Little Richard, musician

Born: December 5, 1932;

Died: May 9, 2020.

WHEN Bob Dylan was compiling his entry in his high-school yearbook in 1959, he listed as his ambition the simple aim “To join the band of Little Richard”.

Dylan “really idolised” Little Richard back then, one of his school-friends later recalled, and for a time, at the family piano, he would ape the flamboyant pianist and singer’s attention-grabbing style.

Little Richard, who has died at the age of 87, was an influence on many key figures in music. As author Robert Shelton observes in his Dylan memoir, No Direction Home, “He was a bridge between black gospel and modern soul. [Elvis] Presley recorded his songs, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds identified his style, Paul McCartney was his devotee”.

Little Richard, he added, worked with the Beatles at The Cavern in Liverpool and instructed the Fab Four in the high falsetto wail, the “yeah, yeah, yeah” line. John Lennon, impressed by the “demonic emotion” with which Little Richard shouted and pranced, was moved to describe him as the first primal screamer.

Elton John was another budding musician who was blown away by the man from Macon, Georgia. As he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1973: “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it. I didn’t want to be anything else. I’m more of a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skilful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder”.

Prince, David Bowie and Mick Jagger were all influenced in one way or another by Little Richard.

Little Richard was one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. He had a string of energetic, compelling hits in the mid-to-late fifties, beginning with ‘Tutti Frutti’ (its arresting opening line was ‘A-wop wop-a loo-mop, a-wop bam boom!’ sometimes rendered in print as ‘Awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom!’), ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Lucille’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. His piano playing was ferocious, his performances riveting, his nonsense lyrics often laced with innuendo. The cumulative impact was startling.

Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith guitarist, recalled that the first time he heard ‘Tutti Frutti’, he “fell to the floor in uncontrollable laughter, inexplicable joy and unbridled release and madness”.

Singer-songwriter Carole King was in an audience at a Labor Day revue in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957, at which Little Richard played.

“He began to sing and play the piano,” she would write in her book, A Natural Woman, “with an eruption of energy that continued unabated for decades. Though I knew nothing about the gospel music that had informed him, Little Richard’s powerful presence that night was suffuuuuused with the Spirit”. (Her copy editor queried that spelling of ‘suffused’, but she insisted it was the only way to describe Little Richard’s presence).

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman, one of 12 children. He was born with one leg shorter than the other, which gave him a distinctive gait.

As he told Rolling Stone in 1970, “Everything I sung was really something that happened around my home town; you see, my daddy sold whiskey, bootleg, white lightnin’!”

A man would come around singing, accompanying himself on a washboard; the young Penniman would follow him around, singing. Then a vegetable seller would arrive, also singing – “Blackeyed peas/ And a barrel of beans/ Grocer man comin’ with a cart of greens/Honey”.

“It was really somethin’. Everybody be singin”, Little Richard said. “We would be washin’ in the back yard, just singin’ and we sound like a big choir, and we never practised: it was a big choir like fifty voices all over the neighbourhood, and that’s what I came from”.

Between 1955 and 1957, Little Richard was one of a number of groundbreaking new performers who appeared on national TV networks across America and in Hollywood films – each one representing his own moral and musical assault on traditional values, according to Peter Doggett, author of Electric Shock, a history of pop music.

Presley was one such, as were Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. As for Little Richard, Doggett observes, “America had to face a semi-crippled black man sporting pancake face-paint, with a pompadour almost as tall as his body; and an unstoppable predilection for screaming and hollering what sounded, even to teenagers, like gibberish. But what gibberish: Little Richard was speaking in tongues to the congregation of rock’n’ roll, his nonsense syllables and scenarios piling up as an alternative prayer-book for the satanic hordes...”

Little Richard was at the peak of his fame when in 1957 he gave up performing, and undertook Bible studies at university. He had been playing a concert in Sydney and saw what he thought was a fireball in the sky; it was actually the Sputnik 1 satellite, but he took it as a sign from God.

By 1963, however, he was back on the secular music circuit, touring England, France and Germany. He also toured the US, with Jimi Hendrix on guitar at one time, but, dogged by cocaine and alcohol problems, he again quit, in the 1970s. He published his autobiography in 1986, and began performing again.

Little Richard often spoke enthusiastically of his influence on rock ‘n’ roll. “A lot of people call me the architect of rock ‘n’ roll”, he once told an interviewer. “I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true”.

Russell Leadbetter