Legendary rocker Little Richard claims to be "the architect of rock and roll", and though we might dismiss his boast, knowing as we do that he's not a man given to modesty, it must be said that his brag has some truth to it.
In the 1950s Little Richard threw the music world on its ass and laid the foundation for rock and roll with his frantically explosive music and outrageous persona. Elvis had a similarly galvanizing effect on the music of that decade, but Little Richard was orbiting much further out from the centre than his white counterpart. His raspy screaming singing voice, his wildly pounding style of piano playing - which often involved feet on keyboard - and his flamboyant appearance - make-up, sequined clothes, giant pompadour - were electrifying to audiences at the time, and remain so today. No one could make "awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom" sound as riveting and compelling as Little Richard. James Brown and many other great musicians have credited Little Richard with weaving together boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues, putting the funk in what was soon to become rock and roll.
Born during the Depression (1932) in the deep south of the segregated United States (Macon, Georgia), Richard Wayne Penniman was one of twelve children in a large and poverty-stricken black family; his father was a Seventh-Day Adventist minister who sold moonshine on the side. Steeped in music from an early age, Little Richard sang gospel music at church. But his homosexuality was a problem in that context, and as a teenager he left home and travelled with a medicine show; by age 15 he was a regular with Sugarfoot Sam's Minstrel Show. At 18 he won a talent show and gained a recording contract, but didn't have much success in the beginning; in the meantime he learned piano and a few things about being outrageous from Esquerita.
Little Richard's first hit was "Tutti Frutti" in 1955, after which he had a string of huge successes: "Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Rip It Up," and "Ready Teddy" in 1956; "Lucille," "Jenny, Jenny," and "Keep a Knockin'" in 1957; and "Good Golly Miss Molly" in 1958. (Ridiculous though it might sound, Pat Boone did covers of some of these, and had big hits as well.) Little Richard also appeared in movies such as Don't Knock the Rock and The Girl Can't Help It (both 1956). It was really this short but productive recording period that cemented Little Richard's reputation as a founding father of rock and roll.
Unfortunately, he found the rigours of fame and the conflicts between his lifestyle and his religious upbringing too much to bear, and in late 1957 while on tour in Australia announced that he was abandoning his music career. In January 1958 he entered Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, Alabama; he eventually became an ordained minister in the same church as his father.
In 1962, however, he returned to music, one of many comebacks he has successfully engineered over the decades; over the next several years he would tour as a headliner with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. (The then-unknown Jimi Hendrix played in Richard's band for a short time as well.) The Beatles recorded a cover of "Long Tall Sally" that showed how influential Little Richard had been to these bands of the British Invasion, and Little Richard himself was inspired to throw himself into rock and roll; he had a minor hit in 1964 with the wonderfully named "Bama Lama Bama Loo."
In 1977, after problems with drug and alcohol abuse, he again quit music and became a travelling Bible salesman and evangelical preacher; he released a gospel album, God's Beautiful City, in 1979. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; that same year he appeared in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammies, and he received a similar award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation the following year. He played at Bill Clinton's inaugural in 1993, and he continues to perform and preach and raise money to help the fight against AIDS.
Sadly, in 2002 he announced that he would be retiring at the end of this year. We'll all be poorer for not having such a great performer gracing a stage nearby.
Read The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock by Charles White if you want more poop on Little Richard.