“My legacy,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2013, “should be that when I started in show business there was no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll.”
When he died on May 9, 2020, Little Richard was universally acclaimed as one of the most influential founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.
His music, a fusion of boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, and gospel, delivered in performances to integrated audiences in a puffed up pompadour, heavy makeup, capes and blousy shirts, marked by ecstatic falsetto trills and frenetic piano playing, made him one of the most recognizable – and most widely imitated – entertainers in the world.
Gay, Black, flamboyant and uninhibited, Little Richard, Professor W.T. Lhamon has written, embodied “the repressed stuff of underground lore.” In him, teenagers and twenty-somethings in the staid 1950s “found a vehicle to bear their choked energy at least for his capsulated moment.”
Left home at 14
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman sang in a Baptist choir as a youngster and traveled with his family’s gospel troupe. But he was looking for something louder.
According to one of his brothers, he was “always hollerin’ and beating on tin cans.” Ostracized by his parents, perhaps because they suspected he was a homosexual, Little Richard left home when he was 14. He began performing in a minstrel show, sometimes in drag.
To make ends meet, he worked as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station, responding to insults from his (White) boss, with nonsense phrases – “Wop Bop A Loo Bop” – that would later appear in his music.
By the early ’50s, Little Richard had his own band, The Upsetters, and a modest hit, “Every Hour.” His breakthrough came during a lunch break at a recording session for Specialty Records in 1955, when he jumped on the bandstand and launched into “Tutti Frutti.”
Series of hits
Smelling a hit, legendary artist and repertoire man Robert “Bumps” Blackwell hired Dorothy LaBostrie, a young African American songwriter, to tone down the raunchy lyrics, but retained the rasps, screams, squeals, and sirens.
Weeks after its release, the record reached No. 2 on the R&B rankings and crossed over to the Pop Charts. In the next three years, Little Richard produced 11 more hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Keep a Knockin’,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
Although he was not, at least in the mainstream media, perceived as a dangerous Black man or gay, Little Richard was ambivalent about his sexuality and inclined to give credence to critics who claimed rock ‘n’ roll encouraged hedonistic, licentious behavior.
A brief retirement
Under the tutelage of Wilbur Gulley, a missionary, he came to believe that “if you want to live with the Lord, you can’t rock ‘n’ roll, too.”
In 1962, while on tour in Australia, he decided to retire from show business, tossing his jewelry in the ocean as a down payment on his promise to live a more spiritual life.
He enrolled in Oakwood College, a Seventh-Day Adventist School in Huntsville, Alabama, and took a wife, Ernestine Campbell, a recent high school graduate.
Belongs to the ages
Within months, however, his resolve weakened. Although he remained attracted to a higher calling, he returned to live concerts, recording studios and world tours, sharing the stage with Sam Cooke, Gene Vincent, and the Beatles.
Increasingly erratic and campy, Little Richard didn’t regain the popularity he had in the 1950s, but for the remainder of his life was never really out of fashion.
He was a member of the first class of inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Now he belongs to the ages. But especially baby boomers like me.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He also is the author of “All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America.’’