“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.”
Surrounded by gospel music and the saccharine crooning of Bing Crosby and early radio-flavored Ella Fitzgerald, young Richard Penniman once remarked that he was looking for an “edgier” sound of music and a “louder” singer to awake something in him. And then, he decided, that missing ingredient was him. And with this grand awakening, Little Richard was hatched from nothing, like the light that comes at the behest of God in Genesis. Because at his core, in his central being, Penniman was a man of God (his uncles were preachers) who also could not help frantically searching for edgier and louder (his dad was a bootlegger), and in there somewhere is America – the grand dichotomy of feral desire and better angels. At these crossroads lie the origins of rock and roll, also an American original. Only here could a hodge-podge of black blues, Irish jigs, redneck picking, and dance hall hype coagulate into a pristine soundtrack of rebellion.
Black. Gay. Primitive. Showbiz. Inventive. Influential. Penitent.
Little Richard was all of these.
In the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, my first introduction to the timeline of a music that had dazzled me since sentience, and a book I begged my parents to get me for Christmas, and they did (which may or may not have been a mistake), Little Richard comes after Elvis Presley and Fats Domino but before Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and everything else. When Berry died I remarked in this column how he invented rock and roll. This is because at its nucleus the art form is rooted in guitar. Even though Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s pianist, built the foundation of Berry’s work, the piano would not define the genre. Yet, before all of that, Fats Domino, a master pianist and composer, was a New Orleans fixture, an original from the town that heeded the swampy crude rhythms that bounced off the bayou and back into the grimy streets of the French Quarter, pulling the jazz licks from its European parameters and slathering its slave hymns into a pure, primal groove. Fats Domino, then, was the smoldering fire. Little Richard came along and poured gasoline on that fire and from its lapping blue-orange tongue let out that primeval bellow from the nether regions of the soul.
It is the most famous of all early rock and roll lyrics. It means nothingand it means everything. It comes out of the speakers, a-cappella, raw and mean, as if it were the voice of the past and the future. A call of the wild that wipes clean anything before it. It heralds a career and a style, and it made Little Richard famous. “Tutti Frutti” was the song. The year was 1955. It was a paean to anal sex. Its original lyrics were “Tutti Frutti/Good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it/You can grease it, make it easy.” It was, it turns out, the most subversive art in the history of popular music, making it to #2 on the charts and entering the lexicon of lily white mid-America as if a virus. Makes the Sex Pistols, Marylyn Manson, and every hip hop record blush. It invented the part of rock and roll that counts. It was dirty and loud and ugly and sexy and puerile and fun and infectious and… dangerous.
Beyond that, Little Richard sang with a smirk that challenged every notion of what music could do and in turn be as soulful and raucous as any young African American man could be on the Chitlin’ Circuit where the music was not meant to integrate but ingratiate. Unlike Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, Little Richard’s sound was black as night, as black as blues, as black as America, inventing things for the white kids who wanted to get out of the suburban dream and into the stark realities of the underworld. Little Richard did not pander, he commanded.
His first album, released by Specialty Records, Here’s Little Richard reads like a template” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Jenny Jenny.” Then there would be “Good Golly Miss Molly,” who sure liked to “ball,” another pretty blatant euphemism for unbridled sex, and “Keep a Knockin’,” which may be the first punk rock song; “Keep a knockin’ but you can’t come in!” shouted over and over like a head-banging Ramones mantra.
Later, Little Richard’s shouts from the culture would bring us Sam Cooke, discovered and produced by Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, who worked on “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and everything else Penniman recorded for Specialty Records. Cooke then toured with Little Richard, as did Jimi Hendrix, who would be his guitarist and protégé in histrionics and showmanship. The shy Hendrix, like Sam Cooke before him, credits the cool brashness of his mentor with unleashing his true talents, which included obliterating the landscape of electric guitar forevermore. As would the influence of Little Richard on James Brown, Otis Redding, Sly Stone, and Prince Rogers Nelson tear pieces from what had come before. The Beatles worked with Little Richard in Hamburg, Germany before anyone knew who they were, and the Rolling Stones first toured with Little Richard as snot-nosed blues worshipers. There is nothing in the first two to three decades of rock and roll that doesn’t have Penniman’s stamp on it.
In 1957, at the height of his powers, Little Richard famously quit rock and roll to become a preacher, after some spiritual revelation about hellfire on a near-death airplane experience. So, in essence, those two years, wherein he invented the howls later copped by everyone from Paul McCartney (whose first performance in front of anyone was a version of “Long Tall Sally” at age fourteen) to every heavy metal screecher ever committed to the craft, was his legacy. When he returned he hid nothing; his sexuality, his annoyance that he was passed over as an originator, his unchecked flamboyance and a penchant for general upheaval. He became the living embodiment of his initial splash on the scene and everyone fed off the genuine article.
It should also be noted that Little Richard appeared in three seminal rock and roll films, not the least of which titillated a young Robert Zimmerman, who at first only wanted to be Little Richard before he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and invented Bob Dylan, and all-but triggered the British invasion. The Girl Can’t Help It, of which Penniman sings the title, along with performing out of his mind on others.
The film starred a blonde bombshell named Jayne Mansfield, whose mere presence awoke the animal instincts of every breathing male in attendance and connected this ass-shaking, mind-quaking music to the purpose as well as any youth-film did during the time when that was not yet a thing but soon would be. It would be joined by Blackboard Jungle, Hard Day’s Night, Saturday Night Fever, Purple Rain, and 8 Mile in the roll call of culture-shifting rock cinema.
The most difficult aspect of writing about Little Richard is that one cannot begin to overstate his importance and influence on what we understand about modern popular music. His voice was a clarion. His look was an outrage. His songs were a revelation. His kind did not have a mold to break. It came new. That is what you hear and see with Little Richard. In 1955. In 2020. He is always new. He is forever our red-white-and-blue shock to the senses, the thumping of our hearts. His paradox is America’s conundrum. Our most lethal attribute: We want to be good, but man, we can’t help, shit, we love being bad.
And it sounds like…