Little Richard: The king of Rock 'N' Roll who changed pop culture forever
With the passing of Little Richard at the age of 87, we have lost one of the great originals of the 20th century
The first time you hear Little Richard sing is an epochal, jaw-dropping moment. I was 14 years old, in 1995, when that happened to me. The previous year, my mother had bought me The Beatles’ Live At The BBC, a double cassette album that had just released. It was chock-full of some brilliant Rock’ N’ Roll covers by the Fab Four, and it had left me wanting to hear the originals, by people with impossibly exciting names like Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Buddy Holly. As luck would have it, a few months later I found a cheap, pirated cassette at a south Kolkata music shop (which also sold clothes on the side) called something like Evergreen Rock’n’Roll Hits. And there was Little Richard, blaring, “Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom!"
Richard, who passed on 9 May at the age of 87, was, and remains, the true king of Rock’ N’ Roll. Between 1955 and 1958, he released a string of singles and two albums—Here’s Little Richard and Little Richard—that changed pop music and youth culture forever. Alongside fellow pioneers Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Richard shocked the safe and staid Eisenhower-era America to the core, and transformed the lives of teenagers across the Atlantic in England. His influence on the The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince, to name just a few, was akin to hearing the word of God.
Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly, Slippin’ And Slidin’, Lucille, Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, Jenny Jenny: just the song titles themselves are an invitation to get up, scream and dance. When Richard was asked in an interview in 1984, “What kind of music do you think you were making?" he replied, “Joyful music. It was making everybody happy. It brought the races together. White people were sitting upstairs, and black people were downstairs. And the white people, when I started singing, jumped over the balcony and came down there with us (to dance)." Richard also brought with him his unique sound: a piano pounding R’N’B and boogie woogie rhythms at a breakneck 184 beats per minute, punctuated by honking, gravelly saxophone lines, and a swinging back beat. It was the blues on speed. And then there was his voice, an octave-jumping wonder that howled and crooned lasciviously—insistent, intense and full of joy.
Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman, grew up as a gospel singer, and as a jobbing musician soaked up the flamboyance of drag performers in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. He’d play in minstrel shows, at drag bars, learning the piano at church and then from the R’N’B singer Esquerita, also known as The Magnificent Malochi, from whom Richard also borrowed his look of hair piled up into a pompadour, his face accentuated with eyeliner and mascara. Richard was queer, and through his life he yo-yo’d between pride in his sexuality—he has described himself as gay, bisexual, even “omnisexual" —and feelings of deep shame, conditioned by his religious background, when he’s denounced his own sexuality as “unnatural" and Rock’ N’ Roll as the “devil’s music".
At the height of his fame, Richard retired as a pop showman in 1957, to become a preacher. In his wild 1984 biography The Life And Times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock by Charles White, Richard says, “On our fifth date of the two-week tour (of Australia), we left Melbourne for Sydney, and 40,000 people came to see me at the municipal outdoor arena. That night, Russia sent off that very first Sputnik. It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads. It really shook my mind I got up from the piano and said, 'This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.'" He’d return to Rock’ N’ Roll every now and then, in the 60s and the 70s, but would keep retreating to religion, and ultimately gave up performing all together, except for special occasions.
And yet, there was resentment and bitterness at the racism he faced in the 50s. His first hit, Tutti Frutti, used to be a wild song about anal sex, with lyrics that went, “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy." That was patently unacceptable for the radio, and he changed the lyrics to a more absurdist, “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty, I got a girl named Sue, she knows just what to do." Still risqué, but it was a hit, reaching 21 on the Billboards chart in 1955, and number 2 on the R’N’B charts. But almost immediately a strait-laced white singer, Pat Boone, was given the song to cover. His painfully wannabe cover outsold Richard’s, as more white audiences bought the Boone record. Then came Elvis Presley, touted as the ‘King’, who started getting all the fawning attention. Richard felt that the predominantly white business just didn’t want him to succeed. Richard’s songs became even more out there, to the point that white singers wouldn’t want to cover them, even if they could make out what he was singing. And he got even more popular, when white teenagers decided they wanted to hear the real thing, from the fantastic Little Richard, not watered down covers.
Despite retiring, Richard had made an indelible impression, and when an unknown band called The Beatles opened for him on his comeback trail in 1962 in Hamburg’s tough bar circuit, Richard found himself treated as god. “He used to read from the Bible backstage, and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen," said John Lennon of the time they played together. The Beatles covered his songs on their albums, played them incessantly on their live shows, and Richard taught Paul McCartney how to sing the high octave “whooos". Richard himself was very fond of his “boys" as he put it. “I think the Beatles did one of the best versions of Long Tall Sally I’ve ever heard," he told Rolling Stone in 1990. He was amazed they knew so much about him. “They knew who we recorded with, they knew what doorsteps we walked up, they knew what saxophone we played. They knew more about it than me!"
It wasn’t just The Beatles. Mick Jagger learnt all about pouting, preening and prancing on stage from Richard. Jimi Hendrix, who was a part of Richard’s touring band in 1965, once said, “I want to do with my guitar what Richard does with his voice." A teenaged Robert Zimmerman in 1950s Hibbing, Minnesota, started his musical career playing in a band that did Little Richard covers. In a tweet on 9 May, Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, said, “I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do…In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone."
He was a shining star in my teenage years as well. A couple of years after I first heard Richard, I was playing in bands in high school and university. The guitar players would always be more interested in figuring out Chuck Berry licks. I was focused on nailing the screaming, slightly larynx shredding, soulful wail of Little Richard. The times that I got Long Tall Sally right, I’d glow for days. I couldn’t figure out the lyrics really, in those days of internet infancy, but it was the sound that mattered more. Was he singing, “Well, I saw oncaa jaw, with Long Tall Sally, then song berry comin in ow jump on in the alley, oh baby"? Well later I realized the lyrics were, “Well, I saw Uncle John with Long tall Sally, He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley oh baby!" Well, who cared about the lyrics? All that mattered was Richard’s promise to me and millions of kids across generations, “Everything’s all right, we’re gonna have some fun tonight!"