Richard Wayne Penniman (December 5, 1932 – May 9, 2020), better known as Little Richard, was an American singer, songwriter and pianist who proclaimed himself as "the architect of Rock & Roll". One of the few artists active in The '50s whose mass popularity approached that of Elvis Presley, Little Richard remains one of the most important figures in the history of rock music, and few would dispute him the title.
Born to a gospel-singing family, Richard Penniman learned to play saxophone in school, and began his career in music in his teens, when he became an impromptu opening act for the visiting gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe when she performed in the theatre where he was a part-time concessions salesman. He did some time on the Chitlin' Circuit, first as a female impersonator ("Princess Lavorne") and then as a member of a jump blues group called the Tempo Toppers, learned to play boogie-woogie piano from the flamboyant rock and roller Esquerita and recorded a few minor singles for small independent labels that had some regional success, but ultimately went nowhere.
Richard was working as a dishwasher in a bus station when he was discovered by Art Rupe, owner of Specialty Records, who teamed him with songwriters like John Marascalco and record producer Bumps Blackwell in the hopes of creating a viable rival to Ray Charles. Richard recorded a string of hits, including "Tutti Frutti", "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Long Tall Sally" and starred in rock and roll films around the same time teenagers were recognised as a whole new demographic. His performances were famously wild and frenetic, his personality flamboyant to an extreme, and his playing style, incorporating boogie-woogie influences, Funk rhythms and raw, energetic vocals, made Richard a huge hit with his audiences.
Things changed in 1957, when Richard, at the height of his success, announced that he was quitting rock and roll, and subsequently entered a seminary to become a priest. The precise reason for his decision isn't entirely clear, but the most common story is that Richard experienced a prophetic dream about the end of the world, just before learning about the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, compounded by a vision of angels supporting the wings of his plane to Australia when he thought it was crashing. He didn't quit music altogether though, and went back to his gospel roots for several albums.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he mounted several comeback attempts on a variety of labels, including Vee-Jay (with whom he had the hit "I Don't Know What You Got (But It's Got Me)", where Esquerita also recorded, featuring the guitar playing of an obscure young session musician called Jimi Hendrix), Modern, Okeh and Reprise, though many of his efforts were just re-recordings of his Specialty hits. While performing in Hamburg, Germany, The Beatles were his opening act.
Eventually, after oscillating between his roles as a reverend and a rocker for nearly 20 years, he reconciled himself to rock and roll in the late 1980s, declaring that it could be used for good as well as evil. Younger audiences might best know him for performing the theme song to the 1994 animated adaptation of The Magic School Bus.
His song Tutti Frutti was inducted in the National Recording Registry in 2010.
He passed away on May 9, 2020, following a battle with bone cancer. He will be dearly missed.
Studio and Live Discography:
- 1957 - Here's Little Richard
- 1958 - Little Richard
- 1959 - The Fabulous Little Richard
- 1960 - Pray Along With Little Richard
- 1960 - Pray Along With Little Richard Volume 2
- 1962 - The King Of The Gospel Singers
- 1964 - Little Richard Is Back (And There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On!)
- 1965 - Little Richard's Greatest Hits (re-recorded versions of his Specialty hits for Vee-Jay)
- 1966 - The Incredible Little Richard Sings His Greatest Hits Live! (more re-recorded versions of his Specialty hits for Modern)
- 1966 - The Wild And Frantic Little Richard
- 1967 - The Explosive Little Richard
- 1967 - Little Richard's Greatest Hits: Recorded Live! (even more re-recorded versions of his Specialty hits for Okeh)
- 1970 - The Rill Thing
- 1971 - Mr. Big (Vee-Jay recordings from 1964-1965)
- 1971 - The King Of Rock And Roll
- 1972 - The Second Coming
- 1972 - Friends From The Beginning Little Richard And Jimi Hendrix note
- 1973 - Right Now!
- 1974 - Talkin' Bout Soul (more leftovers from the Vee-Jay archives)
- 1976 - Little Richard Live
- 1979 - God's Beautiful City
- 1986 - Lifetime Friend
- 1992 - Shake It All About (an album of children's songs recorded for Disney)
- 2005 - Southern Child note
Ready, Teddy, for these tropes?:
- Ambiguously Gay and/or Ambiguously Bi: Little Richard's sexual orientation has been debated for more than half a century. The singer himself described himself as gay in some interviews, but has also named himself an "omnisexual" in other interviews, while also going through a notorious phase of very public homophobia in the 1980s. Nevertheless his outrageously effeminate stage presence is part of his public persona and made him a gay icon all the same.
- Cool Old Guy: Even in his eighties he still sounded as good as he did in the 1950s. Not to mention looking damn good for his age.
- Dancing Is Serious Business: Sang and danced as he played piano with an energy that influenced James Brown, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Queen, Lou Reed,... among others.
- I Am the Band: Little Richard always performed with a band, but he was the star of the show.
- Intercourse with You: What else do you assume "Slippin' and Slidin'" is about?
- Last of His Kind: With the deaths of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in 2017, Little Richard was, until his death in May 2020, essentially the last of the rock n roll pioneers who was both alive and still performing (Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, but he hasn't performed since a stroke in February 2019 - however, he has not officially given up performing, and is undergoing rehab in an attempt to return to the stage).
- Long-Runners: Little Richard started in The '50s, and was still going strong live right to the end. (Though he went through periods where he wasn't performing.)
- Lyrical Cold Open: "Tutti Frutti" has one of the most famous examples of this trope ever. "A whop bop-a-lu bop, a whop bam boom!"
- Lyrical Tic: He loved his "Whooooooh!"s and "Ah Hoooooooo!"s.
- He also elongated his "i"s into a falsetto. Steven Tyler seems to have borrowed this from him.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: He was one of twelve children.
- Mundane Made Awesome: Only Little Richard could make stupid words like "A-Wop Bop-A-Lula A Whop Bam Boom" and "Tutti Frutti" awesome as hell!
- Music of Note: You can't talk about rock 'n' roll in the 1950s without mentioning him, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and/or Jerry Lee Lewis.
- The Moral Substitute: His gospel recordings, as well as Pat Boone's cover versions of some of his early hits.
- Older Than They Look: Sure, he got cosmetic surgery, but it seemed to have gone well. He pretty much defined this trope. You would need to see his birth certificate to be convinced he was in his mid-eighties.
- One-Woman Song: "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally," "Miss Ann," "Lucille," "Jenny, Jenny," "The Girl Can't Help It."
- Rhyming with Itself: "Jenny, Jenny."
- Rock & Roll: One of the pioneers of the genre. His song "Ready Teddy" informs us he's "ready to rock 'n' roll!"
- "Sesame Street" Cred: Younger viewers best remember him as the guy who sang the theme song to the 1994 TV adaptation of The Magic School Bus, still screened in elementary school classrooms to this day.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: He had a very hard-partying lifestyle in the 1950s, but he obviously stopped later on. He cycled back and forth between Rock and Gospel, and his feelings about the lifestyle.
- On Freak Out Frank Zappa mentions in the liner notes that Wowie Zowie is a song Little Richard liked. The singer obviously never heard Zappa's album, by the way.
- "Speed King" on Deep Purple in Rock is a shout-out to several Little Richard songs. The lyrics reference "Good Golly Miss Molly", "Lucille", "Tutti Frutti" and "Rip It Up".
- Signature Style: A mixture of boogie-woogie piano playing with funk rhythms and raspy vocals, or alternatively, "piano riff WOO!".
- Snake Oil Salesman: He worked for a traveling medicine show when he was a teenager. His job was to scream, sing and leap around the stage to attract a crowd and demonstrate the "results" of the stuff the salesman was pushing.
- Three Chords and the Truth: Almost all of his music was twelve-bar blues.