Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Richard Wayne Penniman, 5 December 1932, Macon GA; d 9 May 2020, Tullahoma TN) R&B singer, pianist and bandleader who became one of the kings of rock'n'roll. One of twelve children; born slightly deformed, with one short leg and arm. The family were active in Pentacostal churches while his father sold bootleg whiskey. He sang and learned some piano in church; sang on stage with Sister Rosetta Tharpe at Macon City Auditorium; left home at 14 because of homosexual activities and to join a medicine show; he became well-known in whistle-stop black Southern vaudeville. He was influenced in Atlanta by Billy Wright (b 23 May 1918, Atlanta; d there 28 October 1991), a blues singer who wore makeup and had a wild dress sense.

Richard first recorded for RCA in 1951 at WGST Atlanta through white R&B disc jockey Zenas Sears; 'Every Hour' was a local hit. He was inspired to play more piano by the obscure, legendary Esquerita. Richard's second RCA session early '52 was less successful. His father was shot to death that year; the killer was let off and Richard became the family's support, washing dishes at Macon's bus station. He formed a band, the Tempo Toppers, recording for Peacock '53 including sides with Johnny Otis; he formed Little Richard and the Upsetters and sent a demo tape to Specialty on the West Coast, which then had hits with Roy Milton and others, then a million-selling 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' with Lloyd Price. Bumps Blackwell joined Specialty '55 and heard Richard's tape as he was looking for a blues singer with gospel quality.

The first Specialty recording session was in Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio with a house band including Earl Palmer on drums, Alvin 'Red' Tyler on baritone sax (see Dave Bartholomew), Lee Allen on tenor; Huey 'Piano' Smith was probably there. Evidently the influence of Esquerita finally came out: Richard clowned on piano with a gay novelty, 'Tutti Frutti'; Blackwell had the lyric cleaned up by songwriter Dorothy Labostrie (b 28 May 1928, Rayland KY) and the result made no. 2 on the R&B chart late '55, no. 17 pop early '56, its opening 'a-wop-bom-aloo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom' also opening an era in popular music: the inmates were let out of the asylum for good. Absurdly, it was a no. 12 hit by Pat Boone the same month (B-side of ballad 'I'll Be Home'), also less absurdly covered by Elvis Presley; along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Presley himself, Richard defined the essentially anarchic, hedonistic nature of the rock'n'roll phenomenon, in his case with outrageous sexuality, costumes, makeup, pompadour and gospel-influenced screaming. He appeared in the film Don't Knock The Rock '56. Many later hits were two-sided: 'Slippin' And Slidin''/'Long Tall Sally' (another dirty song; Boone said he didn't know what the words meant), 'Rip It Up'/'Ready Teddy' '56 (both covered by Elvis), 'The Girl Can't Help It' (title song from the best rock'n'roll movie ever made), 'Lucille'/'Send Me Some Lovin'', 'Jenny, Jenny'/'Miss Ann', 'Keep A Knockin' ' '57 and 'Good Golly Miss Molly' '58, his last top ten hit. He had formed a new Upsetters for touring, but quit on tour in Australia '57 to turn to the church, and partly because he was working very hard and wasn't seeing enough of the money; he allegedly threw a valuable ring into the sea to prove that he meant what he said.

He recorded gospel for George Goldner in NYC '59 with limited backing, other instruments dubbed on various issues on several labels. He accepted a tour in the UK with Billy Preston in his backing group, the Rolling Stones on their first big tour, and Sam Cooke; he intended to sing gospel, which would have hurt ticket sales, but Cooke's hits were so successful ('Twistin' The Night Away') that Richard couldn't turn down the challenge. He sang rock'n'roll after all and 'wrecked the place', according to Cooke's manager, J. W. Alexander. The Upsetters had worked backing Little Willie John; Richard made an uncredited session with them under their name, produced by H. B. Barnum c.1960; two singles were issued but the rest was lost. He was reunited with Blackwell, whose former protégé Quincy Jones produced his best gospel album, The King Of Gospel Singers '62 on Mercury with the Howard Roberts Choral: it was a fine album but completely different; few bought it and those who did felt cheated. He recorded religious songs for Atlantic '62-3, came back to Specialty '63-4 with Palmer, Don 'Sugarcane' Harris on bass and others: 'Bama Lama Bama Loo' was up to standard, but reached only no. 82 in the pop chart.

The music business had recovered from the onslaught of crossover acts in the '50s and pop had been made smoother and less exciting again, while many were probably angry with Richard (his behaviour in '57 cost a lot in cancelled gigs). He had always been unpredictable; Blackwell told the story of a recording session on a Sunday with 40 people waiting on double-time from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., when Richard announced that 'the Lord does not want me to record today'. He recorded for Vee-Jay, Modern, OKeh, Brunswick in the mid-1960s; many were mediocre records, all of them mishandled by the record companies; e.g. the Brunswick issues included demos and studio warm-ups. The Vee-Jay and perhaps some Modern sessions included Jimi Hendrix, known to Richard as Maurice James, and who learned a lot from a great showman (Hendrix was not stranded in the UK by Richard as legend had it but sacked in NYC). Albums on Reprise represented a real comeback and made fans happy: The Rill Thing '70 (including 'Freedom Blues', which almost made the top 40), The King Of Rock'n'Roll '71, The Second Coming '72.

His gay image and patter kept him off TV (except talk shows), while the tension and guilt between his spiritual and secular feelings dogged him, but the live act rarely failed, not that the real fans ever gave up on him: he had inspired the Beatles, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, countless others; on stage he cut Ike and Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc and could pack any room in Las Vegas. He appeared in films Catalina Caper (Never Steal Anything Wet) '67, Sweet Toronto (from '69 Toronto Pop Festival; retitled Keep On Rockin' with a John Lennon segment removed), Let The Good Times Roll '73, The London Rock'n'Roll Show '72 (at Wembley); he sessioned '71-2 on albums To Delaney From Bonnie on Atco, Sunfighter by Jefferson Starship, and on the soundtrack of caper movie $ ('Dollars'; titled The Heist in UK) '71 (score by Quincy Jones). Other albums included Right Now! on United and Talking 'Bout Soul on Dynasty '73, Head On '75 on Mercury, Little Richard Live '76 on K-Tel (remakes of 20 Specialty hits), God's Beautiful City '79 on World. The Life And Times Of Little Richard by Charles White '84 was a good biography. He drove his sports car into a telephone pole on Santa Monica Blvd in 1985, surviving with 36 pins in his right leg; there was a new LP Lifetime Friend on WEA '86.

Many CD compilations and reissues have appeared on Ace, Deluxe, RCA Camden, Rhino, Specialty etc include Greatest Hits (live in Hollywood '67) on Epic, three-CD The Specialty Sessions on Specialty; six-CD The Specialty Sessions on Ace included demos, out-takes etc. The Very Best of Little Richard 2008 on Concord is a desirable 25-track compilation of the original hits, also including demos and out-takes.