Little Richard – circa 1954
“A wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom!” – ‘Tutti Frutti’ (Richard Penniman, Dorothy LaBostrie, Joe Lubin)
Outrageous! That’s really the only word to describe the advent of Little Richard in 1955. His hair is piled high in a six-inch pompadour style. Pancake make-up, fake eyelashes and mascara complete his flamboyant appearance. Outrageous! What shell-shocked audiences hear (often before they are exposed to the visual spectacle of the African-American singer) is scarcely less astonishing. His debut single, ‘Tutti Frutti’, is a wildly battering assault of chaotic nonsense heralded by one of the greatest explosions of absurd language in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: “A wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom!” Outrageous!
Little Richard is, to put it mildly, a colourful character. He is also inclined to embellish his own story in order to aggrandise himself. He is a bit vain, but it’s kind of charming. As best as can be determined, sifting fact from inflated fiction, the story of Little Richard goes something like this:
Richard Wayne Penniman is born 5 December 1932 in Macon, Georgia, U.S.A. His father is Charles ‘Bud’ Penniman, a church deacon with a sideline in selling ‘scrum’ (sourmash whiskey). Bud Penniman also owns a nightclub. Bud’s wife (and Little Richard’s mother) is Leva Mae Penniman (nee Stewart). “I was the third child of twelve and we was poor, poor, poor,” Richard recalls. There are seven boys and five girls in the Penniman household in Pleasant Hill, a poor neighbourhood of Macon. Two of his brothers are Trevor and Tony.
Richard Penniman is born with one leg shorter than the other. This gives him an odd gait which some consider effeminate. He is nicknamed Little Richard because he is small and scrawny. “I was really kind of shy as a child,” he says. “But I would do things for attention.”
The Penniman family are ‘devout Seventh Day Adventists’, despite Bud Penniman’s questionable example. Richard’s grandfather and two of his uncles are preachers. The boy has early ambitions to also be a man-of-the-cloth.
“In the front room…we had an old upright piano that my grandfather gave to my mother for me and that’s the piano I learned to play on,” says Little Richard. “I got on my mother’s piano and I just tore that piano up. I tore them keys and pushed them keys and hit them keys.” He is also said to have learned to play piano in a neighbourhood church…presumably in a less exuberant style. Little Richard also sings in a gospel group.
Little Richard’s interest in music is wider than purely gospel music. It’s not a view shared by his parents. “I came from a family where my people don’t like rhythm and blues. Bing Crosby, ‘Pennies From Heaven’, Ella Fitzgerald, was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.”
In 1948, the 16 year old Little Richard leaves school. He performs as a tap-dancer and singer with Doctor Hudson’s Travelling Medicine Show, working through the southern States of the U.S. Returning home, Little Richard’s new, flashy clothes and exaggerated stage patter don’t endear him to his father. But when Bud Penniman discovers his son’s rather different sexual orientation, he kicks the lad out, never to return. Bud Penniman dies four years later in 1952, a murder victim.
Little Richard’s sexual orientation is perhaps most accurately described as bisexual. Over the years, he has also been described as homosexual and omnisexual. He has sexual relations with both boys and girls from his early teens.
Homeless and confused, Little Richard seeks shelter at a local ‘dive’ in Macon called the Tick Tock Club. The proprietors are a white couple, Enotris ‘Johnny’ Johnson and his wife, Ann. The Johnsons allow Richard to live with them in their home. They send the boy to school and encourage his interest in ‘race music’ (i.e. the music of African-Americans, more politely labelled rhythm and blues). In 1949 Little Richard begins performing on stage as a solo act at the Tick Tock Club.
In 1949-1950 Little Richard replaces I.A. Harris as the vocalist in The Buster Brown Orchestra. Although the ‘Little Richard’ tag was given to Richard Penniman as a childhood nickname, it is at this point that he starts using it as his stagename. In the African-American music community the prefix ‘Little’ is often given to performers who first exhibit their talent at a young age. 17 year old Little Richard probably fits that description. The Buster Brown Orchestra tours through Georgia and Florida. However, with a repertoire of songs like ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Mona Lisa’, they are ‘far too tame’ for their young vocalist.
In 1950 Little Richard works with vaudeville acts like Spencer ‘Snake’ Anthony, Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam, The Tidy Jolly Stompers and Broadway Follies. Such entertainers appear in travelling minstrel shows and carnivals. Little Richard also indulges another side of his personality as a ‘drag performer’, appearing ‘in evening gowns, pancake make-up and fake eyelashes.’
‘Daddy’ Zenas Sears has an amateur hour talent quest program on WGST Radio in Atlanta, Georgia. Little Richard enters this contest at the Eighty-One Theater in Atlanta. He is backed by a local band led by Billy Wright. Richard admits to copying Wright because the band leader uses a brand of make-up called Pancake 31. Little Richard’s prize in the talent contest is a recording contract with RCA Records (later the home of fellow rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Elvis Presley). Actually, Little Richard appears on the subsidiary label Camden, “where they put the black artists,” he explains.
“In 1951 I was recording,” Little Richard proudly boasts. He cuts eight sides for RCA over the next two years. These songs are ‘gospel blues’ in the style of Billy Wright and ‘jump blues’ as popularised by Roy Brown. (‘Jump blues’ is a saxophone-heavy precursor to rock, pitched somewhere between big band swing and rhythm and blues.) Among Little Richard’s ‘undistinguished’ output in this era are the songs ‘Every Hour’, ‘Get Rich Quick’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Happening’ and ‘I Brought It All On Myself’.
It is also around this time that Little Richard meets Esquirita (a.k.a. Eskew Reeder), ‘a flamboyant rhythm and blues pianist and singer notorious in Southern black, gay circles’ during the 1950s and 1960s. Esquirita is said to have taught Little Richard the treble bass licks that would become a feature in his piano-playing, but Esquirita’s garish persona seems to have been equally influential.
In 1953 Little Richard moves on to Don Robey’s Peacock record label. Recording in Houston, Texas, with The Tempo Toppers and The Deuces Of Rhythm, Richard’s recordings are ‘fun’ and ‘breezy’ but still achieve little success. Recordings from this period include ‘Ain’t That Good News’ and ‘Rice, Red Beans And Turnip Greens.’
Still with Peacock, Little Richard records four sides with The Johnny Otis Orchestra in 1955. When these too fail to make any impact, the singer is ‘canned’ by Peacock and sent on his way.
Little Richard is now at about his lowest ebb. He takes a job washing dishes in a Greyhound bus depot – but also moonlights as a professional drag queen. Unlikely as it may seem, it is actually the dish-washing job that will eventually lead to his breakthrough. When Richard finishes another load of kitchenware, he taps on the pots and pans and calls out to the cook, “A wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom! Take ‘em out!”
Lloyd Price, a singer who records in New Orleans, Louisiana, had a hit in 1952 with a song called ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’. It was released through Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label in Los Angeles. Lloyd Price suggests to Little Richard that he may want to try his luck with Specialty. In February 1955 Little Richard sends ‘a poorly recorded tape wrapped in a greasy paper bag’ to Specialty. It takes seven months for him to get a reply. Little Richard badgers the record company insisting he is ‘the greatest natural talent.’ Eventually, Specialty decides to try a recording session with Little Richard in New Orleans.
Little Richard is one of a handful of acts who creates the basic elements of rock ‘n’ roll. “I was the architect [of rock],” he insists, which is only a mild exaggeration. The conventional wisdom is that rock ‘n’ roll is born from the country and western of white recording artists mixing with the rhythm and blues of black artists. In spite of Richard’s testimonials (“I’m a country music nut!”), there is very little in his recordings to suggest a country influence. A more accurate description of Little Richard’s personal brand of rock ‘n’ roll is that he ‘merges the fire of gospel with New Orleans rhythm and blues.’ Little Richard’s crazed caterwauling does seem like an evangelical preacher at hyperspeed. Since some of his earliest recordings are made in New Orleans (as will be elaborated upon shortly), it makes sense that the Crescent City’s distinctive, rolling, jazz-inflected rhythms spice up the singer’s rhythm and blues. According to Little Richard, “Rock ‘n’ roll is really rhythm and blues uptempo. What happened is [influential disc jockey] Alan Freed began calling it rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Who influenced me was…[gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson,” begins Little Richard. He goes on to list his other influences as, “[The] Clara Ward singers [another gospel act], Ruth Brown [a popular rhythm and blues singer], Roy Brown [an unrelated fellow rhythm and blues vocalist mentioned earlier in relation to the ‘jump blues’ hybrid]…[and] Elmore James [an electric blues guitarist].”
Billy Ward and Esquirita – along with various drag performers – have already been cited as sources for Little Richard’s own outrageous flamboyance. Although he favoured classical music and a far more sedate form of pop, Liberace may be assumed to be another inspiration…but this would have the equation back to front. Although Liberace came to fame in the late 1940s, “Liberace started gettin’ wilder after me,” Little Richard quite correctly points out. The elaborate costumes readily identified with Liberace are from a later period that post-dates Little Richard’s breakthrough.
“In Macon, Georgia, racism was so heavy I had to disguise myself,” claims Little Richard. “I was the first black artist to sing for white people [the likes of Fats Domino (March 1953) and Chuck Berry (July 1955) may beg to differ, but let’s continue…] and they didn’t allow me to talk to white girls. I put on my eyelashes, and my hair was that high, [with] my headband and make-up, I would go and talk to a white girl.” Or, as Richard puts it on another occasion, “I wore the make-up so white men wouldn’t think I was after white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colourful too.” Richard proclaims, “I had girlfriends and a stack of women who followed me and travelled with me. I figure if being called a sissy [by other men] would make me famous, let them say what they wanted to.”
As a vocalist, Little Richard deploys an arsenal of shrieks and trills largely drawn from the repertoire of tent-show gospel preachers. Perhaps his most familiar stylistic flourish is a falsetto “Whooo!” It’s exhilarating but leaves many of the singer’s new, white teenage fans flabbergasted.
Little Richard’s piano playing is equally disconcerting. “The reason I stand up [at the piano] is I got tired of sittin’ down,” laughs Little Richard. “I threw my leg up on the piano, I played with my toes, with my elbows, I lay on my back and played the piano.” Beyond such theatrics, he boasts, “My fingers were so fast!” Richard points out that Jerry Lee Lewis, another rock pioneer, adopted much of the self-described Georgia Peach’s piano style, but Lewis’ breakthrough comes about eighteen months after Richard’s. Little Richard notes that he does not do a glissando as Lewis does (i.e. running a digit along the length of the keyboard) because it hurts his finger.
Little Richard either writes or co-writes most of his most famous songs.
On 14 September 1955, Specialty Records sends Little Richard to Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios in New Orleans. Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell is hired by the label to act as producer on the recording session. At first, the work goes slowly and is unproductive. Blackwell takes Richard out to a bar for a break and a few drinks. Once he is a bit lubricated, Little Richard jumps on stage at this venue and belts out ‘a rollicking obscene ditty.’ Seeing the potential in the piece, Blackwell hustles the singer back to the recording studio. This song is, of course, ‘Tutti Frutti’ (US no. 17, UK no. 29), the song with the bizarre vocal ejaculation, “A wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom!” The exact spelling of this phrase varies from source to source, but it hardly matters. ‘Tutti Frutti’ is credited to Richard Penniman (i.e. Little Richard), Dorothy LaBostrie and Joe Lubin, but which one of them came up with the magic phrase? “I thought it up,” confirms Little Richard. As previously mentioned, it has its origins in his dish-washing days, but Richard, always a fan of the multiple choice approach to history, also claims, “One night I forgot what to say,” and came up with the phrase. “It was risqué,” he says with uncharacteristic understatement. It was, reputedly, ‘originally a how-to manual for anal sex.’ “I got a girl to help clean things up,” Richard recounts. This is Dorothy LaBostrie, a ‘New Orleans songwriter’ / ‘assistant.’ Even with the revised lyric, Little Richard is embarrassed to sing ‘Tutti Frutti’ in front of a woman (LaBostrie) so he faces the studio wall and, voice raw from singing all day, belts out the version that becomes his breakthrough single, ‘Tutti Frutti’ backed with ‘I’m Just A Lonely Boy’. ‘Tutti Frutti’ is a wild, jiving, burst of pure energy. Despite rival versions of the song by white singers Pat Boone and Elvis Presley, the original is triumphant on the record charts. It remains Little Richard’s finest song.
Under the continuing supervision of producer ‘Bumps’ Blackwell, Little Richard goes on to knock out a series of high-energy songs. Some are recorded in New Orleans; other hits are laid down in Los Angeles, California. In New Orleans, the musicians appearing on Little Richard’s songs include Lee Allen (tenor saxophone), Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler (baritone saxophone), Edgar Blanchard (guitar), Justin Adams (guitar), Ernest McLean (guitar), Frank Fields (bass) and Earl Palmer (drums). Palmer usually played on the L.A. sessions too, but the rest of the west coast crew are lost to history. On at least one occasion, Little Richard was backed in the studio by The Upsetters, his own, rather impressive, touring band. Their membership includes Grady Gaines (saxophone), Wilbert ‘Lee Diamond’ Smith (piano) and Charles ‘Chuck’ Connors (drums). Reputedly, another native of Macon, Georgia, James Brown (the future godfather of soul), sings backing vocals in Little Richard’s band, circa 1955, for a short time. Producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell claims that at least four other men played piano on various Little Richard hits: Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, James Booker, Edward Frank and Warren Myles. Little Richard ‘vehemently denies’ this assertion, insisting he alone played piano on his songs.
Little Richard’s second single in his ‘new’ career is released on 27 February 1956. This is ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’ b/w ‘Long Tall Sally’. ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’ (US no. 33) features a tinkling piano, honking saxophone and thrusting melody. Co-written by Richard Penniman, Eddie Bocage, James Smith and Al Collins, it finds Little Richard gleefully pronouncing, “Slippin’ and slidin’ / Peepin’ and hidin’ / Been told a long time ago / I been told, baby you been bold / Ain’t gonna be your fool no more.” Better known is ‘Long Tall Sally’ (US no. 6, UK no. 3), a tale of marital infidelity wherein the narrator’s Uncle John avoids Aunt Mary to carry on with the woman of the title: “Well, Long Tall Sally’s really sweet / She’s got everything that Uncle John needs.” Little Richard delivers a raving vocal punctuated by some of his most piercing “Whoo-ooo!” exclamations. He shares songwriting credit on this one with his father figure, Enotris Johnson, and producer ‘Bumps’ Blackwell. Little Richard’s touring band, The Upsetters, provide musical backing on ‘Long Tall Sally’.
1956 sees another single pairing two high quality Little Richard songs: ‘Rip It Up’ b/w ‘Ready Teddy’. “Well, it’s Saturday night and I just got paid / Fool about the money, don’t try to save,” exults Richard in the exuberant ode to partying, ‘Rip It Up’ (US no. 17, UK no. 30). The Georgia Peach is teasing and flaunting in ‘Ready Teddy’ (US no. 44). Both sides of this single are composed by the team of ‘Bumps’ Blackwell and John Marascalco.
In 1956-1957 Little Richard has a relationship with 16 year old Audrey Robinson.
Over the same period, Little Richard appears in three motion pictures. He is not, strictly speaking, the star of any of them; Little Richard is one of a short menu of early rock stars in each of these films. ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (1956) stars Jayne Mansfield as a buxom lass whose mobster boyfriend is intent on making her a rock star. As well as Little Richard, this movie features Fats Domino and Gene Vincent. Richard joins Bill Haley for ‘Don’t Knock the Rock’ (1956) which is more of a vehicle for Bill Haley And The Comets. Chuck Berry and Little Richard both pop up in ‘Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (1957), the story of Alan Freed, the disc jockey credited with popularising the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. Richard later says, “I’ve never met nobody like Alan Freed…If you had a good record, he’d play it. He didn’t care if you were black or white.”
The percolating theme song from ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (US no. 49, UK no. 9), a Bobby Troup composition, becomes Little Richard’s first hit for 1957.
‘Here’s Little Richard’ (1957) (US no. 13) in March is the artist’s debut album. Although more suited to singles than albums (as is the whole young rock ‘n’ roll industry), this is probably Little Richard’s best album. Produced by Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell, it incorporates the earlier singles ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Ready Teddy’. Another three songs from this disc – ‘Jenny Jenny’, ‘Miss Ann’ and ‘True Fine Mama’ – will later become singles as well. Little Richard reunites with Enotris Johnson to write ‘Jenny Jenny’, a song with such locomotive power that even the hyperactive Little Richard becomes audibly out of breath during the performance. ‘Miss Ann’, written by Richard Penniman and John Marascalco, is a tribute to Ann Johnson, the woman who took the singer in as a wayward teenager. It’s a slower (by Little Richard’s own standards) number with a sort of two-step rhythm. “When I’m with Miss Ann, I’m livin’ in paradise,” he assures. Little Richard’s solo composition, ‘True Fine Mama’, has him rolling around the top notes of the piano as he sings, “True fine mama / She really owned the ball / She hear my every plea / Come to my beck and call.”
Little Richard’s next single for 1957 is perhaps the greatest rival to ‘Tutti Frutti’ for his best known work. The name of the song is ‘Lucille’ (US no. 21, UK no. 10), though Richard renders it in a piercing yelp so it sounds something like “LOO-seel-ah!” A pounding piano is stalked by the bass to a strict march rhythm. “I woke up this morning / Lucille was not in sight,” sings the dismayed narrator, “I asked my friends about her / But all their lips were tight.” And so he carries on his fruitless search into the mists of rock ‘n’ roll legend. Al Collins co-writes with Little Richard in this instance.
‘Jenny Jenny’ (US no. 10, UK no. 11) b/w ‘Miss Ann’ (US no. 56), two tracks from the debut album, become Little Richard’s next single for 1957.
By this time, rock ‘n’ roll in general – and Little Richard in particular – is big business. So when the singer receives an offer to tour overseas, the financial consideration is sufficient to induce him to accept. Australian promoter Lee Gordon entices Little Richard to join rockabilly performers Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Alis Leslie (the latter billed as ‘the female Elvis Presley’) on a package tour. During the flight to Australia, while passing over the Philippines one of the plane’s engines catches fire (or seems to anyway). In desperation, Little Richard promises God he will give up rock ‘n’ roll if the Lord will just save him from this impending doom. Although the singer is safely delivered to the airport landing strip, he is shaken by the near death experience. He is haunted by dreams of the apocalypse and the wrath of the Lord being visited upon him. Little Richard continues with his tour commitments but there are disturbing omens reminding of his vow to The Almighty. He catches a glimpse of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the Australian sky. Another plane he is meant to be travelling in (but doesn’t) crashes. On 12 September 1957, Little Richard tells the crowd at his show in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, that he is giving up on rock ‘n’ roll: “If you want to live for the Lord, you can’t rock ‘n’ roll too. God doesn’t like it.” Richard’s saxophone player on the tour, Clifford Burks, challenges the singer to prove his faith. Stung, Little Richard, by way of demonstration, removes four diamond rings he had been wearing (total worth: eight thousand dollars) and tosses them into the Hunter River in New South Wales. The next day, Little Richard flies back to Los Angeles to be baptised as a Seventh Day Adventist (the religion of his family) and, in his words, “To prepare for the end of the world.” This conversion naturally also spells the end of Little Richard’s relationship with Audrey Robinson.
Despite the star leaving the stage, the show goes on. Specialty Records’ recording engineers cobble together a new Little Richard single from a radio broadcast he delivered with The Upsetters in Washington, D.C., earlier in the year. That song is the electrifying 1957 single ‘Keep A Knockin’’ (US no. 8, UK no. 21). Written by the singer, it opens with a cymbal smashing introduction then segues into an exciting nonsense vocal: “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in / Come back tomorrow night and try it again.”
On 27 January 1958 Little Richard enrols in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. This is a Bible school where he studies to become an evangelist.
Meanwhile, Specialty Records keeps scraping together more Little Richard recordings from before he abandoned rock ‘n’ roll. The first and best of the 1958 singles is ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ (US no. 10, UK no. 8), a Robert Blackwell and John Marascalco composition. It’s a jiving, ribald ditty that gets right up in the listener’s face. One line says, “From the early, early morning to the early, early night / When I caught Miss Molly rockin’ at the House of Blue Lights.” ‘The House Of Blue Lights’ is a song written by Don Raye and Freddie Slack. The latter, with vocalist Mae Morse, originally recorded the song in 1946, but the version by The Andrew Sisters from later in 1946 might be better known. Anyway, it’s a nice shout-out from Blackwell and Marascalco to the earlier song. Richard Penniman’s own ‘Ooh My Soul’ (US no. 31, UK no. 22) adds a dash of gospel to his usual formula and, almost in contradiction, has one of his most coquettishly camp vocals. The flipside of ‘Ooh My Soul’ is ‘True Fine Mama’ (US no. 68) from the album ‘Here’s Little Richard’. ‘Baby Face’ (US no. 41, UK no. 2) is Little Richard’s eccentric take on a song first recorded in 1926 by Jan Garber, though Al Jolson’s 1933 reading is likely more famous.
‘Little Richard’ (1958) collects together ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Keep A Knockin’’, ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’, ‘Ooh My Soul’, ‘Baby Face’ and more, all under the continuing production aegis of ‘Bumps’ Blackwell. (Blackwell is also credited as writer or co-writer of such songs as Elvis Presley’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ (1956) and ‘All Shook Up’ (1957) and Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (1957).)
After the 1959 singles ‘Kansas City’ (US no. 95, UK no. 26) (first recorded by Willie Littlefield in 1952 and popularised by Wilbert Harrison in 1959) and ‘By The Light Of The Silvery Moon’ (UK no. 17) (made famous by Doris Day in 1953, though rocker Gene Vincent also took a swing at it in 1958) and the album ‘The Fabulous Little Richard’ (1959), Specialty Records runs out of material for the absent singer.
In July 1959 Little Richard gets married. He first met his wife, Ernestine, at an evangelical rally in October 1957, the month after he gave up on rock ‘n’ roll.
‘As a gospel singer, [Little Richard] cuts a few little heard sides for End, Mercury and Atlantic in the early 1960s.’ End Records release the albums ‘Pray Along With Little Richard – Vol. 1’ (1960) and ‘Pray Along With Little Richard – Vol. 2’ (1960). In 1961 there is the single ‘He’s Not Just A Soldier’ (US no. 113). The Mercury single ‘He Got What He Wanted (But Lost What He Had)’ (UK no. 38) in 1962 recites the sins of Judas, Adam and Eve and other Biblical figures. Little Richard’s album for this label is optimistically titled ‘The King Of The Gospel Singers’ (1962).
In 1962, Richard and Ernestine Penniman adopt a 1 year old boy, Danny Jones. Even after Danny reaches adulthood, he will remain close to his adoptive father, working as a bodyguard to the singer.
Also in 1962, Little Richard decides to return to playing rock ‘n’ roll. On 12 October 1962 Little Richard headlines a concert at New Brighton Tower in Liverpool, England. One of the opening acts is The Beatles, a group of Liverpool lads soon to become pop sensations. They are big fans of Little Richard. Their manager, Brian Epstein, is secretly homosexual so this may also help the relations with the sexually ambiguous U.S. visitor. One of the musicians accompanying Little Richard on this tour is 16 year old keyboardist Billy Preston. The affable youth from Texas will work with The Beatles in the late 1960s, but this is their first meeting. Preston also has hits in his own right such as ‘Will It Go Round In Circles’ (US no. 1) in 1973 and ‘Nothing From Nothing’ (US no. 1) in 1974.
Little Richard eases back into rock ‘n’ roll with a cover version of ‘Crying In The Chapel’ (US no. 119) in 1963. As the name suggests, this is pop with a strong gospel influence. ‘Crying In The Chapel’ was originally recorded by Darrell Glenn in 1958. Richard’s fellow titan of 1950s rock, Elvis Presley, previously covered the song in 1960. Little Richard briefly returns to Specialty Records for the ‘storming rocker’ ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo’ (US no. 82, UK no. 20) in 1963.
On 5 October 1963 Little Richard is back in the U.K. on another tour. The Everly Brothers, the pop harmony duo big in the late 1950s-early 1960s, are headlining and another 1950s rocker, Bo Diddley, is also on the bill. However what is more interesting is the local act with a support slot, The Rolling Stones. Like The Beatles, they are bound for bigger things. Also like The Beatles, they are Little Richard fans and he meets them just as their own careers are taking off.
Little Richard and his wife, Ernestine, divorce in 1963.
While touring through Vancouver, Canada, in 1963, Little Richard recruits a guitarist from neighbouring Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., for his touring band. This is Jimi Hendrix. Like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Hendrix too is headed for bigger things later in the decade, but he works with Little Richard for the duration of this tour.
Moving to Vee Jay records, Little Richard records a ‘mixture of soul-tinged new material and crass re-hashes of Specialty classics.’ There is a run through of Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 hit ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ (US no. 126) in 1964 from ‘Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin’ On’) (1964). The B side of Richard’s single ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ is ‘Goodnight Irene’, a song Little Richard was performing as far back as 1949-1950 when he was singing with The Buster Brown Orchestra. Don Covay’s 1965 soul music effort, ‘I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me’ (US no. 92) is ‘powerful’, but not commercially viable. So, for Little Richard, it’s back to re-recording ‘His Greatest Hits’ (1965).
‘Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail)’ (US no. 121) is released as single in 1966. ‘Get Down And Get With It’ (written by Bobby Marchan), as ‘his most torrid rocker in years’, is a positive sign for Little Richard in 1966.
Modern Records issues ‘The Incredible Little Richard Sings His Greatest Hits – Live!’ (1967) and ‘The Wild And Frantic Little Richard’ (1967). It’s a similar story at Okeh Records with ‘The Explosive Little Richard’ (1967) and ‘Little Richard’s Greatest Hits Live!’ (1967) (US no. 184).
John Lennon, one of The Beatles, headlines the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Concert in Toronto, Canada, on 13 September 1969. Little Richard is one of a bevy of 1950s rockers performing at the concert. Such rock ‘n’ roll revival shows ‘really save Richard’s career.’
Perhaps Little Richard’s best chance for a comeback arrives when he lands a recording contract with Reprise Records. His first album for that label, ‘The Rill Thing’ (1970), yields the singles ‘Freedom Blues’ (US no. 47) and ‘Greenwood Mississippi’ (US no. 85). After an interloping album from Joy Records, ‘Mr Big’ (1971), Richard’s Reprise output continues with ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ (1971) and ‘The Second Coming’ (1972). Another album is made for Reprise in 1972 but it is shelved for many years as they cut Little Richard adrift. That 1972 recording becomes ‘Southern Child’ (2005).
Ala Records cashes in with ‘Friends From The Beginning – Little Richard And Jimi Hendrix’ (1972), blowing the dust off some live recordings dating back to Hendrix’s days in Richard’s backing group. Things are pretty bleak with ‘Right Now’ (1974) on United, ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout Soul’ (1974) on Dynasty and ‘Little Richard Live’ (1976) on K-Tel. The single, ‘Call My Name’, also dates from 1976.
During the 1970s, Little Richard’s flamboyance becomes disturbingly ‘flaky.’ His costumes are totally over the top, his androgynous appearance is accentuated, and his behaviour is unpredictable. Part of the reason for this is he has developed ‘a debilitating drug habit.’ “I spent thousands and thousands of dollars getting high [on cocaine],” the singer admits.
Little Richard again gives up rock ‘n’ roll for religion to put a halt to his wayward behaviour. At a revival meeting in North Richmond, California, on 22 July 1979 he tells the congregation, “God wants you to give up rock ‘n’ roll! I gave up rock ‘n’ roll for the Rock of Ages. If God can save me, an old homosexual, he can save anybody.”
After another gospel album, ‘God’s Beautiful City’ (1979), on Word Records, Little Richard retires from the fray…for the most part. Latterly, he seems to have reconciled both his rock and religious inclinations. As a minister, he performs wedding ceremonies for some famous clients. Steve Van Zandt, from the E-Street Band that backs New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, has Richard officiate at Van Zandt’s wedding to Maureen Santoro in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on 31 December 1982. The Las Vegas wedding of movie stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore is carried out by Little Richard.
‘Lifetime Friend’ (1986) is released on WEA Records and the barnstorming single, ‘Great Gosh A’Mighty’ (US no. 42, UK no. 62) in the same year, is the best thing Little Richard has done for a long time. Two more singles follow: ‘Somebody’s Comin’’(UK no. 93) in 1987 and ‘Twins’ (UK no. 82) in 1989, the latter with Philip Bailey from rhythm and blues / disco act Earth, Wind And Fire. Little Richard even tries his hand at making music for children, knocking out an eccentric ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ in 1991 and the album ‘Shake It All About’ (1992) on Disney Records.
Little Richard’s career was long and meandering. Virtually all of his important works were recorded in a brief span of just over two years from September 1955 to September 1957. That’s a hectic work rate, but one that is historically important. Little Richard is one of the pantheon of greats that created the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. He also opened up whole new fields of flamboyance and personal expression that underpin many later rock performers’ visual sides just as much as his music has proven fundamental to rock. And he did it all by being himself, allowing himself to be..well…outrageous! Little Richard offered ‘bullet-speed deliveries, ecstatic trills, and the overjoyed force of personality in his singing.’ Through him, ‘the abandon and showmanship of rock ‘n’ roll crossed another threshold.’
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elvis Presley’ by Peter Guralnick, ‘The Sound Of New Orleans‘ and ‘Little Richard’ both by Langdon Winner, ‘Jerry Lee Lewis’ by Jim Miller and ‘Rockfilm Rollfilm’ by Carrie Rickey (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 27, 35, 41, 47, 52, 54, 56, 58, 59, 79, 115
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 25 November 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 25 November 2013, 16 January 2017
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 52, 53, 156, 160
- ‘Midday with Bill Bloggs’ (U.S. television program) – Little Richard interview conducted by Bill Bloggs (1983) (billbloggstv, billbloggs.com)
- brainyquote.com as at 25 November 2013
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 132
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 11 January 2014
- allmusic.com, ‘Little Richard’ by Richie Unterberger, ‘The Upsetters’ by Ron Wynn as at 25 November 2013
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 20, 29
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 6, 7, 16, 20, 30, 32, 36, 72, 78, 80, 162, 196, 300, 326, 347
- answers.com as at 25 November 2013
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 24
- lyricsfreak.com as at 15 September 2014
Song lyrics copyright Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC with the exceptions of: ‘Tutti Frutti’ (Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’ (EMI Music Publishing / Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘Rip It Up’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group); ‘Lucille’ (Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, EMI Music Publishing); and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ (Peermusic Publishing)
Last revised 16 January 2017