Little Richard, the self-described king of rock ‘n’ roll, passed away at the age of 87. Many members of the baby boom age will remember the exact moment they first heard his assault on melody because of his powerful impact.
Alopbamboom, awopbopaloobop! That first song, Tutti Frutti, which was released in October 1955, was wild, delectable gibberish that could only have come from a human voice, roaring and blathering over a band like a fire engine gone berserk in the night.
A new universe caught our attention. With a cry, the Sinatra-sophisticats were killed. Here comes wonderful anarchy, sex, and barbarism.
Little Richard helped define rock ‘n’ roll together with a select group of musicians, including Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly. He was the loudest, sexiest, and most egotistical of them all.
Little Richard’s Death
The musician’s representative Dick Alen announced on May 9, 2020, that the performer passed away at age 87 from bone cancer.
“He fought for a long time—many years. He and I last chatted two or three weeks ago. I could see he wasn’t feeling well, but he never really talked about it; he just said, “I’m not well.” He’s endured numerous aches and pains throughout the years. He simply would not discuss it much.”
Collaborators and famous people paid their respects, and director Ava DuVernay posted a touching Twitter tribute to the musician.
“When working as a waiter at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in Los Angeles for a year, I served Little Richard soul food brunch every Sunday. Each week, he gave me a $100 tip for a $75 breakfast with pals. It was thirty years ago. really helped me. God grant him eternal rest.”
He was a rocker like no other
In any period, the pioneer would have been distinctive. Yet when Little Richard rose to fame in the 1950s, he was unmatched: a flashy, makeup-wearing, black man who represented the “devil’s music” to establishment figures.
Elvis Presley was one thing, but below it all, a polite Southern boy who adored his father, despite his pelvic thrusts and slicked-back, juvenile-delinquent hair. But, while coming from a large Southern family himself, Little Richard stood for something else.
The door was opened by Richard. In Charles White’s 1984 biography “The Lives and Times of Little Richard,” arranger H.B. Barnum claimed that Little Richard had “brought the races together.”
“There were a lot of segregated audiences when I initially started travelling. Richard was there, and even if the audiences were still divided inside the venue, they were ALL there. And frequently before the night was up, they would all be combined.
Mick Jagger, the leader for the Rolling Stones and no slouch onstage, was also a fan.
“It’s impossible to sum up his grip on the audience in a single sentence. The strength of Little Richard on stage astounded me. According to White’s book, Jagger said of him, “He was amazing.
Young Richard was aware of his strength. He previously remarked, “They saw me as something like a deliverer, a way out. “My music was a manner that a lot of people wished they could express themselves but couldn’t,” the artist said.
He was equally up front about his position. Little Richard became indignant when other early rock icons were given more attention than him, telling SFGate.com in 2003, “I invented rock ‘n’ roll! I am the pioneer! The emancipator is me! The architect is me! I started it all! I’m the one that got it going!
When presenting the Grammy for best new artist at the 1988 Grammy Awards, he deviated from the script and made those remarks fifteen years earlier.
The Grammys ultimately gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award five years later.
‘Rocking and rolling’ in its original form
Little Richard’s position is difficult to challenge. “Rock ‘n’ roll” was first used as a derogatory term for sex, and Little Richard symbolised the life force with his vigour, falsetto “woohs,” and pounding piano.
Now, how about a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom?
His songs covered a wide range of topics, including “rocking and rolling” in its purest, unadulterated form, ready teddies, and girls who couldn’t help it.
He sang, “Long Tall Sally, she’s designed for speed / She have everything that Uncle John require,” in a tune so full with overt innuendo that it was hardly necessary to interpret the lyrics.
Good Golly, Miss Molly sang, “Really like to ball, Miss Molly,” giving even less room for interpretation.
In “Jenny, Jenny,” he sung, “Crazy little companion, you ought to see us reel and rock / Spinnin’, spinnin’, spinnin’, spinnin’ like a spinnin’ top.”
Little Richard’s boisterous performances of the songs gave parents and censors terrifying thoughts of adolescent debauchery.
As Charlie Gillett noted in the timeless work “The Sound of the City,” “With Little Richard, the rock ‘n’ roll audience got the forceful extrovert to execute their wilder fantasies, and his stage performances set precedents for anybody who followed him.”
When producer Bumps Blackwell proposed adjustments, Little Richard’s breakthrough smash “Tutti Frutti,” which was originally going to include such lines as “Tutti Frutti, fine booty,” remained a step away from the mainstream.
Even the improved version failed to gain traction on many pop radio stations, which preferred pop artist Pat Boone’s weak interpretation to Little Richard’s R&B success.
Sometimes, however, the chutzpah of it all was so overwhelming that even bluenoses had to give up. According to Brian Ward’s rhythm and blues history, “Just My Soul Responding,” an NBC censor permitted “Long Tall Sally” to air in 1956 because he couldn’t comprehend the lyrics and couldn’t assess their propriety.
Children naturally enjoyed it. They never forgot the man who helped sow the seed, and many went on to become rock ‘n’ rollers themselves.
At The Beatles’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, George Harrison said, “Thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers.
In the crowd, he pointed to Little Richard. And Little Richard over there—it was really all his fault.
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Kicked out of his home as a teen
On December 5, 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia. He was the third of 12 children, and as a teenager, his father, who sold moonshine, was ordered out of the house because of their disagreements.
After being adopted by a white family named Johnson, Penniman began singing at their club after honing his musical skills in the church. Depending on the account, he was referred to as “Little Richard” either because he was a child or because he wasn’t old enough.
RCA signed Little Richard after learning of his connection to an Atlanta DJ, but his records, which were in the Louis Jordan jump-blues vein, were not successful. Tiny Richard worked as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus stop for a while.
He continued to perform, nevertheless, and in 1955 he submitted Specialty Records a demo. Little Richard was requested to travel to New Orleans to record with members of Fats Domino’s backing band after Specialty’s founder, Art Rupe, loved what he heard.
He was described by producer Blackwell as “this animal in a loud shirt, with hair waving up six inches above his head” in a memoir. After a dismal practise, Little Richard broke free with “Tutti Frutti” during a break.
The rest is history, as they say, with a little polish from Blackwell: “Tutti Frutti” reached No. 2 on the R&B charts and the Top 20 on Billboard’s pop charts, selling one million copies. Richard the toddler took off running.
Little Richard, who was renowned for his distinctive fusion of gospel, R&B, and rock and roll music, energetic performances, and flashy attire, was one of the most important characters in music history.
He also paved the way for civil rights, speaking out against prejudice and inequality from a position of influence. His departure on May 9, 2020, was a loss for the entire globe, not just the music business.
But his music continues to inspire new generations, and his contribution to rock & roll will never be forgotten, thus his legacy endures. Little Richard will always be regarded as a legend, an icon, and a pathfinder.