The world of music just lost another Icon in Little Richard. Little Richard was one of the pillars of Rock n’ Roll. Unlike the many packaged and manufactured Teen idols of the day, Richard was real and authentic.
Uncompromising in his art and who he was, Little Richard blazed a trail that would influence other Rock/Pop signers like, Paul McCartney, who openly admits to Richard being an influence, David Bowie, Elton John, Boy George, and Glam rock. He also influenced Prince, Michael Jackson and Sylvester. Jimi Hendrix, Billy Preston and James Brown played in his various bands over the years among others.
Little Richard artfully blended Blues, Gospel, and stretched the vocabulary if not adding to the lexicon but creating of Rock n’ Roll.
Born Richard Penniman in the early 1930’s he was the 3rd born to a family of 12 children.
His family was committed in serving to Church with several family members performing in several Gospel ensembles.
Richard was fascinated and later inspired to perform after performing on stage with Gospel singer and Guitarist, Sister Rosetta Thorpe and the preaching of Brother Joe May, The Singing Evangelist”.
After the on-stage performance with Thorpe, she paid him. It was the most money he’d made.
He originally started playing the Saxophone, but later switched to Piano.
By the time he was seventeen, Richard was in conflict with his Father over his personality and behavior. Richard was Gay and his Father could not deal with his effeminacy. He was given an ultimatum and he wouldn’t comply.
Now living on his own, he found odd jobs and played Piano to make a living. By the age of eighteen, he was recording Jump blues records on the RCA/Camden label and later Peacock records.
Unsatisfied, Richard changed musical direction opting for a harder R+B sound. He found the right musicians that would fulfill his vision. The band was called. “The Upsetters”. The group was a hard rockin’ ensemble who could match as well as compliment Little Richard’s aggressive style of playing Rock and Roll.
Under the recommendation of Lloyd Price, Richard was signed to Specialty records. Originally a Gospel label, Specialty wanted to break into the R+B secular market after the success of Ray Charles, who was using the hallmarks of gospel music on his R+B hits.
Specialty owner, Art Rupe, bought out Richard’s contract to Specialty. He was assigned to Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell to oversee the recording sessions.
After a few songs, everybody took a break. During the break Richard took to the Piano and sang out, “A whop bop a loo mop, a-lop bom bom”………. then pounded out the words to Tutti-Frutti while playing the piano. Bumps knew he had a hit on their hands.
Originally the song had ribald if not downright (back then) obscene. The lyrics were tamed down for obvious reasons.
Tutti-Frutti was Little Richard’s first hit peaking at #2 on the R+B Charts and #21 on the Top 100, starting a run of hits until 1957, when he quit the music business to go to Divinity School.
Then came the phenomenon that Little Richard would despise, the “cover record.”
The cover record was a re-recording of a current record of the original by another artist. In Little Richard’s mind the Artist was Pat Boone. Pat covered Tutti-Frutti and had more success with it with Pop (white) radio favoring it over Little Richard’s version. Other artists included Elvis and Bill Hailey and His Comets, who also covered Little Richard’s songs, frustrating and angering Richard.
In the span of two years Little Richard had 17 hit records. While flying in Australia for a concert tour he saw “fire in the sky” which he believed was a message from God. The trail of fire was from the launch of the Earth Satellite, Sputnik.
He cancelled the tour and enrolled into Divinity School. As a Born-Again Christian he only performed Gospel Music.
In 1958 Specialty Records released his second LP for the label that did not chart.
In 1962 Concert Promoter, Don Arden convinced Little Richard, to tour in Europe under the premise that he was still popular there.
He received boos from the audience when Richard performed Gospel music. His opening act was Sam Cooke.
Not to be outdone, Little Richards competitive began flowing again and with the aid of his Organist, Billy Preston was turning in amazing high energy performances.
While in Germany on tour the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein requested and got the Beatles to meet and have an audience with Little Richard. That meeting which included Richard teaching them his tricks and influence had a profound impact on their early stage presence.
He repeated the same feat in 1963 with Don Arden headlining concert performances in Europe of a sagging tour that was failing and was almost canceled. That tour featured the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and a new band, The Rolling Stones.
Richard’s performance along with James Brown on the TAMI show with change the trajectory of Mick Jagger’s performance style forever.
The full scale launch of the British Invasion affected may performers in the US and Little Richard was no exception. He faced challenges from the new wave of music on the scene and straddling between Secular and Gospel music in which his support was waning. He was slowing sinking into becoming a legacy act.
With changes in management, he chose family members who he could trust, he focused more on Concert dates that like Music Festivals to avoid having to rely on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Although he had an occasional record deal, they were never to his liking.
He was a hit on these Festivals, stealing shows from headliners from Janis Joplin to John Lennnon. in 1969 alone.
That set up anther run saying relevant heading into the 70’s
He performances and the his androgynous dress found him getting booked on the Late night Television shows where he turned in memorable appearances.
He also became a mainstay on the Rock and Roll Revival Circuit, on shows with Chuck Berry and appeared on as a guest on some recordings of the then Rock stars of the day.
But the ravages of living the Rock star lifestyle affected his vocals and by the end of the Seventies he retired from secular world of show business again and back to Gospel music.
By the mid-80’s Richard returned to show business and sued Specialty Records, their Publishing company, and ATV Music, (now owned by Michael Jackson) over back royalties over his 50’s recordings in which a settlement was reached.
He was on TV talking about his spiritualism and his faith. He was beng honored by the music industry and appeared in films, like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and contributed the song co-written with Billy Preston, “Great Gosh Almighty”.
He also published his Autobiography, ” The Life and Times of Little Richard” a truly unvarnished look at his life, and his exploits and left nothing held back.
He was able to reconcile the world of Spiritualism and Rock and Roll.
As the 90’s and 2000’s rolled in he was still in demand performing in Concerts, and being acknowledged as a musical trailblazer and using Rock and Roll as a vehicle in bringing the races together.
Richard began having health issues. He ended up needing and having surgery for sciatic nerve pain in his left leg and hip replacement surgery by 2010.
He was still being honored for his accomplishments and achievements. He was still being recognized by the world of Gospel and Secular music.
He stopped performing by 2014 and I had the thrill of seeing him live at BB Kings in New York that year. Even though he was wheelchair bound, he put on an amazing show!
Still in pain he was still receiving awards and was appearing more on Religious television networks, where he continued to offer his testimony.
On April 28, 2016, Bootsy Collins, a friend of Richard, stated on his Facebook page that, “he is not in the best of health so I ask all the Funkateers to lift him up.” He was later able to resume his regular activities, but at a pace that was age appropriate as Richard was now in his early 80’s.
Little Richard’s last public appearances were September of 2017 where in participating in a TV interview on the Three Angels Christian Broadcasting Network, clean-shaven, without makeup, dressed in a blue paisley coat and tie, and in a wheelchair. He discussed his recent rededication to his Christian faith. And in October where he receiving the Distinguished Artist Award at the 2019 Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards at the Governor’s Residence in Nashville.
Little Richard passed away at his home in Tennessee on May 9th 2020 with his family at his side.
Little Richard was truly the architect of Rock and Roll, and the originator of it. Rest in peace Little Richard and thanks for everything.