’s own ambivalence about rock and roll, his influence spread quickly, and it ran deep. In the Iron Range town of Hibbing, Minnesota, a high-school kid named Robert Zimmerman listened all night to faraway radio stations playing country music, blues music, and the first rock-and-rollers: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, and, the one he loved the most, Little Richard. In his high-school yearbook, he wrote that his ambition was “to join ‘Little Richard.’ ” His high-school band, the Golden Chords, played Little Richard covers. At a talent show in Hibbing High’s unaccountably ornate auditorium, the principal yanked the curtain shut on the Golden Chords and their cover of a Little Richard tune. Zimmerman wore his hair in a high, poufy pompadour, just like his idol. “I was trying to look like Little Richard, my version of Little Richard,” he told an interviewer years later. “I wanted wild hair, I wanted to be recognized.” He left town and became a star in Greenwich Village with a new name: Bob Dylan.

It seemed evident that Little Richard both thrived on his sexuality but suffered terribly from the time that he had been cast out of his own home as a boy. Despite the flamboyance of his performances and his carriage, he never quite settled, publicly, on a sexual identity. Sometimes, he would say he was gay, sometimes bisexual, sometimes “omnisexual”; there were moments, feeling the weight of his religious background, when he even denounced homosexuality. As recently as 2017, in an interview with a Christian broadcaster, he talked about “unnatural affection.”

Chuck Berry, in his autobiography, recalls performing on the same bill as Little Richard at a school in Connecticut in the sixties. Little Richard, according to Berry’s account, asked Berry to come to his hotel room to “party.” Berry asked him if that meant just the two of them.

“Chuck, I’ve always wanted to perform with you since the first time I saw you on television and have thought about it ever since.”

To make love? Berry asked.

“You’d love it; it’s like no other performance in the world,” Little Richard replied.

Berry recalled, “I tried to match his smile, and then I suddenly excused myself in a rush to get ready for the show, but he bade me farewell in a contented voice, and that was that.”

In the seventies, Little Richard struggled mightily with a consuming cocaine habit. By the eighties, he was starting to suffer from a variety of health problems. Sometimes he would show up to receive an award, sometimes not. He turned down interview requests, played rarely onstage, and gradually faded from public view. But the recordings, the legacy, is there to pick you up, even in the hardest times. “You can’t keep still when you hear the great Little Richard,” as Buddy Holly put it. “He’s the wildest act in rock and roll.”

Or, as Little Richard himself described his effect on body and spirit, “My music made your liver quiver, your bladder splatter, your knees freeze—and your big toe shoot right up in your boot!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s