On May 9, 2020, the day Little Richard died, at age 87, I had all but completed my book The Big Life of Little Richard. It was a volume originally intended as a picture-heavy tribute to the man whose big life defined all that rock was, could be, and will always be. But even before he died, the book wanted more. For me, a hopelessly addicted biographer, an elemental truth became evident: as much as I thought I knew about Little Richard, I didn’t know him at all.
Richard Wayne Penniman was a native son of the Jim Crow South, growing up in Macon, Georgia, where hanging trees were common and homosexuality kept strictly under wraps. His father, Bud, was a minister, bootlegger, and tavern owner who saw the devil lurking in the overheated rhythm and blues his son sang. He kicked Richard out of the house for that and his effeminate behavior. (They had just reconciled when Bud was later murdered outside his saloon.)
Under the name Little Richard, he escaped Macon, singing for his supper, warbling high-octane gospel while doing things a minister’s son shouldn’t, singing loudly and wearing a baggy zoot suit, pancake makeup, and eyeliner. Ascending from blues-jazz-gospel into rock ’n’ roll, in 1955 Little Richard was signed to Specialty Records and recorded a chugging, eight-bar blues stomp punctuated by primal peals of Whoooo, a song he had written himself about characters he had known in his misspent youth. The song was “Tutti Frutti.”
Ripping It Up
“Tutti Frutti” marked the birth of the still-formative rock genre, soldering it to postwar teenagers, black and white. Though Little Richard had to alter jaw-gapingly filthy lyrics such as greasing up “a good booty,” few missed what he was driving at. “Tutti Frutti” climbed to No. 2 on the R&B “race music” chart in 1955. That it hit No. 17 on the mainstream-pop chart was considered a breakthrough in the days when Black artists were routinely ripped off and shunted into a corner. (Little Richard would be fighting for stolen royalties for decades.) Follow-up R&B smashes with titles such as “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” kept coming, he and the finest session men in New Orleans—led by sax man Lee Allen and drummer Earl Palmer—carving derivative but unique two-minute tableaux of boogie-shuffle-fitted, time-capsule sights and sounds about cars, parties, back-alley canoodling, and randy teenagers.
Little Richard dubbed himself many identifiers—“the Architect,” “the King (and Queen) of Rock”—though the best would have been “the Caligula of Rock,” since he gave pulsating context to divergent gender roles as well as new musical norms. With his vocals and his machine-gun-like piano triplets, his songs poured from transistor and car radios, embedded further by a stage act in which he wore a mile-high pompadour and kept one leg hiked onto the piano, a human tornado soon emulated by James Brown (whom Richard had recommended his manager sign) and Otis Redding, who also sprang from Macon to stardom.
A human tornado soon emulated by James Brown and Otis Redding.
Little Richard’s personal life was more complicated. Openly and subliminally gay, and consumed by guilt about it, he twice renounced rock for the ministry but never could stay away for long. Nor could he ever renounce sheer madness and excess, which he was both proud and ashamed of. The two women in his life, one of whom he married to please the Seventh-day Adventist Church, swear he was straight. Little Richard insisted he wasn’t. For all the good he did for racial progress in his music, in his later life he was shunned by the Black market and D.J.’s at Black stations, causing a weird disconnect in that he was accepted far more by white audiences.
Little Richard was a prickly man. He toiled for at least a dozen record companies, feuding with all of them. But he was a Godhead in his craft. In the early 60s, he made celebrated tours of Europe, during which he gave the Beatles their big break by allowing them to open for him. Paul McCartney worshiped him, an idolatry that can be heard in the whoooooos in “I Saw Her Standing There” and others. He was welcome not only on the oldies circuit but as a headline act at rock festivals, stealing the Toronto Peace Festival from John Lennon and the Atlantic City Pop Festival from Janis Joplin. Into the 80s, he was singing the title songs of big movies, still making albums, jumping in and out of idioms such as Motown/Stax funk, proto-rap, and even country. He hired both Billy Preston and Jimi Hendrix to play in his backup band, forming a brief and turbulent but historic union, and marking some of Hendrix’s earliest recorded performances.
What became clear to me in researching his amazing life was that Little Richard was himself a performance, one we needed—still do. Under the surface, he was nowhere near as carefree as he seemed onstage. Still, his rollicking, garrulous life is easy enough to codify; when he would grin and admonish people to “Shut up!,” he knew full well that would never be his epitaph, that if we couldn’t put on a Little Richard record, it would be a fate worse than death.
Mark Ribowsky’s The Big Life of Little Richard is out now from Diversion Books