This incredible story is about one of the most influential vocal stylists of our generation and generations to come. Giants will remember Little Richard and the debt owed to his legacy.
Before I get jumped by the James Brown crowd, I get it. But a little respect. We just lost the man so I’m allowed some hyperbole. Besides, I’m not alone here.
Most in this list of people giving tribute are so influential themselves you would know who they are just by their first names.
Bruce Springsteen: ”the purest rock 'n' roll voice of all time."
Mick Jagger: “He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens.”
Elton John: "Without a doubt — musically, vocally and visually — he was my biggest influence.”
Paul McCartney: “I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, “I taught Paul everything he knows. I had to admit he was right.”
Bob Dylan: “He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. Of course, he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.”
Quincy Jones: “Penniman's vocals impressed me more than any other vocalist I had worked with.” This from a guy who worked with Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra.
Mahalia Jackson praised him saying, “He sang gospel the way it should be sung.” High praise indeed.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia on December 5, 1932 as the third of 12 children. Good Golly Miss Molly. He had a birth deformity that left one leg shorter than the other that affected the way he walked. His unusual gait was deemed effeminate which caused some heavy school razzing. His father was embarrassed and felt that frequent beatings would help the boy. Richard also liked to dress in girl’s clothes and put on makeup to entertain his sisters, which did nothing to stay dad’s heavy hand.
In 1947 Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard him singing her songs before her performance at the Macon City Auditorium and she hired him to open her show. The experience gave him enough confidence that at 15 he left the oppressive atmosphere of his home and hit the road.
In the space of a few years Penniman played with various vaudeville, gospel and R&B acts like Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show, Buster Brown’s Orchestra, where he picked up the "Little Richard" moniker, Sugar Foot Sam, The Tidy Jolly Steppers and was eventually hired as lead for the L.J. Heath Band.
In 1952 Little Richard had a regional hit, “Every Hour,” with RCA Victor, his first record contract. His dad Bud Penniman finally became proud of his son and played “Every Hour” in his juke joint, The Tip In Inn. However, these kinds of places were dangerous. One night in Bud’s place one of Richard‘s best friends was drunk and rowdy and Bud had to throw him out. The friend returned with a gun and shot Bud Penniman three times in the chest. As the story goes, Little Richard was performing in Atlanta and felt the three shots and collapsed on the stage. Bud Penniman was pronounced dead on the spot. Little Richard knew it was suddenly incumbent upon him to carry on for his father and become famous in order to support the large family.
Along the way he met entertainers who would influence his style. Most prominent of those were R&B singer Billy Wright and R&B singer, songwriter and pianist Esquerita. Wright was especially important, with his flamboyant showmanship, pompadour hairdo, pencil mustache and pancake make-up, which Penniman picked up and carried throughout his career. Wright and Penniman became fast friends and performed together.
Richard had been performing in and out of drag since the beginning of his career and found in Esquerita a fellow gay and extravagant personality, with a pounding piano style that Richard adopted. Penniman once stated he started playing piano after hearing Ike Turner’s piano on Jackie Brenston’s classic and highly influential “Rocket 88,” which Brenston penned with Turner. Little Richard took Turner’s and Esquerita’s styles and lit them up. Watch for credits for many of Little Richard’s hits as Penniman/Esquerita.
Richard formed a blues/gospel band called The Tempo Toppers and toured with a blues revue. Richard was gaining a reputation for his wild stage style, but became disillusioned when the money didn’t appear. He quit the tour and returned to Macon where he spent 1954 working as a dishwasher. He disbanded the gospel-flavored Tempo Toppers. One night in Atlanta he caught an act made up of some high-energy players doing R&B in just the style Penniman wanted to cultivate. He hired them and so were born the Upsetters.
Bumps Blackwell, a producer for Specialty Records, caught the act and wired his boss in New Orleans. Blackwell had Little Richard send a demo to Specialty. Owner Art Rupe sent money to buy out Little Richard’s contract and set him up to record at Specialty. There was one catch. Richard couldn’t bring his band. Blackwell insisted the only way Richard could get to record in New Orleans was to use their professional session musicians.
Richard broke the news to the band and left for New Orleans. That had to be a hard decision to make but not an uncommon one in the music business. Many times the only way to the next step is to sever old ties and move on. Fortunately (and not common for the time), as part of his agreement Penniman would be able to use the band on tour. The Upsetters pinned their hopes on Richard and watched him move on to New Orleans.
The Specialty session did not go well. Blackwell was trying some slow standards that did not fit Little Richard’s style. The session guys were obviously not pleased and between takes derided Bumps for spending money on this no-talent bum while Richard brooded in the corner.
By Penniman’s account, he slid over to a piano and started in on a raucous and sexually charged song of his own. This was the Little Richard Blackwell had seen in Georgia and he insisted they record it. Richard expressed doubt because the lyrics were outrageous. Undeterred, Bumps got a transcriber from the front office to listen to the song and re-write the lyrics. Because she was female, Richard said to her, “But miss, these are some very bad words.” She replied, “Mr. Richard, this is New Orleans. I’ve heard it all.”
Dorothy LaBostrie listened to the song and re-penned “Tutti Frutti.” Um, this time the session went better.
Specialty released the album, Here’s Little Richard and the rocket that was Little Richard Penniman was launched. “Tutti Frutti” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B Best Seller List and No. 21 on the Top 100. The next single, “Long Tall Sally,” took No 1 on the R&B chart and No 13 on The Top 100.
Richard whipped up The Upsetters and started on package tours that would play all over the world.
Part of how the record industry worked in the 1950s was to take black R&B songs and release covers of them with “safer” white artists like Pat Boone and Bill Haley.
Pat Boone. Seriously. Boone did a version of “Tutti Frutti” and it charted higher than Little Richard’s. I looked up a version of this and it’s unbearable.
The fortuitous effect of this, however, was that Little Richard’s music reached a wider and more diverse audience. Penniman was helping break the race barrier all over the USA, even in the deep South. The sight of whites and blacks at the same venue would become an enduring part of his legacy.
In late 1957 Little Richard was on an Australian tour with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. During his show the Sputnik I satellite fired across the sky. The band stopped in awe. When they looked around Little Richard was gone. General panic ensued as management and family went to search for him.
They found him in the morning sitting on a dock overlooking Sydney Bay. Richard Penniman, despite his crazy lifestyle and sexual flamboyancy had carried in his heart a lifelong sense of religion. Even after finding out he’d seen a rocket, he perceived the sight of this fireball racing across the night sky as a sign from God to end his wicked ways. Returning to the States, he did a farewell concert at the Apollo Theater, then enrolled in a seminary program at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.
He had never been good at school and soon returned to Macon to be an assistant pastor at his old church. Five years (!) later he was persuaded to go back on tour by a promoter who told him his records were still selling and his fame was undiminished. Thinking he could use the funds to help his church he acquiesced – and never looked back.
There is a remarkable story involving The Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard. The Isley Brothers had rescued Hendrix from obscurity in March 1963, with Hendrix living in their mother’s home. The boys provided Hendrix with his first Stratocaster. Thanks guys.
Hendrix toured with the Isleys through 1964 and into 1965. He blossomed on that guitar. At the beginning of 1965 Hendrix came to the attention of Little Richard. Richard called Ernie Isley about hiring Hendrix for his band. Isley remembers telling Penniman, “In six months Jimi won’t be working for no one but himself.”
Hendrix was chafing under the constraints of being a sideman. When Little Richard called he jumped. True to Ernie Isley’s prediction, he was gone in six months. Hendrix was just growing too fast and certainly garnering far too much stage attention for Little Richard’s liking.
Little Richard toured and recorded through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with everyone you can name. He started slowing down in the 2000s, experiencing sciatica in his left leg and some health effects related to drug and alcohol abuse from earlier in his career. Lotta dat goin’ around in the day. He continued to perform until 2014.
His legacy includes his continued faith in God. This was a conflicted man who strived for righteousness. Because he often failed, that just made him human. In 1957 he married a woman he’d met at an evangelical meeting. He couldn’t make it stick. By 1964 they were divorced, with his wife Ernestine stating that Richard’s schedule was just too much for the marriage. Richard would add that his bisexuality also played a part. Despite these attempts and failures at normalcy, his extraordinary lifestyle, and the rigors of the road, Penniman remained steadfast in his faith and proselytized his love for the Lord at every opportunity. A friend once said the only book he ever saw in Little Richard’s hands was a Bible, which he had with him constantly.
Yet his extravagant persona remained undeterred. There is a wonderful video in YouTube land where Little Richard was interviewed by Tom Snyder on Snyder’s The Late Late Show in 1997. Snyder brought up the makeup and flashy clothes and asked Richard what he thought when people said he was conceited. Richard answered, “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced!” One of the best lines I’ve heard in a while. What a character.
Let’s listen in a little.
There is a sad back story to that tune I’ll tell if asked.
This next is “It Ain’t Whatcha Do,” recorded in 1965 with Hendrix and displaying his burgeoning call and response style. Even in 1965 no one was playing guitar like Jimi. There is an argument that this a vocal by Wilson Pickett and I can hear why people would think that. But this my story and I’m sticking to it.
In 1970 Little Richard showed up unannounced at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The result of the visit was a nice comeback album called The Rill Thing. Here is Little Richard, and Travis Wammack on that guitar solo (look DAT guy up) doing “Greenwood Mississippi.” Unmistakably Muscle Shoals. Producer Rick Hall was something else. Always knew the good stuff when he heard it.
Little Richard was a one man show, a rock and roll generator running on universal ether chasing a chameleon sprinting from the devil. But whatever you have to say about him, no one will deny his stamp on our culture and like Dylan said, “Of course he’ll live forever.”
Bonus: this is a live vid from a 1963 revue. Of note, the band is all white, and the girls in black dresses and high heels at the front are The Shirelles who were also in the revue. Everybody had to watch this guy.
Shiver me timbers.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Anna Bleker.