The legendary self-proclaimed “Queen Of Rock N’ Roll” Little Richard turns 87 today

Little Richard is one of the founding fathers of Rock

The legendary self-proclaimed “Queen Of Rock N’ Roll” Little Richard turns 87 today

An influential figure in popular music and culture for seven decades, with his dynamic music and charismatic showmanship, Little Richard laid the foundation for Rock N’ Roll, his music played a key role in the formation of other popular music genres, including soul and funk. Little Richard influenced numerous singers and musicians across musical genres and he was a pioneer on the Rock N’ Roll lifestyle, on the aesthetic of Rock concerts and wardrobe. We couldn’t imagine Rock music without Little Richard. He celebrates 87 years old today, we look back at his life and career.

Early Years: From Macon, Georgia,  To The World

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia. A mischievous child who played pranks on neighbors, Little Richard began singing in church at a young age but he was mocked for his allegedly effeminate appearance. He later recalled that people in his neighborhood during segregation sang gospel songs throughout the day to keep a positive outlook, because “there was so much poverty, so much prejudice in those days”.  As a child, he only played with girls and felt feminine, which was the source of jokes and homophobic ridicule at his expense. Caught wearing his mother’s makeup and wardrobe at times, he was brutally punished by his father. He began having sexual encounters with boys by his teen years and also occasionally had sex with older women.Because of his effeminate mannerisms, his father kicked him out of their family home at 15. As Richard later explained in 2010, “my daddy put me out of the house. He said he wanted seven boys, and I had spoiled it, because I was gay.” Little Richard’s initial musical influences were gospel performers such as Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams.  On October 27, 1947, Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard 14-year-old Little Richard singing two of her gospel recordings before her concert at Macon City Auditorium. Tharpe was so impressed that she invited him to sing onstage during the concert After that period he joined several travelling shows and novelty acts such as Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show in 1948, performing “Caldonia”, During the early 1950’s Little Richard began performing for various vaudeville groups, including Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, the King Brothers Circus and Broadway Follies, earning a reputation as a drag performer and soon joined his first musical band, Buster Brown’s Orchestra. While performing with the band, he began using the name Little Richard, and as they began experiencing success in the mid-1950’s, he made members of his band use makeup as a means to gain entry into white clubs during performances. He later told a columnist, “I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful too.” In 2000, Richard told Jet magazine, “I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to.” Though he was gay, Little Richard recalled female fans sending him naked photos and their phone numbers. This alone makes Richard the first androgynous Rock Star, years ahead it became a trend.

1950’s: Ready Teddy!

During those first five years of the 1950’s Little Richard worked hard as a singer and performer and signed several contracts with labels such as RCA, he started to earn a reputation of one of the hottest young singers in the R&B circuit and in 1956 he recorded his first big hit, a risqué song he had improvised from his days on the club circuit called “Tutti Frutti”. “Tutti Frutti” was released as a single in November 1956, it became an instant hit, reaching No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart and crossing over to the pop charts in both the United States and overseas in the United Kingdom. It reached No. 17 on the Billboard Top 100 in America and No. 29 on the British singles chart, eventually selling a million copies. Without knowing he had lay down one of the Rock N’ Roll foundations. Little Richard’s next hit single, “Long Tall Sally”,  became his first to reach No. 1 on the R&B chart and the first to reach the top ten of the pop charts in both America and Britain. During a period of racial tension in the United States, Little Richard attracted mixed-race audiences at a time when public places were divided into “white” and “colored” domains. H.B. Barnum later explained that Little Richard “opened the door. He brought the races together”. Little Richard’s concerts were the first Rock N’ Roll shows to use spotlights and flicker lights, which had been a show business tradition, accentuating Little Richard’s innovative use of colorful capes, blouse shirts, makeup and suits studded with multi-colored precious stones and sequins. Little Richard’s onstage antics often included running on and off the stage, lifting his leg while playing his piano, and jumping up and down onstage and atop the piano, bringing audiences into a frenzy. Little Richard had nine hits in the US in 1956 and five in Britain, with recordings such as “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, “Rip It Up”, “Ready Teddy”, “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Lucille”. Most of Little Richard’s earlier hits inspired covers by the likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. Described as having “electrifying movie-star looks”, Little Richard accepted brief roles in movies such as “Don’t Knock the Rock”, “Mister Rock and Roll” and “The Girl Can’t Help It”. His success continued in 1957 with international hits such as “Jenny, Jenny” and “Keep A-Knockin'”. Little Richard scored further hit singles such as “Good Golly, Miss Molly”, eventually scoring 18 hit singles in less than three years. In May 1957, Specialty Records released Little Richard’s first album, “Here’s Little Richard”, which contained six single recordings that had already been hits on the charts, the album reached No. 13 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, then a rare feat for a rock and roll artist.

1960’s: Conversion and Comeback


In October 1957, Little Richard embarked on a package tour in Australia with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. During the middle of the tour, he shocked the public by announcing his decision to follow a life in the ministry. He later explained that during a flight from Melbourne to Sydney that he had seen the plane’s red hot engines and felt angels were holding it up. He took the event, later revealed as the launching of the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik 1, as a sign from God to repent from performing secular music and his wild lifestyle and enter the ministry. Returning to the states ten days early, Little Richard later learned that his original return flight had crashed into the Pacific Ocean solidifying his belief he was doing as God wanted. A month after his conversion, while speaking at an evangelical convention in November 1957, Little Richard met Ernestine Campbell, a secretary from Washington, D.C. Despite being gay, he  married her on July 11, 1959. Despite being a married man during that period, Richard’s sexual scandals continued to pop in when in 1962, he was again arrested (after being arrested once at a gas station attendant in Macon reported sexual activity in a car occupied by him and a couple) after he was caught spying on men urinating at men’s toilets at a Trailways bus station in Long Beach, California.  In 1962, concert promoter Don Arden persuaded Little Richard to tour Europe after telling him his records were still selling well there. Arden booked him as the headline artist, with Sam Cooke second on the bill. Little Richard, thinking it was a gospel tour, performed gospel material at the first show and received a tepid response. After Cooke opened the second show, with vigorous applause from the crowd, Little Richard and his organist , the future famous Beatles and Rolling Stones collaborator Billy Preston, warmed up in darkness before launching into “Long Tall Sally”, resulting in hysterical responses. Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, asked Little Richard and Arden to allow his newly recorded band to open for Little Richard on some tour dates, to which they agreed. The first show for which the Beatles opened was at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom that October. The following month, they opened for Little Richard at the Star Club in Hamburg. During this time, Little Richard advised the group on how to perform his songs and taught Paul McCartney his distinctive vocalizations. Little Richard returned to the UK the following fall, with The Rolling Stones as openers. By September 1964, Jimi Hendrix, known to Richard as Maurice James, had joined the Upsetters, Richard’s band, as a full member. In December, Jimi and some ’50’s band members joined Richard in New York for a session of remakes. The most successful collaboration between Little Richard and Hendrix came in the following year, also in New York, when Hendrix, Billy Preston, and Little Richard recorded the soul ballad “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)”, which became a number 12 R&B hit. Richard and Hendrix clashed over tardiness, wardrobe and Hendrix’s stage antics, and as a result, in July 1965, Little Richard’s brother Robert fired Hendrix.

Over The Last 40 Years: An Enduring Legend and Popularity

Despite his career slowing down as a hit maker, Richard continued to enjoy a great popularity during the late 1960’s and the 1970’s as he influenced several contemporary Rock acts back then such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, later also David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Deep Purple among many others. Jimi Hendrix once said he wanted his guitar to “sound like the voice of Little Richard” and even started to wear his trademark thin mustache as a tribute to his him. During the 1970’s, Richard was increasingly more flamboyant looking and also begun engaging on a cocaine habit. By 1972, he developed an addiction to the drug. He later lamented during that period, “they should have called me Little Cocaine, I was sniffing so much of that stuff!” During the 1980’s Richard’s presence remained popular worldwide, seen then as a Rock N’ Roll pioneer, he was part of the first group of inductees to the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986 along with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and The Everly Brothers.   In 1995, Little Richard talked openly about his sexuality, when he told Penthouse that he always knew he was gay, saying “I’ve been gay all my life”. In 2002, Little Richard contributed to the Johnny Cash tribute album, “Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash”. A 2005 recording of his duet vocals with Jerry Lee Lewis on a cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” was included on Lewis’s 2006 album, “Last Man Standing”. The same year, Little Richard was a guest judge on the TV series Celebrity Duets. Little Richard and Lewis performed alongside John Fogerty at the 2008 Grammy Awards in a tribute to the two artists.  Towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Rolling Stone reported that Little Richard remained “one of the most recognized and quotable celebrities in the world.” Throughout the decade, he kept up a stringent touring schedule, performing primarily in the United States and Europe. However, sciatic nerve pain in his left leg and then replacement of the involved hip began affecting the frequency of his performances by 2010. Despite his health problems, Little Richard continued to receive critical acclaim for his performances.

Legacy and Influence

Together with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard is the only survivor from the group of the brave Rock N’ Roll founders from the 1950’s. Little Richard influenced generations of performers across musical genres We couldn’t imagine Rock music without him, because without Richard there wouldn’t be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC (Bon Scott and Angus Young idolized Richard), Rod Stewart, Deep Purple, Queen (in particular Freddie Mercury)  and Motörhead (Richard was Lemmy Kilmister’s idol)  among many others, at least the way we know them and the way their careers were hugely influenced by Richard. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell stated that he traced his musical influences back to Little Richard via The Beatles. Still, to this day new artists like  Mystikal, André “André 3000” Benjamin of Outkast and Bruno Mars were cited by critics as having emulated Little Richard’s style in their own works. Bruno Mars admitted Little Richard was one of his earliest influences.  In his own words, “Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen. ”

Watch the legendary Little Richard performing his Rock classic “Tutti Frutti” in 1956

Watch Little Richard performing a medley of some of his hits in 1969

Listen to “Little Richard – The Essential” on Spotify

Also Read 12 Of Little Richard’s Best Quotes


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