BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

The most explosive rock artist in history bar none, the self-proclaimed architect of the entire genre and despite a prime that lasted barely 18 months his resonance as an artist didn’t really dissipate during his lifetime.

Richard Wayne Penniman was the third of twelve children, born 1932 in Macon, Georgia, and was in trouble constantly almost from the time he was able to walk and talk. Whether it was his predilection for pranks, his effeminate behavior or his insatiable urge to be in the spotlight, Richard never let anyone forget he was around and when he began singing his voice echoed through the streets, whether singing gospel with his family – heavily influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marion Williams, from whom he took his trademarked ”Wooo!” – or secular music for himself.

By 14 he’d dropped out of school to join a traveling medicine show singing Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” to attract crowds who’d buy the snake oil being peddled as a cure-all for any type of ailment. Over the next few years he made the rounds of different shows until landing with an old fashioned minstrel show where he was first pressed into service wearing a dress to fill in for a female singer which led to his performing in drag, a common occurrence on these tours down South.

It was during these years he worked with the likes of Chuck Willis, Tommy Brown and his biggest vocal influence, Billy Wright who not only gave Richard the high intensity ballad style he employed, but also gave him his look – a high processed pompadour and pancake makeup.

It was also through Wright that Richard got his first break as a recording artist, as he put him in touch with Zenas Sears, the top rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey in the South in the early 1950’s and Sears got Richard a contract through his connections at RCA, cutting his session in the radio station where Sears was employed using Wright’s band behind him.

The ballad half of his first release made local charts thanks largely to Sears’ constant plugging of it, but a second session for RCA in early 1952 produced nothing to match that limited reception and he was dropped from the label around the same time his father was killed.

It during this period he met Esquerita, an equally flamboyant performer who taught Richard how to really play piano and subsequently he formed his own band, The Tempo Toppers who got plenty of work in the club scene. A year later he was spotted by Johnny Otis, then working for Peacock Records, who got him signed to the label and backed him in the studio on some sides that began to hint at his future sound without fully exploiting it but a violent altercation with Peacock’s notorious owner Don Robey ended his association with the label and Richard went back to washing dishes in a Macon bus station to earn money.

In 1955 at the suggestion of Lloyd Price, Richard made a demo and sent it to Specialty Records where it sat for ten months as Richard and his new band, The Upsetters with sax star Lee Diamond, continued to play to increasingly enthusiastic crowds in the South before the company reached out to him and arranged for a session in New Orleans in the fall of 1955.

Though the hyperbole surrounding that date would lead one to believe that nothing of value came of it before stumbling across the song that would turn rock on its ear, the fact is despite good songs and fine performances there simply was nothing that screamed hit… until Richard, on a lunch break at the nearby club, The Dew Drop Inn, literally screamed a surefire hit song to show off for the patrons.

“Tutti Frutti” was the dirtiest song in his arsenal, going over great at live venues where everyone was juiced and ready for action, but the lyrics referencing anal sex were definitely not commercial and so a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, who’d contributed one song to the session already and was there to hear it being cut, was asked to come up with new lyrics and a classic was born.

Though he hadn’t been playing piano up to that point – Huey Smith was hired for that role – there wasn’t enough time left in the allotted three hour session to teach it to him so Richard sat behind the keys for the first time and pounded away while screaming the nonsense lyrics that reeked of anarchy.

The record streaked up the R&B Charts landing at #2 and cracked the Pop Top Twenty in what must’ve seemed to the mainstream middle American adult as a sign of the apocalypse. Pat Boone tried taming it down for the pop audience and got a bigger hit, but with Richard’s muse now unleashed, the days of mild pop alternatives to rock ‘n’ roll was all but finished. The hits, each more frantic and unhinged than the last, came fast and furious where sex wasn’t just implied, but frankly laid out – albeit sung at a pace that few non-rock fans could comprehend.

Kids however zeroed in on the excitement, maybe only sensing the inherent danger he was peddling. Other artists gravitated towards his songs more than any other 1950’s rocker and his dynamic presence on stage and his flamboyant presence off-stage ensured that no one, not even Elvis Presley, left a bigger impression on those he came in contact with.

The eight sessions Richard cut between the fall of 1955 and early 1957, mostly in New Orleans with the same musicians Fats domino used, or in Los Angeles, with the last of them taking place in Washington D.C. with The Upsetters, resulted in all of the songs on which Richard’s reputation rests. Eighteen hits, most of them of legendary status, made Richard one of the brightest, and certainly the most unique, star of the 1950’s rock scene while his incendiary live performances on the many package tours of the day only furthered his reputation.

It was on one of these tours in Australia in late 1957 when he decided to give up rock ‘n’ roll at the height of his popularity for the ministry, supposedly after seeing the Russian satellite Sputnik plunge to the earth and taking it as a sign from God to give up his decedent lifestyle, he threw his gaudy rings in the ocean and renounced rock ‘n’ roll.

The truth is more ambiguous, as Richard was upset about his skimpy royalty rate from Specialty and was seeking a better deal. After talking with former rock star turned evangelist Joe Lutcher, who HAD given up music for preaching, Richard enrolled in Bible college while Specialty kept issuing their remaining material and getting further hits as the public remained largely unaware of his conversion.

In 1959 Richard recorded gospel for George Goldner’s labels, but not even his name recognition could entice enough people into buying them. Consequently he recorded rock again for a tiny label in 1960 eying a comeback consisting mostly of Fats Domino songs and using his old band The Upsetters, but nothing came of this and he returned to gospel, first for Mercury Records produced by Quincy Jones, then moving to Atlantic. Though the sides were well done while employing a deeper register than his rock hits, he still didn’t make an impact in this field and in 1962 accepted a tour of England – ostensibly to perform spiritual material – with Sam Cooke as the co-headliner.

When Cooke failed to make it to the first show when his plane was fogged in, Richard performed nothing but gospel which left the audience bewildered and angry. The promoter was equally upset and pleaded with Cooke’s manager, and former gospel singer with The Pilgrim Travelers, J.W. Alexander, to try and talk Richard into performing his rock hits, but Alexander told him not to worry, that when Cooke hit the stage and wowed the audience, the competitive Richard wouldn’t let him steal the show and would resort to whatever material he could to win them back.

It worked, Little Richard tore the house down with his rock classics night after night and following the tour with Cooke he went to Hamburg with The Beatles, who’d been a supporting act for some of the earlier shows, and headlined with them for two months. A year later he did a return tour in Great Britain with Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers where The Rolling Stones were the opening act and once again Richard blew the roof off every night.

Finally he agreed to record rock ‘n’ roll again starting with a song Cooke had written for him on the label where he’d had his greatest success. But almost ten years had passed since he’d first electrified the world and Specialty Records was no longer at the forefront of the industry and only one song made the charts, and barely at that.

A move to Vee-Jay showed promise with arguably his greatest ballad performance written by a protégé, Don Covay, whom he backed on piano on Covay’s debut in 1957, and featuring a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar that J.W. Alexander produced, but it too failed to hit big.

A stint with OKeh Records, produced by former Specialty star Larry Williams, the most successful Richard “imitator” the label had signed in the late 50’s, produced some good records but no big hits and after the early 1970’s rock revival that saw many of his contemporaries return to the airwaves with sizable hits didn’t result in anything more than a few minor blips on the lower reaches of the charts for Richard, he settled into reprising his classics on stage and renouncing them with equal fervor when he returned to religion periodically.

By the 1980’s however Richard’s propensity for colorful self-promotion and an eagerness to talk led him to be the Nineteen-Fifties rock scene’s most visible champion, making the charts again with a song from a hit movie in which he had a part the same year he was among the initial ten inductees to The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.

In the early 1990’s after being a staple on television talk shows, ceremonial music celebrations and appearing in cameos for dozens of hit programs and specials, he had an unlikely hit album with a collection of children’s songs and remained a powerful live performer into the next century before health issues began to catch up to him. Hip replacement surgery in 2009 slowed his touring down and eventually took him off the road for good in 2014 and bone cancer ended his life in 2020.

Though his success was short-lived, his chart numbers diminished by the racial realities of the 1950’s and his primary influence on the stylistic side of rock may seem limited because to follow Richard’s lead would seem like caricature, there are few, if any, artists who were as revered by such a wide array of rockers as him.

He embodied the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in his music better than anyone who ever lived – irrepressible, uninhibited and egotistical.
 
 
LITTLE RICHARD DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy):

TAXI BLUES
(RCA – 20-4392; December, 1951)
His unique and commanding voice is hinted at but never unleashed while the song touches on but never fully explores an interesting topic as the band turns in a solid but unspectacular performance, this is more an historical curiosity than a sign of things to come. (4)

EVERY HOUR
(RCA 20-4392; December, 1951)
A really good grasp on the emotional conflict of the character he portrays and the unresolved tension it adds helps this to work as well as it does, with another smartly efficient arrangement to set it off. (6)