Little Richard, outsized founding father of rock music, dies at 87
A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom! If early rock ’n’ roll sounded alien to mid-’50s American pop-cultured ears, the opening salvo of Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti"signaled a full-scale extraterrestrial invasion.
Rock’s early days were blessed with a profusion of outsized personalities – Elvis and his shockwave-generating gyrations, super-slick Chuck Berry and the combustible Jerry Lee Lewis – but none as wild as Richard Penniman, who died Saturday at age 87, his agent, Dick Alen, confirmed to USA TODAY. The cause and location of death is unknown, but a heart attack in 2013 led to the singer's retirement.
After growing up in Macon, Georgia, singing gospel in church and traversing the South singing in rude, nomadic traveling shows (during which time he modeled himself after the flamboyant gay pianist Esquerita), Richard projected a novel – and to some, frightening – figure: a tallish black man in a baggy suit and mascara-exaggerated features, radiating unbridled energy and ambiguous sexuality. In a world of neatly coiffed and conventionally attired Perry Comos that was just coming to terms with Elvis Presley, Richard looked positively Martian.
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Before most people saw the look, they heard the sound, and the sound was overwhelming. Hitting radios at the turn of 1956 – ahead of Presley’s breakthrough "Heartbreak Hotel" – "Tutti Frutti" slathered whoops, hollers and that opening war cry over a frantic New Orleans beat cooked up by Specialty Records producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell.
It was an undeniable smash with teens, but it was so wild and threatening that a competing record label figured there was money to be made with a toned-down cover by a nice white boy. Dot Records was correct: The cover, duly delivered by previous Fats Domino bowdlerizer Pat Boone, outdid Richard’s original on the Billboard pop chart (No. 12 vs. No. 17). Boone also covered Richard’s next single, "Long Tall Sally," but couldn’t quite match Richard’s frenzied delivery and saw the original peak at No. 6, two notches ahead of the cover.
Little Richard, a sobriquet he picked up as a teenage singer in one of those traveling revues) was on a rockin’ roll. In 1956 and 1957 he placed 11 titles on the pop chart and appeared in three movies, "Don't Knock the Rock," "Mister Rock and Roll" and the mainstream comedy "The Girl Can't Help It," introducing his supersonic vocals and trademark piano pounding (often with right leg splayed above the keyboard) to a wider, awestruck audience.
Richard’s catchphrases echoed across the metastasizing new rock ’n’ roll culture – “slippin’ and a-slidin’, peepin’ and a-hidin’,” “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me,” “you keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in.” He was even bigger in 1957 than in ’56, with two Top 10s among his six hits, and he toured the country and the world.
But he was tormented by conflicts between his religious upbringing and his gay abandon and rock celebrity. Taking more drastic action than the similarly torn Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard flat-out quit show business after an in-flight fright on his 1957 Australian tour. Legendarily, he hurled his expensive rings into the sea, saying later (as cited in Nik Cohn’s "Rock From the Beginning"), “I wish I’d seen the face of the man that caught those fish. A king’s ransom, all courtesy of Little Richard.”
Whatever the veracity of his fish story, Richard’s reign was over, after just two febrile years. Specialty emptied its vaults and kept his hit streak alive, ever more tenuously, through mid-1959, but Richard absented himself from the spotlight, entering a religious school in Huntsville, Alabama, and becoming ordained as a Seventh Day Adventist minister.
He returned to recording, cutting gospel songs for Mercury in the early ’60s. Gradually, he worked his way back to the secular scene, touring in Europe, where his legend endured longer than in his fickle homeland, where fans were now twisting to Chubby Checker and checking out the new sounds from Motown. Richard met the savage young Beatles in Hamburg, teaching Paul McCartney how to “whooo” an audience with his array of vocal mannerisms, and headlined over the Fab Four in Liverpool in 1962 and over the raw Rolling Stones on a British tour the following year. And, shortly thereafter, a welcome mat of sorts appeared to beckon back in America.
Elvis, Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly had all covered Richard’s songs back in the ’50s, but now, as the ’60s rolled into musical high gear, the new generation of rock upstarts, from England and the U.S., were honoring the creator anew. The Beatles recorded "Long Tall Sally" and Richard’s medley of "Kansas City" and his own "Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey", and later McCartney repaid those Hamburg lessons with the ultimate Little Richard tribute, the storming "I'm Down." Liverpool’s Swinging Blue Jeans took "Good Golly Miss Molly" and Chan Romero’s wild ’50s Richard homage "Hippy Hippy Shake" high on the charts, and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels paired Richard’s "Jenny, Jenny" with the blues standard "C.C. Rider" for the Top 10 medley "Jenny Take a Ride", subsequently repeating the trick even more successfully with Richard’s "Good Golly Miss Molly" and Shorty Long’s "Devil With a Blue Dress."
All this action produced a reaction, as Richard was able to appear on TV shows such as "Shindig!" He returned to the recording studio, but his recording-star days were behind him. "Bama Lama Bama Loo" in 1964 (later covered by Elvis Costello) made a lot of noise on vinyl but less on the charts. He recorded with a guitarist in his touring band, James Hendrix by name, then cut some first-rate soul records for Okeh Records around 1966-67 that updated his frantic ’50s approach with the upbeat R&B sounds of the day, but the radio gatekeepers, overloaded with hits from Motown, Stax and the soul factories of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, were unimpressed.
Still, he carried on, and nobody could carry on quite like Little Richard. The Beatles’ Fats Domino-inspired 1968 single "Lady Madonna" kicked off a rock ’n’ roll revival trend, and Domino’s career was relaunched by the major label Reprise. Shortly thereafter, Reprise signed Richard, who made three albums of varying quality, scraping the bottom of the charts with 1971’s "King of Rock and Roll." More lucratively, he headlined some of the newly popular rock revival shows and tours, interspersing the classics with spirited declamations concerning his ability, as the self-ordained architect and emancipator of rock ’n’ roll, to make the knees freeze and the liver quiver. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” he would cut off interviewers, sometimes even before they’d dared to interrupt his monomaniacal monologues.
Once a capital-L Legend, he became a lovable Character, and that paid off with talk-show appearances, commercials and film roles (most notably 1986’s "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," which spawned his last hit single, the pastiche "Great Gosh A’Mighty"). He was one of the first 10 honorees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recorded guest spots on albums by the likes of U2 and Elton John and made the successful 1992 children’s album "Shake It All About," and performed as part of Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural festivities. More recently, he served as a judge on the short-lived 2006 Fox series "Celebrity Duets," on which his familiar catch phrases mutated into gnomic pronouncements of amusing unintelligibility.
But as beloved a showbiz institution as he gratifyingly became thanks to his verbal eccentricities, Little Richard first ascended the peaks through his music, the legacy that will endure. His great fan McCartney, in the preface to Richard’s authorized and astonishing, if awkwardly titled, biography, Charles White’s "The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock," sums up Richard’s case succinctly: “Richard is one of the greatest kings of rock ’n’ roll.” (McCartney also chose "Tutti Frutti" as one of his 10 most essential recordings on the U.K. radio program "Desert Island Discs.")
As the first prominent gay rocker (closeted at the time, later acknowledged, although at times, during his recurrent religious revivals, he disavowed his past), he paved the way for artists such as Elton John, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury to flourish, and his theatricality laid the foundation for them and countless other flamboyant frontmen. (Less momentously, Little Richard’s professional moniker can be regarded as a key antecedent for every rapper who has affixed a “Lil” in front of his first name.)
The thousands of Little Richard cover versions through the years attest to his lasting impact, gift of gab and garble, uninhibited onstage antics and unmistakable vocal delivery. Pioneering rock historian Nik Cohn described it best: “He’d scream and scream and scream. He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar.”
The echoes of those screams and roars reverberate through the decades, in James Brown and Paul McCartney, Janis Joplin and Axl Rose, and anyone who ever let loose in the ecstatic grip of the music.
Shut up? Not as long as rock ’n’ roll still breathes.