The flamboyant icon that blazed a trail for rock and roll.
Little Richard exploded the Fifties music scene with his thunderous piano and electrifying stage presence, setting the tone for the future of rock and roll. His unrestrained performances and visceral rhythms were unlike anything audiences had ever seen.
He claims to be the “architect of rock and roll,” and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer—save, perhaps, Elvis Presley—Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, 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. Onstage, he’d deliver wild, piano-pounding epistles while costumed in sequined vests, mascara, lipstick and a pompadour that shook with every thundering beat. His road band, the Upsetters, has been credited by James Brown and others with first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.
In a 1990 interview, Little Richard offered this explanation for the birth of rock: “I would say that boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues mixed is rock and roll.” His frenzied approach to music was fueled by a genuinely outrageous personality. He was born Richard Penniman during the Depression in Macon, Georgia, one of twelve children who grew up in poverty in the Deep South. As a youngster, he soaked up music—blues, country, gospel, vaudeville—which was part of the fabric of life in the black community. He learned to play piano from an equally flamboyant character named Esquerita (who also recorded rock and roll early on for Capitol Records).
Little Richard first recorded in a bluesy vein in 1951, but it was his tenure at Specialty Records beginning in 1955 that made his mark as a rock and roll architect. Working at Cosimo Matassa’s now-legendary J&M Studio in New Orleans with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and some of the Crescent City’s finest musicians, Little Richard laid down a stunning succession of rock and roll sides over the next several years, including “Rip It Up,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny” and “Keep a Knockin’,” in addition to the songs previously mentioned. He also appeared in rock and roll-themed movies such as Don’t Knock the Rock and The Girl Can’t Help It (both from 1956).
The bubble burst in late 1957 when, succumbing to the rigors of fame and personal conflicts engendered by his religious upbringing, Little Richard abruptly abandoned rock and roll to enroll in Bible college. However, he was lured back by the British Invasion in 1964, regaining his popularity as a concert performer and a living embodiment of the music’s roots in the Fifties. He has launched successful comebacks in every decade since and remains an active performer and inimitable reminder of the joyful frenzy that galvanized rock and roll into being more than forty years ago.
Little Richard (vocals, piano; born December 5, 1932)