Little Richard, Giant of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Dead at 87
Little Richard’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll music cannot be overstated. This is not to downplay or diminish the significant contributions of any of the other founding fathers of the musical form. But no one else so fully embodied the far-flung jumble of primitivism, absurdity, unruliness, flamboyance, sensitivity and gall that is at the heart of rock’s primal core. His death – which came the morning of May 9th at age 87, following several years of declining health after his retirement from performing in 2013 – leaves a deep, unfillable crater in American pop culture. Jerry Lee Lewis is now the only one of those original rock ‘n’ roll badasses left, God bless him, and somehow he’s still out there bangin’ away at his piano, playing shows here and there. It’s true – they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
An ongoing heap of contradictions, even Little Richard’s parents were a paradoxical pair, with his father Charles (Bud) leading a double life as a church deacon on the one hand and a nightclub owner on the other, selling bootleg moonshine on the side. Really, could a rock ‘n’ roll architect’s pedigree be any more appropriate than that? Born in Macon, Georgia on December 5th, 1932, one of 12 children, Richard Wayne Penniman came from a family with deep evangelical Christian roots. His mother was a member of Macon’s New Hope Baptist Church, and he had two uncles and a grandfather that were preachers. He began singing as a child in the various churches his family attended, preferring the Pentecostal ones due to their music and unrestrained exuberance.
Born with a slight deformity that left one of his legs shorter than the other, his small, skinny stature earned him the nickname “Lil’ Richard” from his family. Meanwhile, his befuddled sexuality also began at an early age, when his father would beat him whenever he found Richard wearing his mother’s clothes and makeup. Already exhibiting an effeminate appearance and demeanor, Little Richard claimed to have been sexually involved with both boys and girls as a teenager, but once he reached adulthood he was engaging in freakier exploits such as voyeurism and orgies involving both sexes, leading to several arrests. He claimed to be both gay and “omnisexual” at different points in his life, but later his deep religious convictions compelled him to denounce homosexuality as unnatural and against God’s intentions. Like I said, he was nothing if not eternally conflicted.
At 13, Richard first performed at Miss Anne’s Tic Toc in Macon (now the Tic Toc Room). He was initially drawn to gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe May and his favorite of all, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who in 1947 overheard 14-year-old Richard singing her songs before her performance at the Macon City Auditorium, where Richard had a job selling sodas, and invited him to open her show. Two years later he was traveling and performing (often in drag) with assorted vaudeville/rhythm & blues revues such as Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show, the King Brothers Circus, Buster Brown’s Orchestra, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam and the outrageous performer Dr. Nubillo.
By the early ‘50s Richard was living in Atlanta and frequenting local R&B venues such as the Harlem Theater (which was on McDaniel Street) and the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, where performances by Atlanta jump blues singer Billy Wright, in particular, made a huge impact on him. He befriended the openly gay Wright and adopted much of his look: the pompadour haircut, pencil-thin mustache and pancake facial makeup. (It’s been duly noted that Greenville, South Carolina-born weirdo Esquerita likely had a similar influence on Richard’s style, although he didn’t begin recording until later in the ‘50s.) Backed by Wright’s band, Little Richard cut his first recording session in October 1951 at the downtown Atlanta studios of radio station WGST, which led to a contract with RCA Victor. His first single, blues ballad “Every Hour,” became a hit in Georgia but his other sides for RCA failed to catch on anywhere. None of Little Richard’s subsequent singles for Peacock Records (a Houston label that had no affiliation with the Atlanta nightclub) charted either, and he returned to Macon, working as a dishwasher and forming a new R&B band called the Upsetters. In early 1955 he recorded a new demo in Macon and sent it to Art Rupe’s L.A.-based label Specialty, which signed Richard and, in the fall of 1955, released the single “Tutti Frutti,” a tidied-up dirty blues number Richard had composed, with a loony, made-up language that perfectly articulated the pent-up, sexual rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll music. Awop-bop-aloobop, alop-bam-boom! And the rest, to put it mildly, is history.
I’m not going to go into Little Richard’s litany of further hits, or delve into the ups and downs of his career from the ‘60s onward, or list any of the thousands of subsequent musical performers on which the originator had a humongous impact. You can find all of that and more in any of the other obituaries and reminiscences being posted and printed over the next several days. Instead, I’d like to recommend a few choice (and relatively easy to obtain) collections of his music, in case you happen to be lacking in the Little Richard department (an unforgivable offense, if you ask me!) Those early pre-Specialty recordings are assembled neatly on a 25-track import from 2005, Get Rich Quick! The Birth of a Legend1951-1954, complete with alternate takes and cuts backing R&B singer Christine Kittrell. The 2015 3-CD overview of his years on Specialty and Vee-Jay Records, Directly From My Heart, is absolutely essential – 64 songs that encompass everything you need to know about rock ‘n’ roll. If you’re too cheap to spring for that, there’s a 25-song pick of the Specialty crop, creatively titled The Very Best of…Little Richard, that came out in 2008. I mean, there are loads of Little Richard “best of” compilations out there, some better than others, but that’s a top-notch one for the early essentials. His oft-overlooked but excellent brief mid ‘60s stint on Okeh Records gets a look on the wonderful 2004 disc Get Down With It. I’m not as crazy about his Reprise years from the early ‘70s, but there’s a decent overview of those that Rhino Handmade put out a number of years ago if you’re interested and can find it. Proceeding from there… there are numerous albums and collections on a myriad of labels, from different eras and of varying quality, that you’re likely to run across in the new and used bins. Take it where it leads you.
I was lucky enough to see Little Richard perform live three times. All took place in Georgia during the latter third of his life, when his shows were padded with as much silly stand-up (or sit-down, in his case) comedy and plunking around as they were full songs, and Bibles and other inspirational religious booklets were likely to be passed out to the front rows. Still, he was sharp and sassy and full of rollicking energy at every one, and they were unforgettable experiences I’ll long cherish. The first was in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s in his hometown of Macon, which was a pretty special deal. The last was in 2003 on a double bill with Chuck Berry at Chastain, where Richard easily stole the show. And then there was the second Music Midtown in 1995, where prior to Little Richard’s headlining performance I ended up backstage next to NRBQ’s Terry Adams – as much a piano-pounding disciple of Richard’s as there ever was – as we waited like teenage fans for the Architect to arrive, watching in giddy awe as his limo pulled in and the legend emerged, his handlers leading him up to his place on the stage, where he rocked the crowd nutty and left everyone smiling.
A wild man, a poet, a paradox and an icon. They don’t make ‘em like Little Richard anymore.