Born Richard Wayne Penniman, 5 December 1932, Macon, Georgia
Little Richard is the hero of my teenage years. More than anyone else, it was he who turned me on to rock ’n’ roll. It is still my (humble) opinion that nothing in music matches his Specialty recordings in terms of excitement. Remarkably, almost all of these were recorded within a time span of just 17 months, between September 1955 and January 1957. His influence has been huge, both on other American rock and rollers and on the British beat groups of the 1960s, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Richard Penniman was the third-eldest in a family of twelve children. His early years were crammed with musical influences - church meetings, family gospel- singing contests, travelling medicine shows, carnivals and circuses, where he saw the way-out stage acts that attracted him so much. His religious family saw secular R&B as “the devil’s music” ; as a consequence, Richard was already in his late teens before he had the courage to perform that kind of music on black variety shows. His main non-gospel influences were Roy Brown and especially Billy Wright, who became his mentor. Penniman imitated Wright in his dressing, his hairdo (a pompadour) and his make-up (eyeliner, mascara, lipstick and powder).
Richard first recorded in October 1951 in Atlanta for RCA Records, cutting four urban blues numbers, followed by another four in January 1952. All eight tracks from these two sessions were released on four singles. The records failed to catch on and hinted only vaguely at the explosion to come. In 1953 Richard moved to Houston, Texas, in 1953, where he recorded four R&B tracks for Don Robey’s Peacock label, including “Fool At the Wheel”. By this time he had formed his own band, the Tempo Toppers, which would be replaced by the Upsetters in 1954. In October 1953 Penniman cut four more numbers for Peacock, with Johnny Otis and his band but these were only released after his success on Specialty. According to Richard, it was Esquerita who taught him to play the piano around this time. He does not yet play piano on the RCA and Peacock recordings.
In February 1955, at the suggestion of Lloyd Price, Richard sent an audition tape to Specialty Records. It arrived wrapped in a piece of paper “that looked as though someone had eaten off it”, as Bumps Blackwell put it. Nevertheless, Blackwell and Specialty boss Art Rupe were intrigued enough by what they heard to set up a two- day recording session in New Orleans. However, this had to wait until September, as it turned out that Penniman was still contracted to Peacock. Backed by Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio band (Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Huey Smith, Frank Fields, Justin Adams, Earl Palmer), Richard ran through the songs of his audition tape and a few other blues numbers but the result was no more than formulaic. There was nothing that expressed the sheer outrageousness of his appearance. As Blackwell later put it, “If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse, things just don’t work out”.
Beginning to despair of recording anything marketable, Blackwell suggested a break at a nearby cafe (not the Dew Drop Inn, as has often been suggested) on the second day. There Richard began fooling around with the piano, pounding out an obscene ditty : “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, take it easy, tutti frutti, good booty.” Blackwell said “Wow! That’s what I want from you, Richard!” With cleaned-up lyrics, “Tutti Frutti” was the record that gave birth to the Little Richard as we know him - the gleeful “woo!"s, the furious piano playing, the sax-driven rhythm section with a relentless backbeat. It was his first hit (# 17 pop, # 2 R&B), although, ridiculous as it now may seem, Pat Boone’s cover version outdid Richard’s on the pop charts.
The follow-up, “Long Tall Sally”, topped the R&B charts and, peaking at # 6, was the first of his four Top 10 pop hits, despite another cover by Pat Boone. By that time (spring 1956) it was evident that both white and black record buyers preferred the real deal. Richard was at the peak of his success in 1956-57, churning out one classic hit after another : “Rip It Up” (his second R&B # 1), “Ready Teddy”, “She’s Got It”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Lucille”, “Jenny Jenny”, “Keep-A Knockin” and (in early 1958) “Good Golly Miss Molly” (all Top 10 R&B hits). His first LP, “Here’s Little Richard” peaked at # 13 in the album charts in 1957. Richard’s unforgettable appearances in the early rock & roll movies (“Don’t Knock the Rock” and especially “The Girl Can’t Help It”) also did a lot to spread the rock 'n' roll gospel to the masses.
Then, during an Australian tour in October 1957, Little Richard suddenly announced that he gave up rock and roll to devote himself to religion. He did one last session for Specialty and then enrolled in a Bible college in Alabama. Art Rupe drew on unreleased recordings for a few more hard-rocking singles in the late 1950s but Penniman virtually vanished from the public eye for several years. He returned to the studio, though, cutting gospel sides for End (1959), Mercury (1961) and Atlantic (1963). But in the autumn of 1962, during a tour of the UK, he was persuaded (by British concert promoter Don Arden) to sing rock & roll again, though not yet in his own country.
In 1964 he returned to Specialty for new R&R recordings, scoring a minor hit with “Bama Lama Bama Loo” (# 82 US, # 20 UK). But tastes had changed too much for Richard to become a hitmaker again. He spent the rest of the 1960s recording for the Vee-Jay, Modern, OKeh and Brunswick labels, trying in vain for a successful comeback. In 1970, “Freedom Blues” was a modest hit on Reprise (# 47).
It was the rock & roll revival of the 1970s that saved Richard’s career, enabling him to play on the nostalgia circuit with great success. By the late 1970s he had returned to the church but, somewhat predictably, he eased back into rock and showbusiness in the mid-1980s, playing oldies shows. He even reappeared on the charts with a song from the movie “Down And Out In Beverly Hills” (in which he played a cameo role), “Great Gosh A-Mighty” (# 42). It was also the opening track of his 1986 comeback album “Lifetime Friend”, which was produced by Stuart Colman. Little Richard was among the first sixteen inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Richard has announced his retirement on several occasions but he always returned to performing. His last album is a CD of children’s music (!), “Shake It All About”, for Walt Disney Records (1992). The leader of rebellious 50s rock who shook up the music business and the parents of the period had become a much-loved personality accepted by all age groups.
For me Little Richard was and is the personification of the energy of rock & roll. Awopbopaloobopalop bam boom!
More info :
Biography : Charles White, The life and times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock. New York : Harmony, 1984, updated edition Da Capo Press 1994 (282 pages). Has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Acknowledgements : Charles White, Rick Coleman, Rob Finnis, Richie Unterberger.
Dik, December 2015
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