Little Richard: An Appreciation
Written by Tom Shaker on May 11, 2020
His music was R&B, gospel, blues, country, and rock & roll, but his voice was all soul. Little Richard’s passing, at 87, begs us to stop and reflect on an artist unlike any other–an artist that changed the way people listened to and played rock & roll. Richard, not one to be shy, credits himself for the careers of, as he says “everyone.” And, according to him, that includes Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Joe Tex, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Prince.
If that list came out of anyone else’s mouth you wouldn’t believe it for a second. But out of the mouth of Little Richard, it’s the gospel truth.
As the host of The Soul Serenade, I love to play Little Richard’s music. It epitomizes soul with it’s driving beat, outrageous lyrics and pleading, screaming, crazy vocals. But it sometimes presents a problem for me. Most artists’ music you can generally begin, put in the middle or end a set with. Not Little Richard’s songs. They always had to end a set. What could follow the likes of “The Girl Can’t Help It” “Long Tall Sally” or “Rip It Up.” Quite simply…nothing!
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia in 1932, he was supposed to be named Ricardo, but a typo in his birth certificate changed that. He was born the third of twelve children and loved to sing at an early age. His father, a Pentecostal church deacon and bootlegger, threw him out of the house at thirteen, accusing him of being gay, so he moved in with a white family. His love of music was always a part of him. One of his jobs as a boy was working concessions at the Macon auditorium and, along with his pal Otis Redding, loved hearing all the R&B acts that came through town.
He’s best known for his outrageous outfits, wigs, make-up, and jewelry (and this was back in the ’50s, mind you), but Richard served two Gods. One was rock & roll and the other was gospel. He left great commercial success throughout his career to serve God, selling bibles and preaching. Check out the 1961 Mercury LP “The King of The Gospel Singers” produced by Quincy Jones. Even the queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson, recognized its authenticity and Richard’s genuine vocals. He tried to find a balance between his two musical callings, getting back into music in the 1960s, and even having a young Jimi Hendrix in his band at one point. At the start of their careers, both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were just some of the bands that opened for him as he toured Europe.
With titles like “Bama Lama Lama Loo” “Tutti Frutti” and “Heebie Jeebies,” Little Richard’s lyrics can be primal and nonsensical. But what comes through every lyric of every song he ever sang was sex. Prince may have perfected it, but Little Richard originated it. In a time when (and this is a gross understatement) being different was so difficult personally and commercial suicidal, Little Richard exaggerated, flaunted and celebrated his sexuality. Straight or gay or whatever, he brought his joy of sex to his music. His falsetto yells were so high, so dramatic and so infectious that it seemed like one big orgasm!
His “one of a kind sound” ended up winning over a mainstream audience and breaking through the charts in the 1950s, where few black artists dared to go. And, while everyone tried to borrow, copy, or steal his style, there was only one Little Richard; only he could pull it off.
Take that Pat Boone!
His live performances make today’s artists seem tame. On stage he was dangerous, wild, and unpredictable, everything rock and roll should be. He was all over the stage while his piano playing was a sight to behold; he was on top, underneath and across his keyboards. Couple that with his outrageous outfits and his audiences went wild.
This was while audiences down south were still segregated. But, by the end of a Little Richard show his music had overcome any physical barriers put up by the police, and Blacks and whites were dancing together, breaking down racial barriers through the power of his artistry.
There are so many wonderful, crazy, outrageous stories about him. Be sure to check out his biography “The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock” by Charles White (Harmony Books, 1985). And, get on YouTube to see his thrilling early rock performances in movies like “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Don’t Knock The Rock.” His performance of “Rubber Duckie” on Sesame Street will make you feel good all over.
As I settle into my sixth decade on this planet I find myself sometimes complaining more than I realize. One of my “old man” complaints (besides “Hey you kids get off the lawn!) is there are no “originals” anymore. Nobody who takes your breath away, who always makes you glad to be listening to their music, who makes you smile just by the mere mention of their name. Little Richard just might be the last true original.
He’s influenced generations of artists and his songs have been covered by hundreds. From Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, The Beatles to Elton John, The Everly Brothers to Bob Dylan, and The Kinks to CCR; the list goes on and on and on.
So, with all this said, where does Little Richard fit into the history of pop music? “Wherever he wants” would probably be the short answer. As one of the pioneers of rock and roll, he stands tall with all those great Sun Records legends like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. He also shares the stage as an architect of soul and funk music along with Sam Cooke, James Brown and Ray Charles. He was truly one of a kind.
And, with this “new normal” we’re all trying to figure out, I know I’ve become much more grateful for everything in my life. From a good cup of coffee to walking the dog, staying in touch with family & friends, and, of course, listening to great music while I quarantine, I just appreciate it all the more these days. Without Little Richard, all the rock music we listen to today just might not be as loud, as fun, as sexual and as entertaining. Let’s be grateful we had him as long as we did to enjoy not just his music, but his humanity, his joy, and, of course, that hair. Good Golly Miss Molly!!