American rock singer, songwriter, and pianist A1950’s rock and roller, Little Richard is noted for his hit songs (“Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) and for his hard-driving performances, which included outlandish costumes, heavy makeup, and wild stage antics.
Born: December 5, 1932; Macon, Georgia
Born in the Deep South with several Baptist preachers for relatives, Little Richard found his roots in gospel music and in religion. He was always singing as a child, and he performed in a family gospel group. In addition, he studied the Bible, and he wanted to be a preacher. Little Richard learned to play the saxophone in school, and he learned to play piano from the flamboyant performer Esquerita (Eskew Reeder), whose outrageous outfits and pompadour hairstyle Little Richard imitated. Still in his teens, he toured in Georgia with various bands, and he made some recordings as early as 1951. His first great success was in 1955, recording “Tutti Frutti” and other hits with the producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell at Specialty Records. For the next two years, Little Richard was successful, but in 1957, in the middle of an Australian tour, he decided to quit show business to pursue his interests in religion. He made several gospel albums, and, except for appearing in some gospel concerts with Mahalia Jackson, he stayed away from the stage until 1962, when he went on tour in England and started performing rock and roll in his traditional flamboyant manner. During his comeback, which produced no new major hits, he became dependent on drugs and alcohol. In 1977, declaring that rock and roll was demoniac, he again gave up show business for religion. However, he began performing again in the late 1980’s, appearing on television and in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In 1986 he was in the first group inducted into the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993 he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Music Coming from a gospel tradition, Little Richard brought “shouting” into his performances. He was known for pounding the piano, singing at top speed, and yelling “whoo-oo.” He also favored wild stage behavior and outrageous costumes and make-up. “Tutti Frutti.” At his first recording session with Blackwell, Little Richard was not impressive, singing gospel and blues in an inhibited way. Concerned, Blackwell called a lunch break, during which Little Richard started playing “Tutti Frutti,” a song of his own that he had not planned to record. Heplayed it with such wild abandon that Blackwell had him record that instead. The song begins with the nonsense phrase “awop bop-a-loo mop alop bam boom.” In its original version, this was followed by some off-color lyrics that Blackwell had a local songwriter clean up. It was its driving intensity, and not the lyrics, that made the song a hit. The song was covered by both Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, and these performances by white artists helped open the door to playing the work of a black performer such as Little Richard on white radio stations. “Long Tall Sally.” “Long Tall Sally” originated in three lines written by a fan, a girl named Enortis Johnson, who wanted Little Richard to turn it into a song. Though initially reluctant, Little Richard and Blackwell did build a song around the lines about Uncle John ducking into an alley with Sally to get away from his wife, Aunt Mary. According to Blackwell, he pushed Little Richard to sing the key phrase – “ducked back in the alley” – as fast as possible, so that it would be hard for a singer such as Boone to cover it.
Although Boone and many others did cover it, it was Little Richard’s original version that went highest in the charts, despite the reluctance of some white radio stations to play it. It became Little Richard’s second big hit. Atlantic City Pop Festival. In August, 1969, Little Richard appeared at one of the many pop festivals that year, closing the show after a performance by Janis Joplin. Joplin put on such a frenetic, apparently unsurpassable performance that the organizers suggested to Little Richard that he not go on. Little Richard insisted, and he worked the crowd into a frenzy with his act, which included appearing in a sparkly glass suit and singing an old 1950’s hit, “Lucille.” He ended up throwing his shoes and other parts of his expensive outfit into the crowd, something he often did at his concerts. Although Little Richard’s appearance was a triumph, it indicated that he was part of an earlier era. Significantly, later that month, he did not appear at the famous music festival at Woodstock, the iconic festival that defined 1960’s music.
Musical Legacy Little Richard was a leading figure in the first generation of rock, when it was still called rock and roll and when its leading instrument was the piano and not the guitar. His boisterous piano playing and wild vocals, along with his stage antics and outrageous costumes, are another part of his legacy. Thisnewapproach to music becamemore fully formed in the rebellious and irreverent 1960’s, and in the 1970’s, such bands as Kiss, featuring extreme make-up and costumes, followed in his footsteps. On a musical level, both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones paid homage to Little Richard’s musical influence. Little Richard was noted for helping to bring the sound of black rhythm and blues and gospel into the mainstream of popular music, becoming one of the first black musicians to win a large white audience.