Little Richard

The Architect of Rock and Roll

Little Richard was one of the seminal figures of rock and roll. Just ask him. Never at a loss for words, at various times he has claimed to be the “originator,” the “creator,” the “inventor,” the “emancipator” and the “architect” of rock and roll. And he can back up those claims: with a string of hit singles in the ‘50s that can be matched only by the greatest names in rock’s early history- such as Elvis Presley, Fats, Domino, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. He may not qualify as the true inventor or originator, but he is certainly the primary architect of rock and roll music.

Little Richard was the original wild man of rock. He embodied the essentially anarchic, hedonistic nature of the “rock star.” His shocking, androgynous persona (thick pancake makeup, mascara, lipstick, pencil thin moustache and bouffant/pompadour hairstyle) and equally scandalous behavior, both on and off stage, set the standard for the many generations of rock musicians who were to follow after him. He has always lived by a simple credo: “I am what I am. Shut up!”

Musically, his influence was equally as far-reaching and enduring. Early in his career, Jimi Hendrix (who actually played guitar on a few Little Richard recordings) said, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” In an interview in 1970, John Lennon described his first encounter- in 1956, at age sixteen: “this boy at school said he’d got this record by somebody called Little Richard who was better than Elvis…The new record was Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ [a song the Beatles, themselves, later recorded]. When I heard it, it was so great I couldn’t speak. … I didn’t want to leave Elvis, but this was much better.”

Little Richard melded the unbridled power of rhythm and blues with the frenzied intensity of gospel music. Pounding the piano and wailing ecstatically, no other rock musician has ever surpassed the energy of his performances. His impassioned howls, rapturous falsetto trills, and the sheer fervor of his vocal delivery were pivotal aspects in transforming rhythm and blues into an exciting new musical form: rock and roll.

Born December 5, 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was raised in Macon, Georgia, the third of twelve children. He was born slightly deformed, with a short arm and leg. His  family was active in the Pentacostal church. Two of his uncles and one of his grandfathers were preachers; though his father reputedly sold bootleg whiskey.

As a child, he sang with the gospel groups the Penniman Singers and the Tiny Tots Quartet. He learned a bit of piano in church and once sang on stage with Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium. Richard had a gregarious personality (today, he would probably be considered hyperactive) that was quite infectious- he was a very popular boy; but it also frequently got him into trouble.

Alleged homosexual activity led to Richard’s leaving home at the age of thirteen. He moved in with Ann and Johnny Johnson, a white family who ran the Tick Tock Club in Macon. It was there that he first began performing. By age fifteen he was a regular with Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show and toured the vaudeville circuit  throughout the south for a time.

In 1951, he won a talent contest staged by radio station, WGST in Atlanta. The prize was a recording contract with RCA Victor. Through his connection with r&b disc jockey Zenas Sears, Richard first recorded for RCA at the WGST studios, cutting four urban jump blues tracks with his mentor, Billy Wright’s orchestra- “Taxi Blues” being the first of four single released on the RCA label. “Every Hour” and “Get Rich Quick” soon followed. All met with modest success, becoming minor local hits.

Billy Wright was an early influence in Richard‘s career. An Atlanta blues singer, Wright was known to dress flamboyantly, with heavily pomaded hair, piled high on his head. But it was Wright’s stage make-up of eyeliner and face powder that made a  real impression on Richard.


Another local performer who played a significant role in Richard’s early development was Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr.), who also dressed outrageously, with a towering pompadour amassed atop his head. Vocally, Richard closely emulated Esquerita’s falsetto whoops and screams. And, at Esquerita’s suggestion, Richard incorporated more piano into his act- pounding away on the keys in a style very similar to that of his guru.

In the winter of 1952 Richard’s father was shot to death under dubious circumstances (the killer was eventually set free); leaving Richard as the family’s sole means of support. He returned to Macon, performing at the Tick Tock Club at night, while washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station cafeteria during the day. Richard’s second session with RCA in 1952 was less successful than the first. His contract with RCA eventually expired and was not renewed.

Later that year Richard moved to Houston, where he recorded for Don Robey’s Peacock label. He released a series of singles for Peacock, first, with the Deuces of Rhythm as his back up band. Then he formed the Tempo Toppers. In early 1955 he recorded his last two singles for Peacock, backed by the Johnny Otis Trio. One of the songs, “Little Richard’s Boogie,” offers some indication as to what his style would eventually become. But nothing ever came of the Peacock recordings, and he was soon released from his contract.

Down on his luck and back in Macon in February 1955, Richard dejectedly returned to his job as a dishwasher in the Greyhound bus station cafeteria. But, though discouraged, he remained steadfastly determined. He formed Little Richard and the Upsetters; cutting a demo tape at a local studio. Richard’s friend  Lloyd Price suggested that he send the demo be to Specialty Records in Los Angeles- with whom Price had recorded the million-selling hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”

Bumps Blackwell

Bumps Blackwell

Art Rupe, the owner of Speciality, was not especially impressed by Richard’s demo tape. But he did hear some raw potential in the young singer. Six months later, he finally contacted Richard. A recording session was arranged in New Orleans’ J&M Studios, owned by Cosimo Matassa, and the studio home to Fats Domino. Robert “Bumps” Blackwell was assigned the responsibility of meeting with Richard and recording the session.

The studio house-band was recruited for Richard’s first Specialty recording session- with Earl Palmer on drums, Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler on baritone sax and Lee Allen on tenor sax. Huey “Piano” Smith was possibly in attendance, as well. On September 13, 1955, Little Richard entered Specialty studios to cut his first tracks.

But Blackwell was no more successful at recording Richard than any of his predecessors had been. Richard had chosen to cut a number of slower blues numbers, which did not generate a lot of excitement with producer Blackwell. During a break, in a next-door bar, Richard sat down at an old upright piano in the corner of the room and began pounding on it like Esquerita; singing raucously; shamelessly hamming it up on a lewd filler piece he had written called “Tutti Frutti.”

Blackwell was stunned by the performance. For, it was precisely the sound he had been hoping to elicit from Richard all along . Local lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie was quickly brought in to clean up the song’s lyrics. She changed the line “Tutti Fruiti, good booty” to “Tutti Fruiti, aw-rootie.” With only fifteen minutes of time remaining in the scheduled recording session, the group returned to J&M studios, banging out a wild and rousing single take of the song.

“Tutti Frutti” with its bombastic opening line, “a-wop-bomp-aloo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom,” became an instant hit; eventually selling three million copies. The song climbed to # 2 on the r&b charts in late 1955, and hit # 17 on the pop charts in early ’56. Oddly enough, that same month, it also became a hit for Pat Boone, rising to # 12 on the pop charts.

Over the course of  the next two years, Richard recorded and released a total of thirty-six songs. From that wealth of material, Specialty released nine singles (seven went gold) and two albums. For eighteen straight months, between early 1956 through the middle of 1957, everything he recorded became a Top 40 smash. The follow-up to “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” topped the r&b charts, reached # 6 on the pop charts and was the first of his three consecutive Top 10 pop hits, despite being covered by Pat Boone, whose version of “Tutti Frutti” was still in the pop charts.

Richard continued with the double-sided hit “Rip It Up”/“Ready Teddy,” released late in 1956. That same year, Little Richard was featured in the film Don’t Knock The Rock, which also starred Bill Haley. Later in 1956, Richard performed the title song in the film The Girl Can’t Help It. In 1957, he continued his string of hits,  with “Lucille” (# 21 on the pop charts), “Jenny, Jenny” (# 10) and “Keep A-Knockin’” (# 8). Later in the year he appeared in the film Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll. He also released a Top 20 album, Here’s Little Richard. 

But Little Richard could also be extremely erratic. Blackwell liked to tell  the tale of a recording session that was set for a Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with 40 people waiting, at double-time pay- when Richard, arriving late, announced that “the Lord does not want me to record today.”

Even more bizarre, at the very peak of his career, Richard announced that he was abandoning rock and roll to enter the Oakville Seminary in Huntsville, Alabama, ostensibly to become a Seventh Day Adventist minister. Later he would claim that he, in fact, studied accounting at the seminary college (receiving his BA), never actually becoming an ordained minister. There may be some truth to that, because he eventually ended up suing Specialty for unpaid back royalties. But, all the same,  he did abruptly begin to conduct himself in a distinctly more evangelical fashion.

Richard made the decision to retire while touring Australia with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, in October of 1957. He declared that he had seen a vision of the apocalypse in a dream, in which he witnessed his own damnation to hell. A few days later, while on a night flight, between concert stops in Australia, Richard panicked when he saw the glow of overheated plane engines. Believing the craft was on fire and on the verge of falling from the sky, he prayed to God, promising that if he were spared, he would mend his wicked ways. Of course, the plane landed safely.

A few days later, while performing at an outdoor engagement, he glimpsed the Russian satellite, Sputnik, passing over head. And a few days after that, a plane in which he was scheduled to have flown, crashed. He interpreted those events as a divine warning that he should reconsider the life choices he had been making. In a well-known incident, Richard threw a valuable ring into the sea, to prove his convictions.

Art Rupe, and Specialty, had managed to stockpile enough material to keep releasing Little Richard singles and albums for another year or two. “Keep A Knockin’”was actually cobbled together from several half-finished studio takes. In 1958, Specialty released “Good Golly Miss Molly” (which reached # 10 in the pop charts) and the following year he had his biggest hit in England, with a recording, culled from a 1956 session, of the oldie “Baby Face.”

In January 1959, he signed with a Los Angeles talent agency, setting up a gospel tour. And from 1959 through 1962, Richard recorded only gospel music for Gone, Mercury Records (where he recorded his best gospel album, The King Of Gospel Singers, with producer Quincy Jones) and Atlantic Records. But after three years of little success as a gospel performer, Richard returned to rock and roll.

Richard successfully toured Great Britain for the first time in October, 1962, to terrific public response. In 1963, with the then unknown Billy Preston in his backing band, he toured the UK and Europe with the Rolling Stones, on their first big tour; while also appearing on the bill with the Beatles for a few concerts. Both the Stones and the Beatles were tremendous admirers of his music.

Back with Specialty Records, Richard cut his first rock recordings of the decade in 1964. The resultant single “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” fared poorly in the US, only reaching # 82 in the charts, but in England it was Top 20 hit. In 1964, he signed a recording contract with Vee Jay Records where he re-recorded all his hits, resurrecting a few oldies and cutting some new rockers. But sales were poor.

In the mid-‘60s, soul music was a growing musical trend. Richard’s soulful Vee Jay tracks, “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” (which featured on guitar Jimi Hendrix, who, at the time, was known to Richard as Maurice James) made the Top 100 Chart in Billboard and Cash Box magazines, while hitting the Top 20 R & B charts. “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” and “Without Love,” were among his best recordings of the decade. For the rest of the ‘60s he continued to draw the crowds, singing his old hits; while in the studio his releases mixed ‘50s rock with ‘60s soul.

Richard signed with Reprise Records in 1970, and, paired with top producer Richard Perry, managed the minor US hits “Freedom Blues” and “Greenwood, Mississippi.” Though his three Reprise albums sold poorly, he was reunited with Bumps Blackwell, Lee Allen, and Earl Palmer for the 1972 release The Second Coming.

Little Richard returned to the church in 1976, releasing God’s Beautiful City for World Records in 1979, while becoming a full-time evangelist. In October 1985 he was seriously injured in a car accident in West Hollywood. But he rebounded, appearing in the 1986 hit movie release Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which included his first hit record in sixteen years, “Great Gosh A’mighty.”

Little Richard was among the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He dueted with Phillip Bailey on the title song to the 1988 film Twins. In 1989, he sang background vocals on the minor U2/B.B. King hit “When Love Comes To Town.”  Richard was honored with a star on the celebrated Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990. Soon thereafter, he returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia for the unveiling of “Little Richard Penniman Boulevard.”

He performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugural celebration in January of 1993. Later in that year, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 2002, after well over fifty years in the music business, Little Richard officially retired from touring.

Having sold over fifty million records, Little Richard stands as one of the true icons of rock and roll. His eccentric, eclectic personality, arcanely uninhibited stage antics and exuberantly demonstrative vocal characteristics have shaped him into one of the great, original entertainers of the American stage. His influence stretches through succeeding generations of popular music, from the Beatles through Jimi Hendrix, from Michael Jackson to Prince. As the “architect of rock and roll,” his career serves as one of the keystones in the foundation of all popular music.