May the 9th, in the middle of the hysteria, fear and uncertainty polluting the airwaves as a cause of the infamous Covid-19 Global Pandemic, and the death of an 87 year old man hardly seems like any shocking news worth writing about. Yet, Georgia born Richard Wayne Penniman, born December 5th of 1952, better known by his legendary pseudonym and stage-name ‘Little Richard’ was no ordinary man. To the world, and to the straight-laced, ultra-conservative mainstream society of 1950s America, he was a whooping, howling, yowling dervish that tore up the airwaves with a thumping, bouncy, rollicking beat that begged the feet to stamp, the heart to race and hands to clap along to its awesome power. For a society weaned on dance-hall tunes and old classical records from the wartime periods, it was a thermic lance of energy, frenzy and liberation, deliciously and scandalously charged with juvenile fire that would change the musical landscape forever. And behind the music, perhaps the most unlikely titan to ever rise from history: no chisel jawed, dark eyed Presley, no smirking Berry.....but a 5’10 with a limp, a game leg, a dainty little moustache and a teetering, towering slicked pompadour perched on his skull like a rooster’s crest.
Born in Macon, Georgia, third of a whopping 12 children, Little Richard’s ascent to the canon of rock and roll godfathers reads like a quintessential ‘rags to riches’ story. Raised in squalor, the son of a church deacon and part-time bootlegger, mercilessly mocked and humiliated due to his physical imperfections and allegedly effeminate appearance, the brutal racism of the segregation era only compounded insult onto injury. Music, as it proves to be most of the time, was his escape: his love and connection to gospel music inspired a passion for singing that earned him the nickname “War Hawk”, the first indication of Penniman’s future as the hollering hero of American radio.
1951 proved to be the budding artists’ break into the limelight, after a victory at a local talent show and a performance at the Macon Tick Tock club led him to be signed by the RCA record label. Yet, unlike movies and television would lead us to believe, Richard did not experience a meteoric ascent to success. In fact, his career advanced rather sluggishly, with the artist’s fears of playing rock n’ roll, with its raunchy, jazz and blues influences and strong connection to black culture, would prove too much for the public of the time. Forced to take out a job washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station to support his family after his father’s murder, the singer came up with a rough cut of a song with a nonsense chorus he had composed: ‘Tutti Frutti’. The tape, more by coincidence than anything, came to the attention of Art Rupe of Specialty Records, Chicago. No one could have known it at the time, but the world as was known in the 1950s was about to be exposed to a sonic bombshell that would rock it to its core.
‘Tutti Frutti’ was a smash hit (only once its suggestive lyrics had been pruned) and more golden singles would soon follow: ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’, ‘Lucille’… Songs that gloriously mixed the gospel, boogie and blues of Richard’s childhood into a musical tornado that blew the 50s off their feet. His songs were covered by the superstars of the time, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran. Even the King of Rock, the Tupelo born Adonis with a golden voice to match his lamé suit would tell Richard in 1969 that he was “the greatest”. High praise, from one pioneer to another.
As a black man, his music crossed racial barriers and helped to introduce rock into the mainstream, rather than as ‘black music’ that many derisively referred it to (and the use of the word ‘black’ here is only to avoid writing out a far more loathsome and unprintable word). As a (at the time closeted) gay man, his flamboyant style, outrageous showmanship, wild stage antics and unashamedly camp persona would set a new standard for showmanship and approaches to sexual and gendered self expression in music, not to mention being pure, simple bombastic aplomb. His influence to the genre cannot be understated, so much so it can be argued that he helped create it in the first place. As an inspiration, he is indisputable: awkward and pudgy Reginald Dwight, later known as Elton John would soon become a superstar by hammering his keyboard and kicking out his stool just like his teenage idol, four young men from Liverpool would regularly cover ‘Long Tail Sally’ in their performances, aspiring folk singer Robert Zimmerman (the name would soon change) was mesmerised by his sound and years after Richard’s debut, a young man by the name of Mick Jagger would hail him as one of his greatest idols. Not too shabby.
But then, bizarrely, the hits stopped. Richard retired from rock and roll in 1957, at the height of his career, attended the Alabama Bible School, became an ordained minister, and launched himself into cutting gospel tracks, after believing to have been contacted by God to become a born-again Christian. His career from then on would be a curious thing, returning to his gospel roots and making a respectable living as a member of the oldies musical aristocracy. Over time, his dedication to his faith led him to some problematic opinions (not the first time a rock star turned born-again Christian has gone off the deep end: just look at Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine) which he would later recant, openly embracing his homosexuality and cheekily declaring that “I believe I was the founder of gay.”
And now, dead at 87, the legendary, mystical, riotous, glamorous, shockingly audacious Little Richard has left us. For most modern day readers, especially the youth, the name might not mean anything at all, in a world so full of trendy celebrities whose every breath is reported by the media. But to the world of music, it represents the loss of one of the old guard of rock and roll music, one of its truest and most dedicated founding fathers, a man who conquered adversity to stamp his name in history with the keys of a piano, whether the world liked it or not. His passion, energy and spirit brought joy to millions, and galvanised millions more to chase their dreams. Rest In Peace, to the true King (or Queen) of Rock and Roll.
Pablo L, Year 13