1935 – Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) is born in Macon, Ga., the son of a minister. He has 14 top 10 hits on Chart Toppers’s R&B singles chart. His biggest pop hit is “Long Tall Sally,” a No. 6 song in 1956.
Rev. Richard Wayne Penniman (born December 5, 1932), better known by the stage name Little Richard, is an American singer, songwriter and pianist, who also became a born again Christian and evangelist.
A key figure in the transition from rhythm & blues to rock & roll, Penniman blew the lid off the 1950s, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.
Little Richard’s early work was a mix of boogie-woogie, rhythm & blues and gospel music, but with a heavily accentuated back-beat, funky saxophone grooves and raspy shouted vocals, moans, screams, and other emotive inflections that marked a new kind of music. In 1957, while at the height of stardom, he became a born again Christian, enrolled in and attended Bible college, and withdrew from recording and performing secular music. though he has returned to recording secular music on numerous occasions over the years.
Little Richard has earned wide praise from many other performers. James Brown called Little Richard his idol, although at least six of the seven artists who preceeded him on the list were influenced by Little Richard’s music.
Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, the son of Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Penniman, who was a bootlegger.
Nearly all of Richard Penniman’s dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from Black Gospel artists of the 1930s and 1940s. He referred to Sister Rosetta Tharpe as his favorite singer when he was a child. She had invited him to sing a song with her onstage at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945, after hearing him sing before the concert. The crowd applauded and cheered and she paid him more money than he had ever seen after the show.
One of Penniman’s main influences on his piano-playing was Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr.), who demonstrated to Penniman how to play high notes without compromising bass. Penniman met Esquerita when he traveled through Macon with a preacher named Sister Rosa. Another influence was Brother Joe May. Penniman explained, “I used to get in a room and try to make my piano sound just like him. He had so much energy.” May generated energy by moving from a subtle whisper to a thunderous tenor and back in a four-bar phrase.
He learned to mix ministerial qualities with theatrics by watching the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.
In 1951, Little Richard began recording for Peacock Records. Although the records did not make the commenrcial splash that the record company had hoped, one of the songs, “Little Richard’s Boogie”, did offer a glimmer of the style that would later made him famous and change the world of music. In 1954, he prepared a demo tape that was received by Specialty Records on February 17, 1955. Specialty’s owner, Art Rupe, purchased Richard’s contract from Peacock and placed Richard’s career in the hands of A&R man Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell had nurtured and groomed Ray Charles (then known as R.C. Robinson) and Quincy Jones at the start of their careers in the music business.
Blackwell had intended to pit Little Richard against Ray Charles and B.B. King by having him record blues tracks. He arranged for a recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio in New Orleans in the late summer of 1955, when, during a break, Penniman began singing an impromptu recital of “Tutti Frutti”, in his raspy, shouted vocal style, while pounding out a boogie-woogie based rhythm on the piano. Blackwell, who knew a hit when he heard one, was knocked out and had Little Richard record the song. However, in order to make it commercially acceptable, he had Little Richard’s lyrics changed from “tutti-frutti, loose booty” to “tutti frutti, aw rooty.”
The song, with Little Richard shouting its unique introductory “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”, was the start of a rapid succession of Little Richard hit songs, characterized by a driving piano, boogie-woogie bass, funky saxophone arrangements, and screams before sax solos performed by Lee Allen, such as “Long Tall Sally”, “Lucille”, “Rip It Up”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, “Jenny, Jenny”, “Good Golly, Miss Molly”, and “Keep A-Knockin'”. His performing style can be seen in such period films as Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and The Girl Can’t Help It (also 1956), for which he sang the title song.
In the commercial fashion of the day, several of his early hits were re-recorded in other styles. Little Richard’s first national success, “Tutti Frutti”, was covered by Pat Boone, whose version outdid the source record, #12 to #17. Boone also released a version of “Long Tall Sally” with slightly bowdlerized lyrics. But this time, the Little Richard original outperformed it on the Billboard charts, #6 to #8. Bill Haley tackled Little Richard’s third major hit, “Rip It Up”, but again, Little Richard prevailed. With the record-buying public’s preference established, Little Richard’s subsequent releases did not face the same chart competition.
Then, suddenly, when at the top of the music world, Little Richard, fearing his own damnation, abandoned rock and roll music to become a born-again Christian, in which he was called to be an evangelist. Although his secular music career in the 1950s was rather brief, his impact on twentieth and twenty-first century music was incalculable and arguably unparalleled.
While Little Richard’s retreat to the faith in which he was groomed as a child resulted in an abrupt halt to the recording style that made him famous and changed the world of music, he continued in and out of rock & roll and the ministry into the twenty-first century. He recorded only Gospel music after his spiritual conversion from 1957 to the early 1960s, claiming at the time that rock music was of the devil and that it was not possible to be a rocker and please God at the same time. He was married in 1959.
In 1963, with the Crickets as his opening act, on a tour of parts of Europe, Little Richard backslid from the ministry. He returned to recording and performing secular material. In the autumn of 1963 he toured England with a then little-known band called The Rolling Stones. He was divorced in 1964; and that same year he brought a fledgling Jimi Hendrix into his band, who was then known as Maurice James. Soon to become world famous as Jimi Hendrix, he toured with Little Richard and played on at least a dozen Little Richard tracks between the spring of 1964 and 1965. In 1966, Hendrix was quoted as saying, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”.
Little Richard had minor hits in the 1960s and 1970s, although not with the greater success of his 1950s recordings. In 1977, following the death of a nephew that he loved as a son, along with a violent clash with his long-time friend Larry Williams over a drug debt, Little Richard repented for his wayward living and returned to evangelism. He then recorded more gospel music and remained fully in the ministry until the mid-1980s. He also represented Memorial Bibles International and sold their Black Heritage Bible, which highlighted the many black people in the Bible. In many sermons during this period, he once again proclaimed that it was not possible to perform rock and serve God at the same time.
In the mid-1980s, the world’s attention was refocused on Little Richard, following the release of Charles White’s authorized biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, in which he candidly explains his struggles with substance abuse, homosexuality, and his repentance from same which coincided with him reembracing the born again Christianity that he was raised up in as a child. At the same time, the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored Little Richard as one of the first inductees. This resulted in a show business comeback for Little Richard.
In 1986, Little Richard finally reconciled his role as a minister and as a rock & roll artist. He recorded an album of inspirational songs for Warner Brother Records that he called “message music” and “messages in rhythm.” He had his old friend Billy Preston help him write a song with spiritual lyrics that sounded like rock & roll for the soundtrack of the motion picture Down and Out in Beverly Hills in which he also co-starred. The result was “Great Gosh A’Mighty”, which became a hit; he also received critical acclaim for his acting performance. During the second season of Miami Vice, he had a small part in the episode, “Out Where Buses Don’t Run.”
He made a commitment to his mother before she died that he would remain a Christian, saying that he would “stay with the Lord and just travel around.” He began performing his old classic rock & roll hits again in the late 1980s, but continued to evangelize by performing some gospel material in his original rocking style, testifying to people on and off-stage, distributing a born-again Christian booklet, and reminding people of God’s love for them on his photographs.
1990s – 2000s
Through the remainder of the 1980s, 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Little Richard has remained a popular guest on television, in music videos, commercials, movies and as a recording artist. He has contributed new recordings to movie soundtracks (eg Twins, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Why Do Fools Fall in Love) and wrote and performed a song for the 2001 film The Trumpet of the Swan. He also sang background vocals on the U2 / BB King hit song “When Love Comes to Town,” and in the extended “Live From The Kingdom Mix” of the track he preaches as well, sometimes amid funky saxophone playing. Penniman appeared on Living Colour’s “Elvis Is Dead”, and also recorded new tracks for tribute albums, such as Folkways: A Vision Shared (“The Rock Island Line”, backed by Fishbone) (1989) and Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to Johnny Cash (“Get Rhythm”) (2002).
He also recorded duets in the 1990s with Jon Bon Jovi, Hank Williams Jr., Living Colour, Elton John, Tanya Tucker, Solomon Burke, and in 2006 with Jerry Lee Lewis, in which they covered the Little Richard-influenced, early 1960s, hit Beatles track “I Saw Her Standing There”. He also recently headlined the University of Texas event “40 Acres Fest”.
In the 1990s, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) catapulted Macon, Georgia wrestler Marc Mero to fame under the ring name Johnny B. Badd by promoting him as a Little Richard look-alike.), playing himself.
In 1994, Penniman was featured on an episode of Full House entitled “Too Little Richard Too Late”. He played himself in the 1999 film, Mystery, Alaska, singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” before a pond hockey game between the local team and the New York Rangers.
In 2000, Robert Townsend directed a biopic about Little Richard’s life from childhood to his early 30’s (circa 1962). Leon Robinson received an Emmy Award nomination for his outstanding performance in the starring role.
In 2001, he performed at the July 4 music event in Dublin, Ohio. In 2006 he also appeared as judge on Celebrity Duets on FOX. In 2006/2007, he was featured in a Geico advertisement, wherein he uses his signature “whoop” to denote the joy he would receive while consuming “mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce” at a Thanksgiving dinner. In 2007, his song “All Around The World” was featured in a Cravendale advertisement for an animation by PicPic. In 2007, he also performed at the Capitol Fourth – a July 4 celebration (televised live on PBS) in front of the White House in Washington D.C. On July 25, 2007, he made an appearance on the ABC show The Next Best Thing.
In recent years, Rev. Richard Penniman’s spiritual fervor and calling to the ministry has remained obvious, such as when he spoke at his old friend Wilson Pickett’s January 2006 funeral, In November 22, 2008 Little Richard came to the Norman Seventh-day Adventist Church to sing praises.
* In 1956, Cashbox awarded Little Richard the Cashbox Triple Crown Award for his second hit single “Long Tall Sally”.
* In 1986, Little Richard was one of the first group of recording artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
* In 1990, Little Richard was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
* In 1993, he then received a Honorary Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
* In 1994, Little Richard was the fourth recording artist (the others being Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown) to be recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
* In 1995, he received two Keys to the City of Providence, Rhode Island; one was awarded spontaneously, on stage, by Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci
* In 1997, he received the American Music Award of Merit.
* In 2002, BMI, during the 50th Annual BMI Pop Awards celebration, Little Richard, along with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, were awarded the first BMI Icon Awards in recognition of their “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.”
* In 2003, Little Richard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
* In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Little Richard #8 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
* In 2006, Little Richard was inducted into the Apollo Theater Legends Hall of Fame, at the same time as Ella Fitzgerald (who was one of the first winners of ‘Amateur Night at the Apollo’ in 1934) and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
* In 2007, Little Richard’s 1955 original hit “Tutti Frutti” topped Mojo’s poll of The Top 100 Records That Changed The World.
Main article: Little Richard discography