Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Late Great Little Richard

The word "legend" is often tossed around, but in the case of Little Richard the word actually seems inadequate. Never known for his modesty, Little Richard described himself as "the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll." Coming from someone else that could be considered hubris. Coming from Little Richard, it may have been an understatement. He fused elements of boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, and gospel to create a form of rock 'n' roll that would prove more influential than that created by many of his contemporaries. He would have an influence on such diverse acts as James Brown, Otis Redding, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Deep Purple, and Motörhead, among others. Aside from rock, Little Richard would have an influence on entire genres of music, including R&B, Soul, disco, and even rap. It would be difficult to find a man who had more influence on modern music than Little Richard. Sadly, Little Richard died today, May 9 2020, at the age of 87.

Little Richard was born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia on December 5 1932. He was raised in the Macon neighbourhood called Pleasant Hill. He was nicknamed "Little Richard" as a child because he was slight of build. He started singing in church when he was still a child. His earliest influences were such gospel performers as Brother Joe May, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Marion Williams. Little Richard learned to play alto saxophone and joined his school's marching band when he was in fifth grade. He attended Hudson High School in Macon. While he was in high school, he got a part-time job at Macon City Auditorium, where he sold concessions during concerts. It was at the Macon City Auditorium that he would be first paid for a performance. Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard Little Richard, then 14 years old, singing some of her songs while he was working at the auditorium. She asked him to open her show and paid him for work.

Little Richard would hang around the travelling shows that visited Macon and would sing with them. He worked with Macon's town spiritualist, Doctor Nobilio, singing to attract people to the spiritualist's show. It was on Doctor Nobilio's advice in 1949 he left home to join Dr. Hudson's Medicine Show. In the show Little Richard performed Louis Jordan's song "Caldonia." Afterwards he performed with Sugarfoot Sam's travelling show. In the show he dressed in drag as a character called "Princess LaVonne." Little Richard would perform in other travelling shows, sometimes in drag, sometimes not.

Eventually moving to Atlanta, Georgia, he would visit the clubs there and was exposed to such performers as Roy Brown, B. B. King, and Billy Wright. Little Richard became friends with Billy Wright and largely patterned his look after him, with a pompadour, pencil thin moustache, and flashy clothing. It was Billy Wright who put Little Richard in touch with a local disc jockey, Zenas Sears. Zenas of WGST.  Sears recorded Little Richard at the radio station. Those recordings would ultimately result in Little Richard getting his first recording contract when he signed with RCA Victor. His first single, "Taxi Blues," was released on RCA Victor in 1951. In all, Little Richard recorded four singles for RCA Victor, none of which charted. He left RCA Victor in 1952, having been with the label for only a year.

Little Richard signed with Peacock Records in 1953. He only recorded two singles for the label, neither of which charted. It was at the suggestion of R&B singer Lloyd Price that Little Richard sign to the label he was on, Speciality Records. Little Richard's very first single for Speciality was "Tutti Frutti." The song proved to be a hit, reaching no. 21 on the Billboard singles chart and no. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart. His next single for Speciality would prove to be an even bigger hit. "Long Tall Sally" hit no. 1 on the R&B chart and no. 13 on the singles chart.

Following "Long Tall Sally," Little Richard would have a string of hits that would last from 1956 into 1958. Several of his singles reached the top forty of the Billboard singles chart and several reached the top ten of the Billboard R&B chart. Among his bigger hits were "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Lucille," "Send Me Some Lovin'," "Jenny Jenny," "Keep A-Knockin'," and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." His first album, Here's Little Richard, went to no. 13 on the Billboard album chart. He also appeared in the movies The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Don't Knock the Rock (1956), and Mister Rock and Roll (1957) during the period.

It was during a package tour in 1957, during a package tour, that after his performance in Sydney, Australia, he saw a bright red fireball in the sky above him. He took this as a sign from God and announced that he would become a Christian minister in the middle of the tour. He enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama in order to study theology. During this period Speciality continued to release his singles. After parting with Speciality, in 1958  he formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team to tour the country preaching.  He began singing gospel music, initially recording for End Records. In 1961 he signed a contract with Mercury Records to record gospel music.

Little Richard returned to secular music in 1961 after concert promoter Don Arden convinced him to tour Europe as his records were still selling well there. A young band from Liverpool, The Beatles, opened for Little Richard at a show at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in October 1962. In November they opened for him at the Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany. In 1963 he went on tour with The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, and The Rolling Stones. He also appeared on television in Britain on the show Thank Your Lucky Stars and the TV special It's Little Richard. In the Sixties he also appeared on the TV shows Shindig!, Hollywood a Go Go, Where the Action Is, Top of the Pops, Ready Stead Go!, The Pat Boone Show, Della, This is Tom Jones, The David Frost Show, The Dick Cavett Show. The Smothers Brothers Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and The Barbara McNair Show. He was a guest on the TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. In 1970 he had success with the single "Freedom Blues," which peaked at no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 28 on the Billboard R&B chart. He appeared in the movie Catalina Caper (1967).

In the Seventies Little Richard toured on the rock and roll revival circuit. It was in 1972 that he was a headliner, along with Chuck Berry, at the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium. He was a guest artist for such acts as Canned Heat, Joey Covington, Delaney and Bonnie, and Joe Walsh. His 1973 single "In the Middle of the Night" peaked at no. 71 on the Billboard R&B chart. It was in 1977 that he left secular music once again and returned to evangelism. Another gospel album, God's Beautiful City, was released in 1979. In the Seventies he continued to appear on television on such shows as The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Merv Griffin Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Midnight Special, Donnie and Marie, and The Mike Douglas Show.

Little Richard would make a comeback in the Eighties. He played Orvis Goodnight in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and the mayor in the movie Purple People Eater (1988). He also made guest appearances on the TV shows Miami Vice and Bustin' Loose, and he was a guest voice on the animated series Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures. He appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, Solid Gold, and Soul Train. After having been either a rock 'n' roll performer or an evangelist, Little Richard finally reconciled the two, recording the Christian rock song "Great Gosh A'Mighty" for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

In the Nineties Little Richard guest starred on the TV shows Martin, Blossom, Baywatch, Columbo, Hearts Afire, Full House, One Life to Live, Night Man, The Drew Carey Show, and Sesame Street. He appeared in the movies Sunset Heat (1992), The Naked Truth (1992), The Pickle (1993), The Last Action Hero (1993), and Chairman of the Board (1998). He sang the theme song to the animated TV series The Magic School Bus. His final album, Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, was released in 1992. He performed on tracks with other artists, including Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Jimmy Lewis, and Solomon Burke.

In the Naughts Little Richard appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was a panellist on the game show Hollywood Squares. He appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Simpsons, The Sharon Osbourne Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Larry King Live. He also maintained a busy touring schedule.

Little Richard continued to perform into the Teens. He retired in 2013 following a heart attack at the age of 81.

It is very difficult to overestimate the impact on Little Richard on rock music and popular music in general. He blended boogie woogie and rhythm and blues to create a form of rock 'n' roll that was unique at the time. He was further set apart by his powerful vocals. And while Little Richard was known for his whoops and screams on many of his rock 'n' roll songs, his voice was versatile enough that he could sing gospel and even ballads. Of course, Little Richard was further set apart by his flamboyant style. Wearing eyeliner and dressing in flashy clothes, he set the bar for rock performers to come. He once addressed Prince in an interview, "I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!" Little Richard's influence can be felt on performers as diverse as Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Prince, and yet others. His music would have an impact not only on rock, but other genres of music as well. There was no other performer like Little Richard  in the mid-Fifties and, while many have imitated him, there really hasn't been any since.

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