Little Richard’s joyful exuberance changed the nature of musicby Paul Lever / May 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
This is, most music critics agree, the greatest intro to any rock ‘n’ roll record. Indeed, many would say the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record itself. Little Richard, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, recorded many classic songs—”Lucille,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly”among others. But “Tutti Frutti” was his masterpiece. He recorded it in September 1955. It changed the nature of popular music.
He was born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. His family lived in what he called a slum and his father sold bootleg whiskey. But, encouraged by his mother, he sang in a local church and his musical roots were gospel. Religion never entirely left him. A few years after the release of “Tutti Frutti” he left the music business and enlisted in a southern bible college where he was ordained as a minister. But he soon returned and in the early 1960s, the pinnacle of his career, he toured extensively around the world.
He was a contemporary of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, the other two artists associated with the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. But he was a more colourful and flamboyant performer. Berry had his duck walk and Lee Lewis could pay the piano in weird positions. But Little Richard was on another level. He wore make up (the first male pop artist to do so), he dressed exotically, he strutted around the stage and he flaunted his sexuality.
It was a sexuality about which he was himself ambivalent. He was married and had a son. But he also engaged in voyeurism and in gay relationships. In 1995 he confirmed publicly that he had been gay all his life. But later he condemned homosexuality as unnatural and against God’s law.
He was a legend in his own right. Like Berry and Lee Lewis, he also had a massive influence on others. In Little Richard’s case, however, this influence was direct; and it was most dominant in Britain, rather than in the United States.
Virtually every rock musician who emerged in Britain in the 1960s has acknowledged a debt to him. In one case rather literally. When the young Harry Webb was looking for a new name to go with his band The Drifters he hit upon “Cliff Richard” as…