Yesterday, the world lost another music pioneer, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.
Born in Macon, Georgia on December 5th, 1932, he was one of twelve children. His family listened to singers like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Richard couldn’t find any music he liked, so he created it. He was an influential figure in popular music and culture for seven decades, and among his nicknames were “The Innovator”, “The Originator”, and “The Architect of Rock and Roll”. His music, dating back to the 1950s is characterized by frenetic piano playing, pounding back beat and raspy shouted vocals, laying the foundation for rock and roll. Little Richard is cited as one of the first crossover black artists, reaching audiences of all races. His music and concerts broke the color line, drawing blacks and whites together despite attempts to sustain segregation. His contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, all recorded covers of his works. Taken by his music and style, and personally covering four of Little Richard’s songs on his own two breakthrough albums in 1956, Presley told him in 1969 that his music was an inspiration to him and that he was “the greatest”.
Of Little Richard, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said …
“He claims to be ‘the architect of rock and roll,’ and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer – save, perhaps, Elvis Presley, Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as ‘Tutti Frutti,’ ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.”
President Bill Clinton was always a Little Richard fan, and in 1993, Little Richard played at Clinton’s inauguration. The same year, he was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy Award.
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously said about Little Richard …
“I had heard so much about the audience reaction that I thought there must be some exaggeration. But it was all true. He drove the whole house into a complete frenzy. There’s no single phrase to describe his hold on the audience. I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard on stage. He was amazing. Chuck Berry is my favorite, along with Bo (Diddley), but nobody could beat Little Richard’s stage act. Little Richard is the originator and my first idol.”
Little Richard grew up in a time and place – the American South – that could be very difficult for a black man. He never sang about racism, however, and downplayed his numerous encounters with racism, preferring to focus on the positive things that bring us together. Richard said on the subject: “We are all God’s bouquet, we all need each other the same as the birds need air.” He’s also maintained that homosexuals are equal in the eyes of God, stating: “God don’t just have Heaven for the straight man. Heaven is for all of us if we do his will.”
I have chosen just a couple of songs that I remember best from my youth as a way of paying tribute to Little Richard.