Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman, December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia, United States) is an American singer, songwriter, and pianist, and an early pioneer of rock 'n' roll, influencing generations of R&B and rock artists. Many of his fans have proclaimed Richard as The Real King of Rock 'n' Roll (in reference to the deceased Elvis Presley, who's known by the moniker "The King of Rock 'n' Roll"). He has also been called the King of Rockin 'n' Rollin, Rhythm & Blues Soulin'. His original injection of funk into the rock and roll beat in the mid-1950's also had a profound influence on the development of that genre of music.
One of twelve children, Little Richard grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family, but he mostly attended the New Hope Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia (Turner, Hungry for Heaven, p. 19). He also attended Holiness/Pentacostal churches of the U.S. South, where he learned Gospel music. He learned to play the piano and tried to sing gospel music, but he was rejected from some churches for screaming the hymns. His father Charles "Bud" Penniman was a preacher who sold moonshine on the side. In the winter of 1952 his father was murdered and he returned to Macon to perform the blues at the Tick Tock Club in the evening while washing dishes at the cafeteria of a Greyhound bus station during the day. His early recording career in the 1950s was a mix of boogie-woogie music and rhythm and blues, heavily steeped in gospel music, but with a heavily accentuated back-beat, funky rhythm, raspy-shouted vocals, and breathlessly delivered lyrics that marked a decidedly new kind of music that would become known as Rock 'n' Roll. Little Richard has been credited by James Brown, who called Little Richard his idol, with "first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat", by Smokey Robinson as "the start of that driving, funky, never let up rock 'n' roll", and Ray Charles, in 1989, as "the man that started a kind of music that set the pace for a lot of what's happening today."
Like his fellow Georgian Ray Charles, Richard Penniman was inspired by black gospel music greats of the 1930's and 1940's. Nearly all of his dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel artists, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom he referred to as his "favorite singer" when he was a child (she invited him to sing a song with her onstage in 1944, after she heard him sing her hit "Strange Things Happening Everyday"), Marion Williams (from whom he got the "whoooo" in his vocal), Mahalia Jackson, and Brother Joe May. He was also influenced by late 1940's jump blues shouter Billy Wright.
Penniman's hard-driving piano rhythms came from two places. The late pompadoured piano player Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr.) who showed Penniman how to go high on treble without compromising bass. Penniman met Esquerita when he traveled through Macon with a preacher named Sister Rosa. Penniman credits his technical force to East St. Louis, Ill., gospel singer Brother Joe May, who was called "the Thunderbolt of the Middle West". 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.
Little Richard had begun recording songs for the Peacock Records label between 1951 and 1954, including "Little Richard's Boogie". These records sold poorly and Penniman had little success until he sent a demo tape to Specialty Records on February 17, 1955, where it fell into the hands of Bumps Blackwell.
Blackwell arranged for a recording session in New Orleans, when, during a break, Little Richard began singing an impromptu recital of "Tutti Frutti", in his trademark raspy, shouted vocal style, while pounding out a boogie-woogie based rhythm on the piano. Blackwell had a good ear for a hit, and was blown away by what he heard, so he had Little Richard record it. However, in order to make it commercially acceptable, he had the lyrics changed from "tutti-frutti, good booty" to "tutti frutti, all rooty." (Tutti-frutti was a slang term meaning a gay male and booty means "buttocks". Aw rooty, like all root and all reet, was a hipster expression meaning "all right".)
The song, with its introductory "Womp-bomp-a-loom-op-a-womp-bam-boom!", became the model for many future Little Richard songs, with its driving piano, saxophone solo by Lee Allen and its unrelenting beat. In the next few years, Richard had several more hits, including "Long Tall Sally", "Slippin' and Slidin'", "Jenny, Jenny" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly". His frantic 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, written by Bobby Troup.
Despite the raw sound of his music, the singles were carefully put together, as documented on the three-volume album The Specialty Sessions, which include many false starts and variations. "Slippin' and Slidin'" was tried out as a sort of New Orleans rhumba, a clickety-clackety "Latin" number, and as a shuffle with the Johnny Cash train beat before hitting on the wild answer. Another example of Richard's craftsmanship: he and Blackwell rehearsed the line from "Long Tall Sally", "He saw Aunt Mary coming and he ducked back in the alley" for a full day until he achieved machine-gun precision.
Gospel years and later career
Little Richard quit the music business suddenly in 1957, while on tour in Australia, after the launch of the Russian rocket 'Sputnik', which he took as a sign from God to change his wayward habits. He became a born again Christian and then enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama and became a Pentecostal minister. While Specialty Records released a few new songs based on past sessions, Richard recorded only gospel music in the late-1950s and early-1960s. He performed Gospel material on the Gospel circuit with artists who inspired him, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and won the praises of Mahalia Jackson for his Gospel recordings. During this time, he did not perform his early rock hits, turning his back on 'rock 'n roll.'
In 1962, Little Richard returned to performing rock music with an enthusiastically received tour of Europe. During that year, his opening act was a then unknown band called The Beatles. The next year, his opening band was a then unknown Rolling Stones. Little Richard then introduced an unknown artist by the name of Maurice James as part of his band. James, who was to become known as Jimi Hendrix, once said that he "wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice."
Little Richard largely ignored his calling to the ministry from the early 60's through 1977. He returned to the ministry in the area of evangelism and recorded more gospel music, when Charles White's critically acclaimed 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard brought Richard back into the public eye. Mick Jagger proclaimed on the cover, "Little Richard is King."
As detailed in White's biography (2003 revision, pg. 221), Richard's dilemma–whether to be a minister or to sing rock 'n roll–came to a head again while recording the soundtrack to the 1985 hit movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," so he enrolled his old friend Billy Preston to help him write a song with spiritual lyrics that would sound like Rock 'n' Roll. The result was a song called "Great God A'Mighty," which he changed to "It's A Matter of Time", reflecting the conflict in his mind. He once said, "I believe that there is good and bad in everything. I believe some Rock 'n' Roll music is really bad, but I believe there is some not as bad. I believe if the message is positive and elevating, and wholesome and uplifting, this makes you think clearly. If it's not then it is not good even in Gospel." The song became his first hit in over a decade and became part of a Little Richard 'messages in rhythm' album entitled "Lifetime Friend" released by WEA in 1986. Little Richard called his new music "message music" and he said, "my mother died not long ago and it was only a few months before she died that she made me promise that I'd stay with the Lord. I have contentment and peace of mind, which is more important than anything. I am going to stay with God and just travel around."
Since then, Little Richard has been a popular guest on television, in music videos, commercials and movies. He has also remained in high demand as a recording artist, continuing to contribute recordings to movie soundtracks (ex. "Twins", "Casper the Friendly Ghost", "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") and tribute albums, such as Folkways: A Vision Shared ("The Rock Island Line") (1989) and Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to Johnny Cash ("Get Rhythm") (2002), along with duets with Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Tanya Tucker, and Solomon Burke. He also sang background vocals on the U2 / BB King hit song "When Love Comes To Town."
In the 1980s, Little Richard began receiving recognition for his pioneering contribution to modern music. In 1986, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened, Little Richard was among the first group of inductees. He then received a honorary Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1993 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1994, he received the Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 1997, he received the American Music Award of Merit. In 2002, Little Richard, along with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, were awarded the first BMI Icon Award as founding fathers of rock music. In 2003, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Little Richard has used his status as a Minister of the Gospel to occasionally perform celebrity weddings (most notably those of Cyndi Lauper and of Bruce Willis/Demi Moore and Bruce Springsteen.)
In 1994, Little Richard provided the voice of a parody character of himself in Food Rocks, a now closed Epcot attraction at Disney World. Little Richard voiced a pineapple named Richard.
In 1994, Little Richard also performed "America the Beautiful" at the beginning of World Wrestling Federation's 10th annual WrestleMania event at Madison Square Garden.
In January 1995 Little Richard appeared at the American Music Awards. He performed Tutti Fruitti, backed by the rock band The Go-Go's.
In the early to mid 90's, Little Richard performed several songs for children's PBS programs. He sang a rendition of "Rubber Ducky" on Sesame Street and also sang the theme song for "The Magic School Bus"
In 2000, a made-for-TV bio-pic, Little Richard, was televised, starring Leon Robinson - stagename Leon - in the title role. Leon was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance.
Little Richard attended the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
In 2005, Little Richard appeared, along with such luminaries as Madonna, Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, and The Roots' ?uestlove in an American TV commercial for the Motorola ROKR phone.
Most recently, Little Richard joined other R&B and Soul greats and contemporaries on a charity single written and produced by singer/songwriter Michael Jackson titled, "From the Bottom of My Heart". Proceeds from the single, set for a Christmas release, will go to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In January 2006, Little Richard gave the eulogy and preached at Wilson Pickett's funeral. He continues to evangelize, distributing a born-again Christian booklet entitled "Finding Peace Within" to fans, as he tours around the world performing his classic music, as well as Gospel songs in his original soulful, rocking style.
Since then, Little Richard appeared in a hit humorous commercial for GEICO automobile insurance, which debuted in mid-2006. In August 2006 he was signed as one of three celebrity judges in British music mogul Simon Cowell's new FOX television show Celebrity Duets and Here Comes Little Richard/Little Richard was reissued on Ultradisc UHR SACD by audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.
On September 11, 2006, Little Richard was part of an all-star band (including Rick Nielsen, Joe Perry, Bootsy Collins, ?uestlove, and Charlie Daniels) assembled by Steve Van Zandt to back Hank Williams Jr. on a new version of "All My Rowdy Friends (Are Coming Over Tonight)" for the season premiere (and ESPN debut) of Monday Night Football. Later that month, a Jerry Lee Lewis album, featuring a new duet recording with Little Richard ("I Saw Her Standing There") was released.
It is often reported on the Internet that Little Richard is homosexual, or at least was at one time. The once married Little Richard explains in his own words his experiences with homosexuality and his renunciation of this lifestyle and conversion to born-again Christianity in Charles White's authorized biography.
At his suite in the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool during 1964.
Richard held audience to Vincent Tow, of Vince & the Volcanoes of Liverpool. The only Black rhythm guitarist in Liverpool during the 60ts.
The Chants of Liverpool, who were backed by Vincent before their one off backing by the Beatles in the Cavern.
Derry Wilkie, of The Seniors, Liverpool, who arranged the audience and Mr George Roberts. Manager of Vince & the Volcanoes.
Richard showed them all how he made sure he was paid in cash, on the night, by opening a bible that had a, 'cut out' middle and showing £350 sterling in cash inside, paid to him by the theatre he performed at that night in Liverpool.