What is that? It is a line from Little Richard’s big hit song, “Tutti Frutti”. If this makes no sense, do yourself a favor and search for Richard on You Tube. It’s time you learned about Richard Wayne Penniman, aka Little Richard.
Richard, who grew up the poor son of a black bootlegger in Macon Georgia, was the self-described architect of rock ’n roll. That characterization has been validated by many professionals in the music industry. The world had never heard anything quite like Richard’s music or seen anything like his glitzy, gaudy, raucous stage performance.
He was born in 1932, and, depending on the reporting correspondent, left home at sometime between the age of 13 and 15. Richard’s father could not tolerate the fact that his son was gay. Richard, whose attitude was prescient of his future fearlessness, simply left. He was offered a recording deal with RCA when he was 15, but, was 17 before his stunning performance of “Tutti Frutti” became a smash hit.
Richard was the prototype for the future star, Prince. He wore his hair in a sky-high pompadour, loved sequins, makeup and eye liner, and flaunted his sexuality (which he later described as omnisexual) without restraint. In 1948 he had been a cross dresser in the band, Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam.
While other performers were on the cusp of this new music called rock ’n roll, Little Richard pushed it over the top. “Tutti Frutti”, in its original version, was, according to some, a tribute to anal sex. Lyrics were cleaned up 15 minutes before he was due to record it. Actually, it has been said that all of his songs were sexually provocative. The fact that he was so loud and rapid in his delivery allowed Little Richard to get away with his flamboyant celebration of sex in the middle of the conservative 50’s. Most people could not understand just what he was saying.
“White” versions of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally”, and “Rip It Up”, as sung by Pat Boone, beat Richard’s rendition in popularity on the billboard charts. A sad reminder of the belief in white supremacy.
The original recording of “Tutti Frutti” is stored in the Library of Congress.
The other side of Little Richard was his attachment to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. It would have been hard to find a black singer, especially in the South, who wasn’t influenced by the church and gospel music. His signature falsetto was taken from Marion Williams of the Clara Ward Singers.
He had an impressive string of hits, including “Long Tall Sally” and “Slippin and Slidin”, which he wrote in the kitchen of the Greyhound terminal in Macon. In “Good Golly Miss Molly,’ the lyric “Good golly Miss Molly/ sure like to ball slipped right by the censors and critics.
Little Richard’s concerts brought the races together. The venues were segregated, but audiences got caught up in his pounding piano and joyful delivery, and, by the finale, the two groups were mixed. His concerts felt like a jubilee. Some believed that part of Richard’s appeal was that he was effeminate and, therefore, not a threat to the white male.
As a result of the mingling of the races at Richard’s events The White Citizen’s Council of North Alabama denounced rock ’n roll. It would appear that this criticism had no effect on the erotically excited teen agers of the 50’s. It has been suggested that Little Richard represented the “black sissy’s revenge on the normative mainstream”.
Little Richard gave up singing while soaring in popularity in 1957. He was in a plane, coming back from an impressive tour in Australia, when he decided to give up entertaining to become an ordained minister. There are different versions as to why this occurred, but Richard was always part entertainer and part preacher. He returned to the concert stage 5 years after he left.
Along the way he did become addicted to dangerous drugs. Richard used heroin,PCP, angel dust, and was especially fond of cocaine.
His influence on musicians was prodigious. At one point, in Germany The Beatles were his opening act. George Harrison called him a man of “angels and fire”. Little Richard taught Paul McCartney how to scream in tune. Mick Jagger, studied Richard’s dance moves and onstage antics. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elton John were inspired by Richard’s technique while playing the piano. Jimi Hendricks played guitar with his group, The Upsetters. And of course, James Brown was his protege. Little Richard claimed that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n roll, he was the queen.
Little Richard was blunt about his resentment that awards that were given to others, while he was overlooked. In 1986, he was one of the original inductees into the rock ’n roll hall of fame.
As a presenter at the 1988 Grammys Richard announced, “the best newcomer is me!” Having been overlooked at the Grammy’s (He never won one) Richard felt entitled to express his disgust at a system that failed to show him proper respect.
Online tapes of interviews with Little Richard reveal a man who, despite everything else about him, is likable and self-effacing. There are moments of apparent sweetness. Like all of Richard’s other dichotomies, his push/pull between rage and joy is electrifying.He is a vigilante of sorts — reminding everyone that he is someone who is unique.
On May 9, 2020 Little Richard died from bone cancer. His adopted son, Danny, was at his bedside. Richard was 87 Yeats old. Richard’s last known public performance was in 2012 at the Orleans Hotel during a rockabilly weekend. He performed from a wheelchair ( a gilded one at that). He maintained his sly, playful persona and his voice was strong.
Richard never lost faith in himself or God. No one could or would have predicted that he would live into old age. His combination of chagrin and glee fueled his engine. The “architect” of rock ’n roll changed the way we looked at music. Little Richard encouraged everyone to “let the good times roll”.
“Little Richard” history-of-rock.com
Browne, D. ((05/09/2020) “Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock ’n Roll Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead at 87” rollingstone.com
Croft, T .Leopold, J. Melas, (05/09/2020)”Little Richard, a Flamboyant Architect of Rock ’n Roll is Dead at 87” cnn.com
King, J.”Little Richard is Everywhere” pitchfork.com
Savage, M. (05/09/2020) “ What Did Wop Bop a Loo Bop Actually Mean?” bbc.com
Wiener, T. (05/09/2020) “Little Richard, Flamboyant Wild Man of Rock ’n Roll Dies at 87” nytimes.com