Little Richard’s joyful exuberance changed the nature of music

May 11, 2020
Performing in Germany in 1962. Photo: SVEN SIMON/DPA/PA Images.
Performing in Germany in 1962. Photo: SVEN SIMON/DPA/PA Images.

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 best exemplifying the type of music he wanted to perform.

For others it was his style. In 1966 the band Bluesology opened the show at a Little Richard concert in London. One of its members, Reg Dwight, later said that “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins and energy I decided then and there that I was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll piano player.” Anyone who watches an Elton John concert today can see what he meant.

But it was the music which was Little Richard’s key legacy. And it was The Beatles who inherited it. They listened to it and played it before they even became The Beatles. When Paul McCartney auditioned to join forerunner band The Quarrymen in 1957 he sang a medley of Little Richard numbers to show what he could do. In their early years The Beatles played his material regularly. The set lists of their performances at the Cavern Club and at the various venues on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg where they plied their trade feature "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" in almost every show.

In 1962 they met him. Brian Epstein, their manager, had heard that he was to tour the UK and arranged for The Beatles to open for him. They subsequently also performed together at the Star Club in Hamburg. According to McCartney it was Little Richard who told him to wrap a towel around his face before a performance in order to be able to hit the high notes, the “Wooh” sounds, which got the fans screaming. "I Saw Her Standing There," which McCartney wrote for The Beatles’ first LP and which he sometimes still performs today, shows the extent of the influence which Little Richard had on the band’s early development.

His successors have been generous in paying tribute to Little Richard and to the artistic debt which they owe him. Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson and Carole King have all emphasised his importance. Even Bob Dylan, who these days only rarely emerges from his self-imposed radio silence, has tweeted about watching him perform in Europe in the 1990s, described him as a shining star and a guiding light and observing that “Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life has gone.”

This wasn’t Dylan’s first tribute. In 1959 the then Robert Zimmerman had written in the senior class yearbook of his high school in Hibbing, Minnesota that his ambition was to join Little Richard’s band.

Michelle Obama has referred to his exuberance, his creativity and his refusal to be anything other than himself. These were indeed his defining qualities. Especially the exuberance. Little Richard didn’t just sing his songs. He attacked them at full speed and at full volume. Inevitably his popularity waned, and, like so many other musicians, he became embroiled in disputes with his managers about money and had problems with drug use. But he was able to keep on performing until his last years.

The 1950s in Britain was a dreary time. But then it all changed. The next decade ushered in a different, less deferential world. Rock ‘n’ roll was what made the difference and Little Richard epitomised rock ‘n’ roll. If you want to understand the sheer joy of being young in Britain in the 1960s, just listen to "Tutti Frutti."

Paul Lever was UK ambassador to Germany