Little Richard

  • Early Rock & Roll and R&B singer, songwriter and musician born Richard Penniman in 1932 in Macon Georgia. Died in 2020 from bone cancer.
  • His family called him Lil’ Richard when he was a child because of his slight frame. He sang gospel songs at churches that his family attended, often too loudly. In high school, he got a part time job selling Coke to concert crowds at the Macon City Auditorium. In 1947, at 14 years old, his favorite performer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was preparing for a concert at the auditorium when she heard Richard singing her songs. She liked what she heard, and she invited Richard to open for her that night. After the show, Tharpe paid Richard, and Richard was hooked on the idea of singing professionally.
  • He began to perform in Doctor Nubillo’s Traveling Show in 1949, and 2 years later he left home to join Hudson’s Medicine Show – he sang in drag, using the name Princess LaVonne. In 1950, he joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra, and Brown gave him the name Little Richard. He performed in and out of drag at vaudeville shows and watched various R&B performers do their shows. He was influenced by jump blues singer Billy Wright – Wright encourage Richard to sing R&B and to look flamboyant, with flashy clothes and a pompadour hair style. Wright put him in contact with an Atlanta DJ, who recorded Little Richard with Wright’s band backing him. This led to a record deal – 8 sides were recorded, and he had his first popular single in Georgia with the blues ballad Every Hour. He soon was dropped and over the next several years, he bounced around the industry and clubs.
  • In February 1955, he sent a demo to a label but heard nothing for months. Finally, in September, the label showed interest in Little Richard, and he was signed. Initial recordings were frustrating, and he and his producer went to a nightclub to relax. While there, Richard performed a song he had written called Tutti Frutti. His producer liked it, but thought that the lyrics were too risque. They hired a local songwriter to rewrite some of the lyrics, and 15 minutes later, the song was ready to be recorded. It was released in November 1955, and it was an instant hit, reaching #2 on the R&B Best Sellers chart and #21 on the Hot 100. It eventually sold over a million copies.
  • Tutti Fruitti is regarded as one of the defining songs of Rock & Roll – its loud volume and powerful vocal was a first for the genre. It has been called “the sound of the birth of rock and roll” and Rolling Stone called the lyrics of the refrain “the most inspired rock lyric ever recorded.” That lyric – “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” – has been covered by dozens of artists, most notably Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
  • Five singles were released in 1956 – including A and B sides, 7 of the 10 songs reached the top 10 of the R&B chart, with Long Tall Sally and Rip It Up reaching #1. These songs also charted on the Hot 100, with Long Tall Sally peaking at #6. His first of 15 studio albums was finally released in 1957 – only his debut album charted highly because so many of the songs had already been purchased by fans as singles.
  • From 1957 to 1959, Little Richard released 16 singles, scoring a #1 R&B hit with Lucille, and top 3 hits with Send Me Some Lovin’, Jenny Jenny, Keep A-Knockin and Good Golly Miss Molly. Rolling Stone puts three Little Richard songs in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time – Long Tall Sally at #55, Good Golly Miss Molly at #94 and The Girl Can’t Help It at #413.
  • In 1958, Little Richard shocked his fans by announcing his intentions to become a minister and to perform gospel music. He enrolled into a theology school, and he traveled across the country to preach, releasing 3 albums of gospel music. In 1962, he returned to secular music. He toured Europe, with The Beatles opening for him at a couple of shows. Over the rest of the 60s, 21 A and B-side records were released, along with 3 albums. He only had modest success, with only I Don’t What You Got But It’s Got Me managing to break into the top 40 of the R&B charts.
  • In the 70s, Little Richard continued to record without success, and he toured in Rock & Roll revival shows. By 1977, he was worn out, and he returned to gospel music with an album in 1979, and another in 1986. As a new generation discovered his legacy, he spent much of the 90s, 00s and 10s performing around the world and appearing in TV, films and work by other artists. He performed his last concert in 2014. In May 2020, he died at the age of 87.
  • Among his many honors, Little Richard was part of the inaugural class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He never won a competitive Grammy award, but he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and 3 songs – Tutti Fruitti, Lucille and Long Tall Sally – are inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, as is his debut album Here’s Little Richard. Here’s “The Architect of Rock and Roll” performing Tutti Fruitti in 1956. A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!

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