Little Richard - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


With his weirdly androgynous image--sky-high Marcel wave pompadour, pencil moustache, gaudy, drape-shape suits and a kilo of pancake make-up #31 make up--and that indescribably heavy, driving piano, topped off by his trademark, out of this world Wooooo scream, no one represented the threat of rock & roll as well as Little Richard. When "Tutti-Frutti" began blaring from juke boxes and radios in 1955, it was a sound that clawed at America's unbelieving mind, and whether the response was revulsion or delirium, Little Richard's shock and awe impact was as unprecedented as it was undeniable. A musician of impeccable instinct, a show-stopping performer renowned for an ability to instill mass hysteria, Little Richard not only drafted the master blueprint for rock & roll, he directly influenced and guided some of the music's most famed names, from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly to David Bowie, James Brown, Otis Redding and Michael Jackson. Perhaps the groundbreaking R&B bandleader Johnny Otis said it best: "Little Richard is twice as important as the Beatles and [Rolling] Stones put together."


Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia, he was a unique and mischievous creature. The little kid with an oversized cranium and one leg shorter than the other, Penniman could not stay out of trouble; he once famously presented a turd-filled gift-wrapped shoebox to an elderly neighbor ("I laughed like a cuckoo," he wrote in his 1984 autobiography) and was always set apart from the crowd by his realization, early in life, that his wildly fluid sexuality fell far short of normal. At school, teachers and students held a uniformly low opinion of him, and the kids called him punk, faggot, Big Head, sissy. Musically inclined, he played alto sax in high school and dabbled with piano, but all Penniman really wanted to do was sing, and he did, regularly at home with his poverty stricken family and in church every Sunday.


As a teenager he got a job at the Macon Auditorium selling soda pop and gassing on the top black touring acts the venue regularly hosted. One night, the great electric guitar-playing gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe invited the youth on stage to sing--and paid him thirty five dollars, more money than he had seen in his life. Penniman was hooked. After a touring band, B Brown & his Orchestra came through town and their singer dropped out due to illness, the fourteen year old Penniman was chosen to fill in. The gig stuck and in no time he was being billed as Little Richard. From there he went on to stints with chitlin' circuit outfits like Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam's minstrel troupe, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, the L.J. Heath minstrel show and Georgia-based revue the Broadway Follies. In Atlanta, he fell in with Billy Wright, the Prince of the Blues, whose emotionally charged vocals, multi-hued wardrobe and swept high Marcel-conk made a profound impression on Penniman (in other words, he stole greatly from Wright, who had also introduced the lad to pancake make-up  #31).


Wright persuaded a disk jockey pal to help Penniman land a recording deal with RCA Victor and on October 16, 1951, the eighteen-year-old made his first recordings (four straight urban R&B cuts) in a studio at Atlanta radio station WGST, that resulted in a local hit, "Every Hour." Not long after, Penniman was at one of his favorite three a.m. haunts, the Macon Greyhound station, when the wild R&B pianist-singer Eskew Reeder Jr. turned up.  Professionally known as Esquerita, he coached Penniman and supplied the final, funky ingredient into the young aspirant's musical cocktail: a big, raunchy, yet gospel-informed brand of piano, after that Penniman began concentrating intently on the 88 keys. A second RCA session in January 1952 did not quite reflect this new method, and the results made less of an impression of the public than "Every Hour" had. Not long after, Penniman's father was shot to death outside a local nightclub, and Penniman became the family's breadwinner. He took a dishwashing job at the Greyhound station until a local promoter helped him form a band, Little Richard & the Tempo Toppers, and began booking shows for them, one way down yonder in New Orleans.


With it's heady jazz and blues scene, and thriving gay community, Penniman bloomed during a residency at the infamous joint Club Tijuana. Onstage Little Richard was electrifying; he'd throw himself on the floor, do splits and work the keyboard like a mad dog. In 1953, the band moved to a club job in Houston, where Penniman caught the eye of Johnny Otis and the ear of hard-headed promoter Don Robey.  Known as the Black Caesar, Robey was a quick-fisted, gun-toting paragon of music business hustle. His Peacock Club and independent label, Peacock Records, was pulling in serious green with the success of R&B crooner Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton and the fast-rising Bobby Bland. Robey signed Penniman, but again, the February 1953 session fell short of  spectacular and all of the tracks from a second session in October, this one with Johnny Otis, were shelved.


Penniman disbanded the Tempo Toppers, worked as a solo for a spell, then put together a new group, the Upsetters and rolled on. With a phenomenally slamming drummer from New Orleans named Chuck Connors, they were hitting it hard now, and he regularly stopped the show with his vulgar "Tutti Frutti" (original lyric: "Tutti Frutti / Good booty / If it don't fit / Don't force it . . "). Undaunted, Little Richard & the Upsetters collected enough cash for a demo session, and Penniman began sending copies of the tape to various labels. One of them arrived at the Los Angeles office of gospel-R&B indie Specialty Records in February 1955. Several months later, Specialty arranged a session for  Penniman in New Orleans, and while the Upsetters never did record with Penniman, he was backed up by the capable house band at Cosimo Matassa's famed studio. By October, "Tutti Frutti" was number two on Billboard's R&B chart and number twenty one on its Hot One Hundred. The world--Womp Bomp A Loo Momp A Womp Bam Boom--would never quite be the same again.


In the fall of 1955, no one outside of the Southeast had even heard of Elvis Presley, but Penniman, along with Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, were the three-headed monster visiting the swift and terrible curse of rock & roll upon the world. Hit after hit followed: "Long Tall Sally," a number one R&B hit and number 13 on the Hot One Hundred in March 1956; the following month. the singles flip side "Slippin' & Slidin'" went to number one on the R&B (and number 33 on Hot One Hundred), followed by "Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy," (both number one R&B hits), another double-sided Top Twenty hit  "Heebie Jeebies" and "She's Got It." His first long player, Here's Little Richard  (1957 Specialty) roared onto the R&B and pop charts with the singles  "Lucille," "Send Me Some Lovin'," followed by "Jenny Jenny" b/w "Miss Ann" (number one and two R&B hits, respectively). Each of these titles were steaming, screaming, explosive slabs of supercharged rock & roll, and after Penniman appeared in 20th Century Fox big screen extravaganza, The Girl Can't Help It, his notoriety drastically increased.


By the time his second album, Little Richard (1958 Specialty) appeared, the label's biggest star was in a state of nervous distraction and had already quit the business. An appearance at an open air stadium in Sydney, Australia had been punctuated by the fiery orbit of the just launched Russian satellite Sputnik, and Penniman took the ball of fire as sign from his wrathful God. Near hysterical, Penniman renounced rock & roll, famously threw all his jewelry into the bay and walked away from $500,000 worth of remaining tour dates. Penniman then married, entered a seminary and began cutting gospel albums. But by 1962, he was back at it, with a British tour--on which he intended to perform only gospel songs. The shows, as it turned out, were full throttle rock & roll, and it was such a success that he returned there within months, taping a "final farewell" television show that really only heralded a comeback. In 1964, he released his final Specialty single "Bama Lama Bama Loo," and, with a new recording contract, the album Little Richard is Back (1965 VeeJay). His timing was disastrous. That new sensation the Beatles (who two years earlier had sought an alliance with an uninterested Penniman ) now dominated pop, and Little Richard was scarcely the attraction he had been in the late 1950s.


The singer pressed on, and a 1965 club date, released as The Incredible Little Richard Sings his Greatest Hits--Live! (1966 Modern) demonstrated that he had hardly mellowed. There were numerous sessions, for Modern and Okeh, but nothing substantial came from any of them. By the early 70s, a nostalgia craze was sweeping the country and Penniman cashed in with all his formidable skills, as hot as ever. The 1971 oldies package flick Let the Good Times Roll, captured an incredible performance and climaxed with Penniman on top of a huge stack of PA speakers, tearing off his mirror-studded costume, bit by bit, and tossing them into the frenzied crowd. But between his own naturally erratic brand of professionalism and a serious cocaine habit ("I snorted so much they had to back a garbage truck up to my nose," he described it), his career, as much by choice as by chance, went into the ditch.


Penniman continued to withdraw and re-emerge, notably with a headline grabbing conversion to the Jewish faith and, later, a fabulous 1986 MCA single "Great Gosh A-Mighty" that no one paid any attention to. A deal with Warner resulted in a misfire of a spiritual album, but by then he had graduated to status as an eminence of rock & roll, and numerous film and television cameos and commercial pitchman deals softened the sting of what turned out to be a stinker of a contract with Specialty (he was, essentially, never paid, and in the mid-80s, frequently picketed Specialty's Sunset Boulevard offices).


Even at the twilight of his career, Penniman's shows are never dull; his between song patter reached dizzying heights of personalized jive ("Put the sexy lights on me! I hope they enjoy seeing this old Jewish boy . .  " or "Oooooh, don't me scream like a white woman!" or his signature line "The Beauty is still on Duty!") and for as long as his scatter-shot attention span would hold, volcanic performances of his classic hits. Troubled, brilliant, half-crazy and a full-time big beat idol, Little Richard, as he so often said, "is the King of rock & roll--and the Queen, too!" In 2013 Richard announced his retirement from performing, stating- on stage, as he gasped for air, "I'm too old for this!"

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