It seems like another day, another legend lost. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard, one of the most colourful and charismatic performers the music has ever known, and a key influence on everyone from Bowie and Jagger to Iggy and Prince, has died, aged 87.
What is there left to say about Little Richard that he hasn’t already said better himself? “I am the innovator! I am the originator! I am the emancipator! I am the architect! I’m rock ’n’ roll!” he once exclaimed to an interviewer, before adding, “Now, I am not saying that to be vain or conceited.”
No, Little Richard – born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, on 5 December 1932 with one leg shorter than the other – was just being honest. Well, and a bit vain and conceited. His influence is incalculable, but the original originator? Well, not quite.
Richard also once said, “Rhythm and blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock ’n’ roll.”
That may also sound far-fetched but it’s a fair and clever summary of what happened in America in the post-war period between 1949 and 1954, when black and white musical traditions cross-pollinated, which resulted in disc jockey Alan Freed popularising the phrase “rock and roll,” which—gasp—was actually black slang for having sex.
It’s often said that Ike Turner is the inventor of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry is its undisputed father and Little Richard was anointed as its architect, usually by himself.
But like the United States of America, no one person was the founding father of rock ’n’ roll. Its conception was a black and white alloy of Turner, Berry, Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, but also Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly — and later, the one they crowned King, Elvis Presley.
Every one of them irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, shattering the colour line on the music charts, and bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream.
Years before he created Tina, Turner was responsible for weaving a mixture of boogie-woogie stomp, traditional blues and white hillbilly music into a conscious and cohesive new order. And years before anybody thought in terms of a rock ’n’ roll record, there he was leading his own Kings of Rhythm on Rocket 88, a game changing US No. 1 single that had been recorded in Memphis in March 1951.
Sam Phillips, founder of the local Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis and Lewis, considers 88 to be the first rock record. Even Little Richard admitted to basing his piano style on Turner’s performance on that 45.
So if Little Richard didn’t invent rock ’n’ roll then he most certainly reinvented it. Hmm, reinvention. A young wild eyed loner from Brixton with his own physical oddity was furiously taking notes. It’s the freakiest show, ya know>
What is indisputable is that Little Richard, with his piercing wail, hyperkinetic piano playing and towering pompadour, was by far the most daring, the most outré of all the great rock & rollers, the the one that personified its mutinous outsider appeal. His unfettered flamboyance, showmanship and sexual expressiveness made him an implausible sensation — a gay, black man, a trailblazer and trendsetter celebrated across America during McCarthyism and the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.
He began touring with his band, The Upsetters, and signed his first record deal in 1951 with RCA in Atlanta, which went nowhere. With a new band, the Tempo Toppers, he traveled to New Orleans and then Houston, where he again had a shot at recording, this time with the notorious Don Robey, at Peacock Records. The songwriter and talent whisperer Johnny Otis was there at the time, and recalled seeing Richard this way:
“I see this outrageous person, good-looking and very effeminate, with a big pompadour. He started singing and he was so good. I loved it. He reminded me of Dinah Washington. He did a few things, then he got on the floor. I think he even did a split, though I could be wrong about that. I remember it as being just beautiful, bizarre, and exotic, and when he got through he remarked, “This is Little Richard, King of the Blues,” and then he added, “And the Queen, too!” I knew I liked him then. He’s just great. He was new to a lot of people around then, and they were just saying, “Boy, that’s something else.”
Richard was outrageously camp and tremendously popular with both sexes and all races. His lyrics were suggestive and the concerts often ended with black and white youths dancing together. In segregated America, this was dangerous stuff.
But it wasn’t just his bristling energy that made Richard one of the greats. Untempered by Elvis Presley’s down-home charm, Chuck Berry’s sly wit, Jerry Lee Lewis’s wolfish malevolence, Buddy Holly’s pop sensibility or Fats Domino’s avuncular geniality, Richard’s feral woo! conflated the spiritual and the orgasmic in a way that changed the way musicians communicated desire forever.
As Jimi Hendrix put it, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” In the mid ‘60s, Richard would repay the favour by putting him in his band and stalking the guitarist sexually, even fining him and another band member for daring to upstage him by wearing frilly shirts. With hilariously unchecked megalomania Richard told them in no uncertain terms, “I am the only one allowed to be pretty.”
Little Richard’s music was omnisexual and alien. Everything was outrageous. The hair, the flair, the make-up, the scream. And it felt like every song came straight from the heart, the soul, and the pelvis. The syncopated horn charts, the chugging rhythm, the howling, pleading vocals, the sheer theatricality and fundamental immersion in the beat — Little Richard was an architect of much in music that followed.
The Beatles learned their ecstatic falsetto twists and shouts from him; James Brown said he was “the first to put the funk in rhythm.” Elton John said that once he heard Little Richard, he “got it”. In his yearbook, Bob Dylan listed that his ambition was “to join Little Richard,” and nine-year-old David Bowie bought a saxophone hoping to do just that as well. Bowie’s outrageous glam shock period, the prancing and strutting of Mick Jagger, the psychosexual convolutions of Prince – all are almost impossible to imagine without Richard’s androgynous flamboyance leading the way.
I said it when Bowie and Prince passed in 2016, and it’s worth repeating today. From Elvis to Michael Jackson to Freddie Mercury and the entire New Romantic movement, all the greatest male pop stars had an androgynous quality. Even the monochrome cover of Prince’s Parade album seems to be channelling Little Richard at his most gorgeously mascara-lined pencil-moustached pomp. The world had never seen the like before – and we won’t again.
One can only try to imagine what these otherworldly just-over-two-minute explosions of raw, visceral young lust sounded like in the mid-fifties when everything was Mom’s apple pie and Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Like a demand to join the party which cannot be refused, it was 1956 when Tutti Frutti landed like a hand grenade in the charts, igniting radios and turntables across the country. Richard delivers it fully charged with electricity, highlighted by his incendiary call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!”
But the rest of the lyrics were filthy and very butt-heavy, with Richard gushing wildly about a dude’s glutes. Songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie was scrambled to come up with a cleaner version, stripped of explicit descriptions of gay sex.
As Library of Congress files elaborated, the line “Tutti frutti, aw rutti” used to be “Tutti frutti, good booty.” Rolling Stone further observed that the lip-smacking celebration of the church of man rump also contained insertion-related innuendos like “If it’s tight, it’s alright/If it’s greasy, makes it easy.” And this a quarter of a century before Grace Jones’s Pull Up To The Bumper too.
In any case, Tutti Frutti has reverberated across the decades. In the 1990s and just before I started working for them, MOJO magazine put it at the top of a list of the most important rock songs of all time. The rock writer Nik Cohn even titled his first book Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom.
“My heart nearly burst with excitement,” was how David Bowie described the impact of Tutti Fruttii: “It filled the room with energy and colour and outrageous defiance. I had heard God.” David’s father brought his nine-year-old son the 45 as a present that would help afford some transcendence over familial dread. After that, David wanted to do what Richard and Elvis Presley had done: He wanted to place himself before an audience as something they had never seen before. It was a way to remake himself.
Everything ever invented in terms of androgyny, outrage, flouting boundaries and flaunting your out-thereness took place in the Deep South, and Richard really was the main person responsible. It’s a near miracle how those outrageous songs made it onto vinyl.
It’s also worth remembering, too, how in the 1950s once outside New Orleans, black musicians in the South would often be pulled over by cops. If the musician didn’t look at the floor and say ”yassuh”, the cop might show them the bullets in their guns and tell them “you know how much it would cost to kill you? A nickel.”
Can you imagine how brave you would have had to be, simply walking down the street and being Little Richard? Tutti Frutti would go on to sell more than a million records. His next release, Long Tall Sally, did even better. Most people took the words as code for what we would now call transgender.
In the next two years, Richard recorded 18 hit singles that helped to provide the foundation of rock music, including Lucille, Keep A Knockin’, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Good Golly Miss Molly. More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing Good Golly Miss Molly in concert.
Soon, Richard was driving to shows in a Cadillac with its trunk full of cash. After the shows were over, he indulged himself. Sex, he said, was a smorgasbord. He included his band members — that is to say, his employees— in sex parties after his performances:
“I used to like to watch these people having sex with my band men. I would pay a guy who had a big penis to come and have sex with these ladies so I could watch them. It was a big thrill to me. If the girls didn’t think they could take it, I would watch him make them take it. As I was watching, I would masturbate while someone was eating my titties. They should have called me Richard the Watcher. My whole gay activities were really into masturbation. I used to do it six or seven times a day. In fact everybody used to tell me that I should get a trophy for it, I did it so much. I got to be a professional jack-offer. I would do it just to be doing something, seven, eight times a day.” When the Beatles supported Richard at the Tower Ballroom in the Merseyside resort of New Brighton in October 1962 (above), the salacious soul shouter reportedly gave Paul McCartney tips on how to scream in tune; his advice would be put to good use on Helier Skelter, Hey Jude, Maybe I’m Amazed and other raucous Macca moments, but most also the unmistakable signature shrieks — the “Wooooo!” — on The Fab Four’s She Loves You.
Paul McCartney likened performing those songs to having an out-of-body experience: “I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” McCartney once told an interviewer. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”
Never forgetting his roots, erstwhile bandmate John Lennon later covered Richard’s Rip It Up and Ready Teddy on his Rock ’n’ Roll album in 1975.
On the third anniversary of the Beatle’s murder, David Bowie shared an exchange they had back in the Seventies:
“I said ‘what do you think of my kind of rock ‘n’ roll?, he said ‘it’s great but it’s just rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on.”
Alas, Little Richard got there first.
As a child, Richard was mocked for the physical deformity which drastically impacted his gait, ridiculed for his effeminate appearance, and only played with girls.
On the bright side, the homophobic bullying bred a massively competitive streak in him, driving young Richard to outdo everyone in every endeavour he could. And as one of 12 siblings, he always had someone to compete with. He would later explain to talk show hosts like David Letterman how when he’d been gay he wasn’t a man, but now he was a man, because he could experience having sex with a woman. Letterman nodded politely.
Caught wearing his mother’s make-up, wardrobe, and even curtains at times, he was brutally punished by his father Bud, a minister who owned a nightclub and distilled bootleg whisky.
“I wanted seven boys,” the churchman explained, “and you’re messing it up because you’re gay.”
When violently beating his son didn’t work, his father banished him from the house altogether, all because of Richard’s admirable defiance in not attempting to hide his effeminate mannerisms.
Richard then began appearing in drag as Princess LaVonne with the touring company Sugar Foot Sam from Alabama. The Supreme One of Colour also explained his cosmetic rationale a columnist, “I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colourful too.”
In 2000, Richard told Jet magazine, “I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to.”
Inside any Little Richard song there is always a battle. A battle between good and evil, sin and redemption. A battle between the boy singing in church and the wild black gay man facing violent repression. It was a battle that raged inside the singer’s head and was given expression in everything he did, fuelled by his own battle to come to terms with his sexuality.
In 1957, Richard – literally – saw the light. During a concert in Sydney, he saw a fireball in the sky above him. He took it as an instruction from God to repent. It was actually the Sputnik satellite returning to Earth, but Richard threw his diamond rings into the water, gave up “sin” and popular music, and pledged himself to the Almighty.
That wavering between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour topped off with the sky-high hair, make-up and a dazzling array of glittery suits, followed him throughout his life.
At various times in his life he denounced homosexuality, and in the late 1950s was ordained as a minister, perhaps in a bid to flee his true self. He was amazingly open about his deviancy when it was strictly taboo but had relationships with women too. He even married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow Evangelical, and later adopted a son. And he recorded a gospel record, returning to his roots.
A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter with a man in a Long Beach bus station toilet led to his divorce and return to performing.
With his trademark bravado, in a tricky 1987 interview he told openly gay director John Waters:
“I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who started to be so bold tellin’ the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”
Richard blew thousands on drugs, booze and swinging sex parties. Even by rock star standards, his thirst for depravity was high. But it jarred with his Old Testament morality. He would take his Bible to orgies and later condemn his own “satanic” behaviour. It wasn’t a lifestyle to last.
In a 1995 interview, he told Penthouse:
”I’ve been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate.”
Seven years later he told GQ magazine:
“We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smorgasbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for. What kind of sexual am I? I am omnisexual!”
Fame… what’s his name?
“There’s only one originator, there’s only one architect: Little Richard – I love that. I saw that in so many write-ups. And when the people say my music inspired them – the Beatles, when James Brown was my vocalist, when Jimi Hendrix was my guitarist, when Joe Tex was singing with me, Otis Redding, when Billy Preston was my organist at 13 – it makes me feel good!”
Viva Little Richard then, a pioneering pivotal figure in our musical history and the first androgynous rock star, years before it became a trend.
Larger than life and twice as pretty, it’s hardly a coincidence that out of all the formative rock ’n’ rollers that David Bowie was enamoured by, the one-man hurricane that was Little Richard stood proudly above them all. Even Elvis called him the greatest, while his diamond-studded outfits were snapped up by Elton John.
We’re forever in his debt. He was a firecracker. THE firecracker. The showstopper that could stop traffic.
Tonight the streets look a little greyer.
Nile Rodgers has told the tale, numerous times, that during the run up to recording Let’s Dance, David Bowie “had a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac. And he said to me, ‘Nile, darling, the record should sound like this!’ Despite numerous requests over the years, even the most ardent LR collectors have no recollection of such a photo, but I am reliably informed that this photo is almost certainly The One
BONUS BEATS: In the course of researching this article I stumbled across a fascinating South Bank Show special on Richard from 1985. But lo and behold, I discovered that hidden away unannounced at the end of the programme is footage from a TV-AM British breakfast telly interview from the same year, where he gets on like a house on fire with the ex Mrs Bowie, Angie. This is a full six years before Dame David finally got to meet his idol at the launch of the Tin Machine II album in Los Angeles.