Skip to main content

Little Richard

Little Richard

Singer, songwriter, pianist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Little Richard Penniman is a rock and roll pioneer in every sense of the word. Rocks first certified zany, he brought outlandish clothes and hairstyles to the national stage for the first time, astonishing 1950s audiences with his brazen homosexual campiness. Mere stage appeal does not account for Richards wide cross-racial appeal, however. As Arnold Shaw notes in The Rockin 50s, the artist sang with an intensity and frenzy and commitment that marked the outer limits of rocknroll. He was excitement in motion, a whirling dervish at the keyboard, showmanship royale in eye-dazzling costumes topped by a high, slick pompadour of hair.

From the scat-singing prologue of Tutti-Frutti to his favorite expression, Ooh, my soul!, Richard brought a new level of intensityan unlikely pastiche of gospel and sexual innuendoto popular music. A People magazine contributor wrote: No performer deserves more credit for the metamorphosis of black rhythm and blues into rock n roll. In The Dave Given Rock n Roll Stars Handbook, author Given claims that Richard gave R&R its meaning, its depth, and in so doing he inspired the careers of other great artists that followed: James Brown, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Tex, just to name a few.

Nor did Richards influence end with the first generation of rockers. Many groups of the British Invasion, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, also looked to him as a mentor. According to Jay Cocks in Time, Richard let blast with rock of such demented power, that he seemed possessed of darkling forces. Songs that sounded like nonsense but whose beat seemed to hint of unearthly pleasures centered somewhere between the gut and the gutter.

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932 (some sources say 1935). He was the third of twelve children, and the only child in his family with a physical defecthis right leg is shorter than his left. From earliest childhood he was marked as different by his effeminacy, as he explained in a Rolling Stone interview: The boys would want to fight me because I didnt like to be with them. I wanted to play with the girls. See, I felt like a girl. In the hope of curing his physical ailmentand curbing his behaviorRichards mother enrolled him in a charismatic Baptist church in Macon. There, at the age of ten, he started a gospel group called the Tiny Tots Quartet. This experience filled him with the desire to be a professional gospel singer like his hero, Brother Joe May, the Thunderbolt of the Midwest.

Richards religious fervor was not lasting, however. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and joined a travelling medicine show. Then he hired on with Sugarfoot

For the Record

Real name, Richard Wayne Penniman; born December 5, 1932 (some sources say 1935), in Macon, Ga.; son of Charles (a bricklayer and printer) and Leva Mae Penniman. Education: Attended Oakwood Bible School, Huntsville, Ala.

Performing artist, 194857, 196076, and 1986. Appeared with Sugarfoot Sam minstrel show, c 1949; recorded with RCA Records, 1951, Peacock Records, 1952, and Specialty Records, 1955-59. Appeared in motion pictures, including The Girl Cant Help It, 1956, Rock Around the Clock, 1956, and Mr. Rock n Roll, 1957. Regular panel member of TV game show Hollywood Squares, 1988.

Awards: Charter member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Addresses: c/o 8383 Wilshire Blvd. #900, Beverly Hills CA 90211.

Sam, a minstrel show, where he occasionally donned a dress and danced with the chorus girls. It was during this period that he met Billy Wright, a popular postwar black performer. Billy was an entertainer who wore very loud-colored clothing, and he wore his hair curled, Richard told Rolling Stone. I thought he was the most fantastic entertainer I had ever seen.

As early as 1951 Richard cut his first recordings, having won a rhythm and blues talent contest at Atlantas Eighty One Theatre. The songs, Get Rich Quick, Why Did You Leave Me, Every Hour, and Thinkin bout My Mother, did not sell. Optimistically, Richard cut four more sides of the same blues/boogie-type material, and it likewise failed. He returned to Macon with his band, the Upsetters, and half-heartedly sent a demo tape to Art Rupe of Specialty Records in Los Angeles. That tape languished at Specialty for almost a year, during which time Richard garnished his live act with various outrageous spectacles.

Rupe, it turned out, was looking for another black singer with a Ray Charles sound, and eventually Richards tape came to him for review. He invited the young rocker to cut some songs in New Orleans. At first Richard began taping the same kind of blues-oriented songs he had been recording, but during a break he launched into a raucous song of his own invention, Tutti Frutti, that contained the memorable line A-Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop, A-Lop-Bam-Boom. Rupe was captivated. He ordered new lyrics (to replace Richards frankly sexual ones), and released the song just before Christmas in 1955. It was resting at number 21 on the charts by the end of December.

Many white kids had never heard a black man singing with the brakes off, writes Stuart Colman in They Kept On Rockin.But when Tutti Frutti was released, several white stations thought the time was right and showed no hesitation in programming the disc. From that point on there began a hit trail of some of the classiest, black rock n roll records that America and the world would ever see. Even though Richard sometimes had to watch other performers (like Pat Boone) score with his material, he did not lack for top hits himself.

Backed by the best studio musicians and his own inimitably vigorous piano playing, Richard soon had chart-toppers with Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, Slippin and Slidin, Lucille, The Girl Cant Help It, Jenny, Jenny, and Good Golly, Miss Molly.Rolling Stone corespondent Gerri Hirshey noted that onstage and in the movies, Richard was compelled to invent his particular brand of majesty. This was Little Richard, Handsomest Man in Rock & Roll. His image was an immaculate conception, a fantasy born of years in travelling medicine shows, drag-queen revues, churches and clubs. Butin Fifties America, this made for a terrible mess. He was black and gay, talented and loud, and worsemuch worseabsolutely sure of himself.

Teens of both races loved the audacious Richard. No one was prepared, therefore, for his sudden abandonment of fame and fortune to study the Bible at a Seventh-day Adventist seminary. In 1957 Richard vowed never to sing rock n roll againsome say an airplane malfunction frightened him into a conversion; another story has it that he interpreted the Soviet launching of Sputnik as a sign that rock and roll was evil and that he should quit performing. The Bible studies did not occupy Richard too long, though. By the early 1960s he was back on tour, this time in England with an unknown group called the Beatles. By his account in Rolling Stone, Richard not only taught his musical British admirers some of his falsetto voice stunts and riffs, he also had an opportunity to buy a 50 percent share of the group. He was a musician, not a businessman, so he passed on the Beatles offer and returned to America to launch his own comeback.

For roughly twelve years Richard performed his old hits andless successfullynew material to audiences hungry for classic rock. Then, in the mid-1970s, the lifestyle again began taking its toll. Richard told Rolling Stone: I was getting deeper and deeper into drugs. All I wanted to do was to have sex with beautiful women and get high. I spent thousands of dollars getting high. He missed engagements, or performed poorly, and eventually was overcome by the conflicts of his bisexual personality. Once again he turned to the church, becoming an evangelist preacher and Bible salesman.

Little Richard renounced his strict religion early in 1988 and began to perform again, in a more subdued manner. He has had no trouble lining up engagements, even though he no longer decks himself in mirror-studded jackets, eyeliner, and tie-dyed headbands. Had he never taken the stage again, he would still have enjoyed a prominent place in the pantheon of rock n roll legends. Hirshey sums up his career: Little Richard bent gender, upset segregationist fault lines and founded a tradition of rock dadaists devoted to the art of self-creation. But unlike the studied incarnations, Richard never seemed to think about it. He went, with the inspiration of the moment, be it divine or hormonal, and caromed like a shiny, cracked pinball between God, sex and rock & roll.

Selected discography

Major single releases

Tutti-Fruitti, Specialty, December, 1955.

Long Tall Sally, Specialty, March, 1956.

Slippin and Slidin, Specialty, March, 1956.

Rip It Up, Specialty, June, 1956.

The Girl Cant Help It, Specialty, January, 1957.

Lucille, Specialty, March, 1957.

Jenny, Jenny, Specialty, June, 1957.

Keep a Knockin, Specialty, September, 1957.

Good Golly, Miss Molly, Specialty, January, 1958.

LPs

Heres Little Richard, Specialty, 1958.

Little Richard 2, Specialty, 1958.

The Fabulous Little Richard, Specialty, 1959.

Well Alright, Specialty, 1959.

Little Richards Greatest Hits, Joy, 1964.

Coming Home, Coral, 1964.

Little Richard Sings Freedom Songs, Crown, 1964.

King of Gospel Songs, Mercury, 1965.

Wild & Frantic, Modern, 1965.

Greatest Hits, Live, Okeh, 1967.

The Explosive Little Richard, Okeh, 1967.

Every Hour with Little Richard, RCA, 1970.

The Rill Thing, Reprise, 1971.

King of Rock n Roll, Reprise, 1971.

Second Coming, Reprise, 1971.

Little Richards Greatest Hits, Trip, 1972.

The Very Best of Little Richard, United Artists, 1975.

Lifetime Friend, Warner Brothers, 1987.

22 Classic Cuts, Ace, 1987.

(With Billy Wright)Hey Baby, Dont You Want a Man Like Me?, Ace, 1987.

Shut Up!: A Collection of Rare Tracks, 1951-1964, Rhino, 1988.

Also recorded Biggest Hits, Specialty;Greatest Hits, Specialty;Little Richard Is Back, Vee Jay; Mr. Big, Joy;Rip It Up, Joy;Slippin & Slidin, Joy;The Little Richard Story, Joy;Little Richard Sings, Twentieth Century;Little Richard, Kama Sutra;Best of Little Richard, Scepter;Little Richard Sings Spirituals, United;Right Now, United;Keep a Knockin, Rhapsody;King of Gospel Singers, Wing;Clap Your Hands, Spinorama;Little Richard Rocks, RCA;Little Richard, Camden;Grooviest 17 Original Hits, Specialty;Rock King, JEM Classic Series; and Talkin Bout Soul, Vee Jay.

Sources

Books

Colman, Stuart, They Kept On Rockin, Blandford, 1982.

Given, Dave, The Dave Given Rock n Roll Handbook, Exposition, 1980.

Shaw, Arnold, The Rockin 50s, Hawthorne, 1974.

Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America, Schirmer, 1986.

Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martins, 1974.

Periodicals

People, January 8, 1979.

Rolling Stone, July 19-August 2, 1984.

Anne Janette Johnson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Little Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Little Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-richard

"Little Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-richard

Little Richard 1932–

Little Richard 1932

Rock and roll pioneer

Sang Gospel as a Tot

Tasted Success with Tutti Frutti

Quit Music to Preach

Jarred by Brothers Death

Selected discography

Sources

Image not available for copyright reasons

Before there was Prince, before there was Michael Jackson, before androgyny was hip, and most certainly before Paul McCartney induced his first teeny-bopper swoon with a falsetto whoop, there was Little Richard. A true rock and roll trailblazer, Little Richard was one of the first performers to unleash the full savage beauty of rock in its most uninhibited form. His manic piano style and his feveredsometimes nonsensicalvocals taught two generations (and counting) of rock fans what it meant to really cut loose. The joyous abandon of Little Richards approach has delighted audiences worldwide for decades, and served as inspiration for countless rockers over the years, including such notables as the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia. The third of twelve children, Richard was a somewhat weak and slightly malformed child, with one leg shorter than the other, an oversized head, and one eye larger than the other. From a very early age, he preferred the company of girls to boys, and the other boys often taunted him for his effeminate manner. In spite of the teasing, Richard was a confident child. His mother remembered him as a prankster with a quick mind and strong will.

Sang Gospel as a Tot

In hopes of harnessing his excess energy, Richards mother sent him to the local charismatic Baptist church. By the time he was ten, Richards main aspiration was to become a preacher. He was intrigued by Pentecostal practices such as speaking in tongues and healing by the laying of hands on sick people. The church also gave Richard an outlet for his natural singing skills. He began performing gospel songs first as a member of a childrens group called the Tiny Tots, and later he performed with some of his siblings as the Penniman Singers at churches and revivals throughout the area.

By his early teens, Richards passion for the church had waned. Meanwhile, he was not working very hard to conceal his homosexuality, much to the dismay of his father and the delight of local gossipmongers. Completely uninterested in school, Richard dropped out during ninth grade. He left home and began traveling across Georgia with a series of vaudeville shows and other itinerant troupes, including Sugarfoot Sam from Alabama; the

At a Glance

Bom Richard Wayne Penniman, December 5, 1932, in Macon, G A; son of Charles (a brickmason and bar owner) and LevaMae Penniman; married ErnestineCampbell, 1959 (div. 1961).Education: Attended OakwoodCollege, Huntsville Religion: Christian, with a brief detour into Judaism.

Performing artist, 1948-57,1960-76, and 1986-; appeared with SugarfootSam minstrel show, c. 1949; recorded with RCA Records, 1951, Peacock Records, 1952, and Specialty Records, 1955-59; appeared in several motion pictures, including The Girl Cant Help it, 1956;Rock Around the Clock, 1956; Mr.RocknRoll, 1974;and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, 1986; Black Heritage Bible, salesman, 1977; minister, Universal RemnantChurch of God; numerous television appearances.

Awards: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, charter member; received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1990; Little Richard Day recognized, Los Angeles, 1990; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, lifetime achievement award, 1993.

Addresses: Agent William Morris Agency, 151 E. El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

King Brothers Circus; and the Broadway Follies, which was based in Baileys 81 Theatre in Atlanta. Along the way he acquired the name Little Richard, as well as the trademark high-rise hairstyle and flamboyant stage persona that would remain with him for much of his career.

While performing at Baileys 81 Theatre, Richard had the opportunity to meet a number of R&B stars who passed through town. One of them was Billy Wright, a major recording star of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Wright helped Richard get a recording contract with RCA, and in 1951 Richard recorded four songs backed by Wrights band. One of them, Every Hour, was modestly successful on local radio, but overall the songs went nowhere. After several months of performing one-night stands around Macon, Richard returned to the studio in 1952 to record four more tracks for RCA. Again, they failed to sell.

Tasted Success with Tutti Fratti

Richard spent the next couple of years refining his outrageous stage act in dives, while washing dishes to support himself. In 1954 Richard sent a tape of his band, the Upsetters, to Bumps Blackwell of Specialty Records. Blackwell convinced Specialty owner Art Rupe to bring Richard in for a recording session. At the session, Richard sang timidly, and Blackwell considered the idea a flop. He changed his mind, however, when during a break Richard launched into a raucous rendition of his original song Tutti Frutti. Blackwell realized then that Little Richard was the real thing. Within a month of its release, Tutti Frutti (with lyrics toned down from Richards original bawdy ones) sold 200,000 copies, and rose to number two on Billboards R&B chart.

Over the next couple of years, Little Richard recorded a string of hits that reads like a list of rocks greatest classics: Long Tall Sally, Lucille, and Good Golly Miss Molly, just to name a few. What his lyrics lacked in comprehensibility, they more than made up for in raw energy. Now a star, Richard moved to Hollywood and bought a Cadillac, in spite of the fact that he had been pressured into signing a bad contract with Specialty that gave him a fraction of the income that he should have received from record sales. Even more frustrating was the fact that as good as his sales were, they paled in comparison to the numbers put up by white performers, like Pat Boone, for their versions of Richards songs.

Quit Music to Preach

In 1957, at the very peak of his fame, Richard shocked the music world by announcing that he was quitting rock and roll in order to devote his life to religion. He enrolled in Oakwood College, a Christian institution in Huntsville, Alabama, and traveled across the U.S. as an evangelist. He also recorded several albums of gospel music. By early 1960, however, the urge to rock had returned, and Richard embarked on a British tour. While in England, he made the acquaintance of an unknown band called the Beatles, with whom he forged a lasting friendship.

Back in the United States, Richard spent most of the 1960s toiling in semi-obscurity, and it took most of the decade for his comeback to really kick in. Gradually, he worked his way from dingy clubs into better venues. He played to enthusiastic crowds during several tours of Europe in the second half of the decade. Richards comeback was finally complete by 1969, capped by a rollicking performance at that years Atlantic City Pop Festival. As a new generation was introduced to Little Richard through their own rock heroes like the Rolling Stones, Richard was able to return to the charts with hits such as Freedom Blues in 1970, Midnight Man in 1971, and Rockin With The King in 1972.

Jarred by Brothers Death

Along with this renewed success however, came a renewed passion for the high life. Richard delved headlong into a lifestyle that included heavy drinking, drug abuse, and all sorts of sexual follies. In 1975, startled by the death of his brother Tony, Richard again decided to leave show business and return to religion. He kicked his drug habit and resumed the evangelical work he had begun twenty years earlier. Over the next several years he concentrated on preaching and selling Bibles. By the mid-1980s, Richard was ready to return, at least in part, to the secular business of entertaining people. In 1986 he released an album of religious-flavored pop songs called Lifetime Friend. He also appeared in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills that year, and began showing up frequently in guest spots on television.

As Little Richard continued to ping-pong between his alternating careers as preacher and screecher, the early 1990s found him in show-biz mode. His 1992 childrens album, Shake It All About, sold a quarter of a million copies. The following year he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an honor he attained by actively campaigning for it. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 1995, Little Richard was among its charter members. At the Cleveland facilitys grand opening, Richard emphasized that it was he and a handful of other black musicians who paved the way for the next forty years worth of rock stars. I am the architect of rock and roll, he told the crowd. Few would disagree that he was, if not the architect, at least a key member of that sonic architectural firm.

Selected discography

Singles

Tutti-Frutti, Specialty, 1955. Long Tall Sally, Specialty, 1956. Slippin and Slidin, Specialty, 1956. Rip It Up, Specialty, 1956.

The Girl Cant Help It, Specialty, 1957. Lucille, Specialty, 1957. Jenny, Jenny, Specialty, 1957. Keep a Knockin, Specialty, 1957. Good Golly, Miss Molly, Specialty, 1958.

Albums

Heres Little Richard, Specialty, 1958.

Little Richard 2, Specialty, 1958.

The Fabulous Little Richard, Specialty, 1959.

Well Alright, Specialty, 1959.

Little Richards Greatest Hits, Joy, 1964.

Little Richard Sings Freedom Songs, Crown, 1964.

King of Gospel Songs, Mercury, 1965.

Wild and Frantic, Modern, 1965.

Greatest Hits, Live, Okeh, 1967.

Every Hour with Little Richard, RCA, 1970.

The Rill Thing, Reprise, 1971.

King of Rock n Roll, Reprise, 1971.

Second Coming, Reprise, 1971.

Little Richards Greatest Hits, Trip, 1972.

The Very Best of Little Richard, United Artists, 1975.

Lifetime Friend, Warner Brothers, 1987.

22 Classic Cuts, Ace, 1987.

Shut Up!: A Collection of Rare Tracks, 1951-1964,Rhino, 1988.

Shake It All About, 1992.

Sources

Books

Simon, George T.,The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.

Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martins, 1989.

White, Charles, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock, Harmony, 1984.

Periodicals

American Heritage, February-March 1995, pp. S54-56.

Jet, September 25, 1995, pp. 58-61.

Keyboard, February 1988, pp. 56-62.

Rolling Stone, July 19, 1984, pp. 41-49; April 19, 1990, pp. 50-54.

Robert R. Jacobson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Little Richard 1932–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Little Richard 1932–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-richard-1932

"Little Richard 1932–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-richard-1932

Little Richard

Little Richard

Little Richard (born 1932) inspired a generation of rockers with his frenzied rhythms and wildly energetic and outlandish stage persona.

Little Richard is a rock and roll pioneer in every sense of the word. Rock's first certified zany, he brought outlandish clothes and hairstyles to the national stage for the first time, astonishing 1950s audiences with his brazen sexual campiness. Mere stage appeal does not account for Richard's wide cross-racial appeal, however. As Arnold Shaw noted in The Rockin' '50s, the artist "sang with an intensity and frenzy and commitment that marked the outer limits of rock 'n' roll.… He was excitement in motion, a whirling dervish at the keyboard, showmanship royale in eye-dazzling costumes topped by a high, slick pompadour of hair."

From the scat-singing prologue of "Tutti-Frutti" to his favorite expression, "Ooh, my soul!, " Richard brought a new level of intensity—an unlikely pastiche of gospel and sexual innuendo—to popular music. A People magazine contributor wrote: "No performer deserves more credit for the metamorphosis of black rhythm and blues into rock 'n' roll." In The Dave Given Rock 'n' Roll Stars Handbook, author Given claims that Richard "gave R&R its meaning, its depth, and in so doing he inspired the careers of other great artists that followed: James Brown, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Tex, just to name a few."

Nor did Richard's influence end with the first generation of rockers. Many groups of the British Invasion, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, also looked to him as a mentor. According to Jay Cocks in Time, Richard "let blast with rock of such demented power … that he seemed possessed of darkling forces. Songs that sounded like nonsense … but whose beat seemed to hint of unearthly pleasures centered somewhere between the gut and the gutter."

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932 (some sources say 1935). He was the third of twelve children, and the only child in his family with a physical defect—his right leg is shorter than his left. From earliest childhood he was marked as "different by his effeminacy, " as he explained in a Rolling Stone interview: "The boys would want to fight me because I didn't like to be with them. I wanted to play with the girls. See I felt like a girl." In the hope of curing his physical ailment and curbing his behavior, Richard's mother enrolled him in a charismatic Baptist church in Macon. There, at the age of ten, he started a gospel group called the Tiny Tots Quartet. This experience filled him with the desire to be a professional gospel singer like his hero, Brother Joe May, the "Thunderbolt of the Midwest. "

Richard's religious fervor was not lasting, however. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and joined a travelling medicine show. Then he hired on with Sugarloaf Sam, a minstrel show, where he occasionally donned a dress and danced with the chorus girls. It was during this period that he met Billy Wright, a popular postwar black performer. "Billy was an entertainer who wore very loud-colored clothing, and he wore his hair curled, " Richard told Rolling Stone, "I thought he was the most fantastic entertainer I had ever seen."

As early as 1951 Richard cut his first recordings, having won a rhythm and blues talent contest at Atlanta's Eighty One Theatre. The songs, "Get Rich Quick, " "Why Did You Leave Me, " "Every Hour, " and "Thinkin' 'bout My Mother, " did not sell. Optimistically, Richard recorded four more sides of the same blues/boogie-type material, and it likewise failed. He returned to Macon with his band, the Upsetters, and half-heartedly sent a demo tape to Art Rupe of Specialty Records in Los Angeles. That tape languished at Specialty for almost a year, during which time Richard garnished his live act with various outrageous spectacles.

Rupe, it turned out, was looking for another black singer with a Ray Charles sound, and eventually Richard's tape came to him for review. He invited the young rocker to cut some songs in New Orleans. At first Richard began taping the same kind of blues-oriented songs he had been recording, but during a break he launched into a raucous song of his own invention, "Tutti Frutti, " that contained the memorable line "Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop, A-Lop-Bam-Boom." Rupe was captivated. He ordered new lyrics (to replace Richard's frankly sexual ones), and released the song just before Christmas in 1955. It was resting at number 21 on the charts by the end of December.

"Many white kids had never heard a black man singing with the 'brakes off', " writes Stuart Colman in They Kept On Rockin'. "But when Tutti Frutti was released … several white stations thought the time was right and showed no hesitation in programming the disc … From that point on there began a hit trail of some of the classiest black rock 'n' roll records that America and the world would ever see." Even though Richard sometimes had to watch other performers (like Pat Boone) score with his material, he did not lack for top hits himself.

Backed by the best studio musicians and his own inimitably vigorous piano playing, Richard soon had chart-toppers with "Long Tall Sally, " "Rip It Up, " "Slippin' and Slidin', " "Lucille, " "The Girl Can't Help It, " "Jenny, Jenny, " and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." Rolling Stone correspondent Gerri Hirshey noted that onstage and in the movies, Richard "was compelled to invent his particular brand of majesty. This was Little Richard, 'Handsomest Man in Rock & Roll.' His image was an immaculate conception, a fantasy born of years in travelling medicine shows, drag-queen revues, churches and clubs. … But in Fifties America, this made for a terrible mess. He was black and gay, talented and loud, and worse—much worse—absolutely sure of himself."

Teens of both races loved the audacious Richard. No one was prepared, therefore, for his sudden abandonment of fame and fortune to study the Bible at a Seventh-day Adventist seminary. In 1957 Richard vowed never to sing rock 'n' roll again—some say an airplane malfunction frightened him into a conversion; another story has it that he interpreted the Soviet launching of Sputnik as a sign that rock and roll was evil and that he should quit performing. The Bible studies did not occupy Richard too long, though. By the early 1960s he was back on tour, this time in England with an unknown group called the Beatles. By his account in Rolling Stone, Richard not only taught his musical British admirers some of his falsetto voice stunts and riffs, he also had an opportunity to buy a 50 percent share of the group. He was a musician, not a businessman, so he passed on the Beatles' offer and returned to America to launch his own comeback.

For roughly twelve years Richard performed his old hits and—less successfully—new material to audiences hungry for classic rock. Then, in the mid-1970s, the lifestyle again began taking its toil. Richard told Rolling Stone: "I was getting deeper and deeper into drugs. All I wanted to do was to have sex with beautiful women and get high. I spent thousands of dollars getting high." He missed engagements, or performed poorly, and eventually was overcome by the conflicts of his bisexual personality. Once again he turned to the church, becoming an evangelist preacher and Bible salesman.

Little Richard renounced his strict religion early in 1988 and began to perform again, in a more subdued manner. He has had no trouble lining up engagements, even though he no longer decks himself in mirror-studded jackets, eyeliner, and tie-dyed headbands. Had he never taken the stage again, he would still have enjoyed a prominent place in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll legends. Hirshey sums up his career: "Little Richard bent gender, upset segregationist fault lines and founded a tradition of rock dadaists devoted to the art of self creation. But unlike the studied incarnations, … Richard never seemed to think about it. He went, with the inspiration of the moment, be it divine or hormonal, and caromed like a shiny, cracked pinball between God, sex and rock & roll."

Little Richard's acceptance in 1993 of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was tainted slightly by his voiced displeasure at his award being presented before the actual telecast. The standing ovation he received upon his introduction to the crowd testified to his continued popularity.

Further Reading

Colman, Stuart, They Kept On Rockin', Blandford, 1982.

Given, Dave, The Dave Given Rock 'n' Roll Handbook, Exposition, 1980.

Shaw, Arnold, The Rockin' '50s, Hawthorne, 1974.

Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America, Schirmer, 1986. Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, Martin's, 1974.

People, January 8, 1979.

Rolling Stone, July 19-August 2, 1984.

Jet, March 15, 1993. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Little Richard." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Little Richard." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard

"Little Richard." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard

Little Richard

Little Richard (1935– ) US singer-songwriter and pianist, b. Richard Penniman. He achieved fame in the late 1950s, with songs such as “Tutti Frutti” (1956) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (1958). After a near-fatal plane accident, he was ordained a minister in the Church of the Seventh-Day Adventists and has oscillated between music and ministry ever since.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Little Richard." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Little Richard." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard

"Little Richard." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard

Little Richard

Little Richard, 1935–, American musician and singer, b. Macon, Ga., as Richard Wayne Penniman. One of the first rock musicians in the 1950s, he recorded "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "Good Golly Miss Molly." Since then, he has turned to religion. His music influenced, among others, the Beatles. See also rock music.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Little Richard." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Little Richard." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard

"Little Richard." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/little-richard