Little Richard was undoubtedly the most raucous and flamboyant of the early Rock ‘n’ Rollers. His wild act and set the pace. His voice was the loudest and the best. His material was the most raw and rocking. Elvis copied a number of his songs which became Rock ‘n’ Roll standards – ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Rip it Up’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Ready Teddy’ and ‘Slippin’ ‘n’ Slidin’’.
For a time he could not do any wrong.
I fell in love with him the first time I heard him and his first album ‘Here’s Little Richard’ got played to death in my house to the background shouts of ‘Turn it down’. I even went so far as to do a living jukebox at my school fete featuring me, my Dansette and Little Richard’s album. I played tracks on request for the princely sum of sixpence (2.5 pence). I made a few quid and Little Richard blasted out right over the school field all afternoon. There were plenty of takers.
Richard Penniman was something of a mixed up soul. He was a black bisexual man from the Deep South who had been brought up in the Bible Belt and had religion seasoned into him. It didn’t sit easy with his penchant for R&B (the music of the devil) and a love of orgies. He found it, like many others from the same region, hard to reconcile.
Richard started out in R&B after emerging from Gospel singing in the church. His voice and appearance created quite a stir but he was confined to the chitlin circuit and Black record labels. That all changed in 1954. He signed to Specialty and produced the dynamite single ‘Tutti Frutti’. There was no looking back. That single set the tone and created a whole act. The R&B was jettisoned and the Rock ‘n’ Roll persona was adopted. He was wild.
In the fifties he vied with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. They were all superb but Little Richard was on fire.
He made that cross-over to the White audiences and got his records played on White radio. You cannot emphasise what a big deal that was back in those shadowy days of segregation. He broke down barriers.
I watched him perform on BBC in the early sixties. I was about thirteen and my sixteen stone Nan was sitting next to me loving it. He stood at the piano, pounding it with his hands, bottom and foot. The sweat flew off him. His voice roared and the songs pounded. This was Rock ‘n’ Roll. It didn’t get any better than this. Little Richard was loud, aggressive and really rocked. His voice whooped and roared. Nobody else came close.
With his great pompadour hairstyle, pencil thin moustache and great oversize suits he looked the part. The band were tight. Everything worked.
But that first brief fiery album and singles were about it.
On a tour of Australia an engine on his jet caught fire and Little Richard decided that was enough. It was a sign from God to quit his low-down ways. He threw his rings off the Sydney Harbour Bridge, gave up Rock ‘n’ Roll and went into Gospel singing and preaching.
Specialty had lost their star and tried vainly to recapture and recreate the style with singers such as Esquerita and Don and Dewy. The nearest they got was the brilliant Larry Williams.
In the sixties the allure was too great and Richard went back into Rock. But it was weird. The music scene had moved on. Rock ‘n’ Roll was no longer the rage. The Beatles were on the scene. Richard took on a most peculiar persona with sequins, heavy make-up and a strange hairstyle. He made his living doing live versions of his early Rock stuff with some new rather mediocre albums along the way. At one stage he even had Jimi Hendrix in his band. His act was still wild, his voice was still great, but he was no longer producing that raw Rock ‘n’ Roll and had this strange camp style that seemed at odds with the music. The act was almost a parody and send-up. You wanted to shake him and get him to go back producing the wild, raucous Rock of the fifties. There are times when it is not good to move with the times. It felt as if he was being pulled in different directions. Apart from the odd stand-out track there was little to get excited about. The music did not measure up to those 1950s monsters.
I saw him at a gig in Bradford in the 2000s and it was one of the strangest ever. Little Richard seemed split in three. There was one third great Rock ‘n’ Roll, one third camp acting (Oooh get outa here!) and one third preaching. I suppose that was the only way he could reconcile it all.
Little Richard was one of the early pioneers of Rock Music. He set the trend. His exciting style was the greatest of all. No other Rock ‘n’ Roller was as visceral. Little Richard put the dynamite in Rock ‘n’ Roll.
We’ll remember those early days.
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