Richard Wayne Penniman was born during the Depression in 1932 in Macon, Georgia and grew up in a poor Seventh-day Adventist family. He was one of twelve children and picked up on Gospel music attending Holiness/Pentecostal churches. As a youngster his musical influences were blues, country, gospel, and vaudeville and he learned to play piano taught to him by the flamboyant, Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr). Richard modeled his singing style on many of the black gospel music singers from the 1930s and 1940s including, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe May, Billy Write , Ruth Brown and Marion Williams (where he got the "whoooo" in his vocals).
He sang in his local church but as a youngster was often accused of shouting the hymns, and sometimes asked to leave. His preacher father sold illicit booze for a side line and was murdered in 1951. Richard became the family breadwinner washing dishes during the day and singing blues in the "Tick Tock Club” at night. He won a talent contest and signed with RCA Records but nothing came of the two blues singles.
He cut a demo disc which producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell heard and invited him to a recording session in New Orleans. Legend has it, Richard thumped out an impromptu "Tutti Frutti" during a break and the producer recognised the potential hit.
The format of Tutti Fruitti became Little Richard’s trademark with loud rasping vocals supported by an unrelenting pounding boogie-woogie rhythm on the piano and saxophone solo (by Lee Allen). As a kid Richard loved the theatrics of the travelling medicine shows with the colourful medicine men dressed in lavish capes, robes and turbans and started to adapt this style into his live performances. Despite the infectious nature of singing with his backing band the Upsetters, the artist experienced bigotry with most white radio stations refusing to play his records. Several of his early hits were re-recorded by white artists but were pale imitations of their originals.
No one could match the original and aware of thin white impersonators Little Richard began to speed up the lyrics. He had a series of hits in 1956.
In 1956 Little Richard appeared in two teen films Don't Knock the Rock and The Girl Can't Help It which gave him the perfect platform to highlight his music and reach a wider international audience.
In 1957 while on a tour of Australia Little Richard decided to leave the music business citing finding God. He became a born again Christian and enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama where he became a Seventh-day Adventist minister. Little Richard continued his recording career but restricted this to gospel music only during the late-1950s and early-1960s. When touring the Gospel circuit he refused to perform his rock’n’roll hits.
In 1962, he was encouraged to tour Europe. A member of his band, Maurice James was later to become Jimi Hendrix and his opening acts were respectively the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones. They became very good friends. Little Richard always claimed it was his “Oooooo” which Lennon and McCartney used in She loves you.
For the next decade Little Richard largely ignored his ministry calling and performed as a rock‘n‘roller. Throughout his career Little Richard has often suffered a crisis of conscience between continuing as a rocker and accepting his calling as a preacher. Little Richard has used his status as a Minister of the Gospel to perform celebrity weddings, most notably those of Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, and Bruce Springsteen. In January 2006, Little Richard gave the eulogy and preached briefly at Wilson Pickett's funeral.
Worth a listen:
Tutti Fruitti (1955)
Rip it up (1956)
Good Golly, Miss Molly (1958)
The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
Long Tall Sally
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