The flamboyant, screeching rocker Little Richard is one of the genre's
true originals. His pounding rock songs, crazy piano playing, and wild,
sexual personality cut an indelible image in the early days of rock 'n'
roll and continue to inspire artists today.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga. He was one
of 12 children who grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist family. Though
many male relatives were preachers, Richard's father was a bootlegger.
His parents didn't encourage his musical ambition, but Penniman sang and
played piano at church. When he was 13, his parents kicked him out of
their house, he said, because he was gay.
Soon, he moved in with the family of Ann and Johnny Johnson, who ran
Macon's Tick Tock Club, where Penniman first sang professionally.
In 1951, RCA Records signed Penniman after he auditioned at an Atlanta
radio station. With the label, he cut jump-blues sides such as "Get Rich
Quick" and "Every Hour."
Eventually, Penniman moved to Houston to record for Peacock Records.
First he played with the Deuces of Rhythm and the Tempo Toppers, but by
1955, he began fronting the Johnny Otis Orchestra for a while. He also
played blues clubs, which didn't favor his rock 'n' roll numbers.
Penniman then sent a demo tape to Los Angeles' Specialty Records, which
signed the singer and arranged for "Bumps" Blackwell to produce him. In
September 1955, by now calling himself Little Richard, Penniman cut a
former filler number known as "Tutti Frutti" (
excerpt). It featured his soon-to-be-trademark falsetto and
howling lyrics, sold 3 million copies and made Little Richard a rock 'n'
The gold records that cleverly mixed rock and New Orleans R&B followed
in droves: the #6 "Long Tall Sally" (later covered memorably by the
Beatles), the #17 "Rip It Up," the #21 "Lucille," the top-10 "Good Golly
Miss Molly" and others.
Little Richard even appeared in early rock movies such as 1956's "Don't
Knock the Rock" and "The Girl Can't Help It" as well as "Mister Rock and
But following an Australian tour in 1957, Richard quit the rock
business. He said he saw a vision of the apocalypse and his own
damnation in a dream. Richard also said he prayed to God during a fiery
plane flight, promising that if the plane landed safely he would give up
his wild life.
Richard came out of the flight alive and became an ordained minister in
the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He also received a bachelor's degree
from Oakwood College in Alabama. Specialty Records attempted to play
down the changes, issuing an unfinished song, "Keep a Knockin'," which
became another Little Richard hit.
But after a failed attempt to become an evangelical/gospel act, Richard
returned to rock in 1964. His first single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo,"
flopped. The music of the Beatles — who were huge Little Richard
fans — had eclipsed that of Little Richard, and young people lost
interest in his style.
Comebacks with labels such as VeeJay, OKeh and Brunswick all failed. In
the early '70s, Richard signed a contract with Reprise Records and cut
such R&B/rock albums as The Rill Thing, King of Rock 'n'
Roll and Second Coming. They weren't spectacular sellers but
were fairly well received, and Richard recorded with Canned Heat as well
as with Delaney and Bonnie.
Richard also performed at the Toronto Pop Festival, and he can be seen
in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary of the show, "Keep on Rockin'," a.k.a.
"Toronto Pop" (1970). That year he had a minor hit, "Freedom Blues."
Taking a new turn, Richard became a frequent guest on TV talk shows and
appeared at clubs, where he was not shy about discussing his influence
on rock greats such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also
returned to the church and said he had converted to heterosexuality.
In 1984 "The Life and Times of Little Richard," an authorized biography,
spurred renewed interest in the fabled rocker's career, even though the
book spared no detail about his drug use and adventurous sex life.
Richard appeared in the hit film "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1985)
and guested on TV shows including "Miami Vice," "Martin" and "Full
House." In addition, he plugged Charlie perfume, McDonald's and Taco
Richard began appearing on charity compilations and guesting on songs
for other acts, such as Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead."
Richard became one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame in 1986. Though he hasn't issued any albums of new material
recently, The Georgia Peach (1991) is one of his best
compilations, and he still tours and shows up at awards shows and in TV
and film roles.
His mascaraed eyelashes and high pompadour remain the symbols of one of
rock's most original personas.
This year, Madacy Records released The Best of Little Richard,
one in a continuing series of Little Richard retrospectives on various
Paul McCartney, who celebrated his last day of class at the Liverpool
Institute by standing on a desk and singing "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti
Frutti," said of Richard in Barry Miles' "Paul McCartney — Many
Years From Now" (Henry Holt, 1997): "I could do Little Richard's voice
... it's like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current
sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. ... When
you find it, it's very interesting."
Other birthdays on Sunday: Chad Mitchell, 63; J.J. Cale, 61; Andy Kim,
53; Jim Messina (Buffalo Springfield/Loggins & Messina/Poco), 52;
Jonathan Lewis (Atlantic Starr), 46; Jack Russell (Great White), 39;
Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), 37; Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), 34; Glen
Graham (Blind Melon), 31; and Craig Gill (Inspiral Carpets), 28.