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  Little Richard

Introduction

On December 5th, 1932 a legend was born. Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard grew up nearby in Macon, Georgia. Richard’s heart pounding, flamboyant sound held the world captive for seven decades.  He is most famous for laying the foundation down for rock n’ roll while also playing a critical role in the formation of soul, funk, and R&B. Richard has been recognize for his genius by various institutions. He has has a number singles that have topped the billboards as well as being featured in a host of movies and television shows. Little Richard is a living legend and without his contributions black music and music as a whole would be very different.

Early Life

Little Richard was born the 3rd of 12 children to Leva Mae and Charles Penniman. Similarly to many southern families, Richard’s family was very religious. A few of his uncles were pastors and his father was a deacon. He learned how to play piano and frequently sang in the church choirs. Richards mother recalls him being musical from an early age, banging pots and pans or the stairs in the house. He always had a niche for music, he learned how to play the saxophone rather quickly being allowed to play in the school band almost immediately. Richard enjoyed the Pentecostal churches the most because of their charismatic worship and live music. Often, he changed the keys upward while singing in the choir and was asked to stop singing in the choir because he was screaming and hollering so loud. As you can see his personality showed in his music since he started singing. Richard noted his initial musical influences were gospel performers: Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and Marion Williams.

Being that Richard’s family were good Christians, Richard was often scrutinized by family members for his feminine behaviors. Richard remembers only playing with girls and feeling feminine as a child. He was caught multiple times wearing his mother’s makeup and clothes which caused his father to become enraged and brutally punish him.  Fed up with his mannerisms his father put Richard out of the family house as a young teenager. Throughout his life Richard struggled with his sexuality often denying his real reasons for performing in drag and wearing makeup. It wasn’t until 1995 that Richard admitted that he has been gay his whole life.

Music Career

Professional Beginnings (1947-1955)

Richard got his start performing after Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard the 14 year old sing two of her gospel recordings. He joined his first band in Buster’s Brown Orchestra where he officially started going by the name Little Richard. After breaking things off with the band in 1950 Richard became a drag performer in shows such as: Broadway Follies, Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, and the Tidy Jolly Steppers. During this time he also visited many Atlanta clubs where he witnessed Billy Wright perform. He was so moved by Wright’s flamboyant persona, Richard began performing as a solo artist at the Chitlin Circuit. He began getting noticed for his high energy and wild onstage antics.  At this time he performed with blues and R&B bands that hid his vocal talents and his piano playing that defined his career. This caused his career to become stagnant before really taking off. Once Richard linked with Specialty records success was almost instant.

Business is Booming  (1955-1961)

Richard’s first hit was “Tutti Frutti” a song that he improvised while performing at club circuit. The label hired a songwriter to edit his raunchy lyrics and the record became an instant hit reaching number 2 on the Billboard. His next hit came the next year ” Long Tall Sally” which also sold over 1 million copies. Richard was described as being “dynamic, uninhibited, unpredictable, and wild” Little Richard is responsible for bringing mixed race audiences together during a time of racial tension in America. He opened the door to bringing both races together to have a good time. Even though the audience was still segregated, often they ended up coming together on the dance floor. He was also the first to use colorful capes, blouse shirts, makeup, and bedazzled suits. He was known for his wild performances that included running on and off the stage, lifting his leg while playing the piano, jumping up and down on stage and on top of his piano. Often this caused the audience to go up in a frenzy acting in similar ways. In 1956 fans had to be restrained from jumping off of the balcony, running on the stage, and women threw there panties at him constantly. Little Richard made 18 hits nationally and internally in just 3 years. During this time Richard became a millionaire. Despite his worldwide success Richard shocked everyone when he announced that he was returning to the ministry. He felt that during a tour he received a sign from God that he needed to repent from performing secular music and living a wild lifestyle. Growing up in an extremely religious home, Richard grew up believing secular music was the devil. After learning that his original flight home crashed into the ocean Richard felt that he wasoing the right thing by returning to the ministry. He went to college to study theology, went on a preaching tour, and recorded some Gospel songs impressing people like Mahalia Jackson and Quincy Jones.

 

 

Don’t call it a comeback (1962-1979)

After being approached by a concert promoter in 1962 Richard returned to Europe to tour with Sam Cooke after being told his records were still being sold. He joined the tour thinking it was a gospel tour but was met with an unpleasing response from the audience after performing his gospel material the first show. By the second show Richard fell back into the secular music and performed “Long Tall Sally” and the audience was described as being hysterical. Richard went on various tours and held multiple live shows. During this time he worked with legend Jimi Hendrix. After creating a hit together Hendrix and Richard parted ways.However Richard recalls feeling disrespected and unappreciated by producers. He performed in dingy clubs that were not up to par for a genius like Richard. He felt heat from Southern clergymen for going back against the ministry, in result they told radio disk jockeys to ignore his work.  Richard had much success by the end of this period selling over 32 million copies worldwide. During this period Richard battle drug addiction and many personal tradegies that led him to quit secular music again in 1977.

Accomplishments

Inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (1984)

Apart of the Freshman class the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame (1986)

Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation ( 1994)

Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993)

American Music Award of Merit (1997)

Songwriters Hall of Fame (2003)

Apollo Theater Hall of Fame (2006)

 

It was a way out of poverty. It was a way to success. It was a way to education. And it was a way to a brighter day for me. — Little Richard 

Discography

Studio albums

Filmography

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

DeCurtis, Anthony. Some fun tonight.  New York Times Book Review; New York (Feb 7, 2010): BR.15.

Friedland, Ed. Little richard.  Bass Player; New York Vol. 27, Iss. 10, (Oct 2016): 50,52.

Puterbaugh, Park.  Little richard. Rolling Stone.10/15/92, Issue 641, p154. 2p. 1 Illustration.

Richard, Little.  Little richard.  Rolling Stone. 4/15/2004, Issue 946, p80-80. 1p. 1 Color Photograph.

Strauss, D. Little Richard. The Village Voice; New York [New York]28 Apr 2004: C96.

Walters, Barry.  Little richard. Rolling Stone. 3/5/2009, Issue 1073, p79-79. 1/9p.