Little Richard was one of the early pioneers of rock'n'roll music. From his beginnings as a child in Macon, Georgia to the present, he has left an unforgettable legacy of hits like "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," which have been covered extensively by many other artists. He has his own style of performing which has been copied but never duplicated. The man called "the Georgia Peach" was an essential part of the foundation of rock music as we know it today.
The music artist called Little Richard has been known by many nicknames: The Architect, the Quasar, the Originator, the Georgia Peach and the King of Rock 'n' Roll. His high energy, flamboyant style of showmanship has made him famous worldwide, but he came from very humble beginnings.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born December 5th, 1932 in Macon, Georgia. His parents had intended to name him Ricardo but the birth certificate was typed incorrectly as Richard. There were 12 children in all, Richard being the 3rd. His mother, Leva Mae, was a petite but strong woman. His father, Charles (Bud) Penniman worked hard to provide for his family, first as a brickmason and later as a moonshine bootlegger.
Leva Mae Penniman (Richard's mother)
Charles (Bud) Penniman (father)
Richard was a rambunctious child and was always pulling pranks on the neighbors. He was born with one leg shorter than the other so it affected his gait. This was taken by many, including his father, that he was trying to "walk sissy." The other kids called him faggot, sissy, freak and other assorted names. Despite this, it was common for kids in the neighborhood to have sexual experiences with both men and women.
He didn't do very well in school but he was always singing. The first songs he learned were church songs. He, his brothers and a friend got together to sing gospel songs at prayer meetings. This eventually expanded to singing at nursing homes and to camp meetings. The Pennimans became rather well known in Macon for their singing ability. Richard also felt a calling to become a preacher from a young age.
As a youth, Richard landed a job at the Macon City Auditorium working in concessions. This gave him the opportunity to see many of the performers that came and went. His favorite singer at the time was Sister Rosetta Tharpe so when she arrived to perform at the theater, Richard was ready. As soon as he saw her, he started singing her songs. She was impressed and invited him to join her on stage. That night Richard earned a handful of money which amounted to 35 or 40 dollars.
Macon City Auditorium
LITTLE RICHARD'S RECORDING CAREER
Richard found several musical bands to tour with over the following years. He entertained in shows all over Georgia but it was in Atlanta in 1951 that he first recorded. An entertainer named Billy Wright introduced Richard to a disk jockey called Zenas Sears who helped Richard get a contract with RCA. When he was eighteen, he recorded his first session. The songs were "Every Hour" which had some local success, "Goin' to Get Rich Quick," "Taxi Blues" and Why Did You Leave Me." The following year, some more tracks were cut but with minimal success.
Four weeks after the session with RCA, Richard's father was shot and killed at a club where he was the proprietor. This forced Richard to take a regular job to help the family. He got hired washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station. Fortunately though, his singing talent was recognized by a promoter named Clint Brantley who was able to get him work in clubs and venues all over the south. He gradually became well known through word of mouth and started earning a good wage each night.
In 1955, Specialty Records received an audition tape wrapped in dirty paper. It was from Little Richard and there were two songs recorded on it. "He's My Star" and "Wonderin." Those at the company were only mildly interested and were in no hurry but Richard kept phoning them every few days asking when they would record him.
The record company finally signed him and booked a recording session for him with studio musicians. They recorded a handful of songs but in the end there was no material the company felt was worthy of promoting. Richard seemed inhibited. Disappointed, the group dispatched to the Dew Drop Inn and that was where things changed. There was a piano there and an audience which was all Richard needed. "Tutti Frutti, good booty," he belted out and the crowd went wild.
After the break, the studio session resumed and Richard was allowed to play the piano himself. The lyrics to "Tutti Frutti" were considered vulgar and had to be changed of course. The song received a lot of air play but the white radio stations refused to play it until it was covered by Pat Boone. It then went gold.
Little Richard's early recording days
After "Tutti Frutti" came "Long Tall Sally" and "Slippin' and Slidin'." Both went to number 1 on the R'n'B charts. In 1956, Richard recorded "Rip it Up" and "Reddy Teddy." Riding the wave of success, he bought a house in Hollywood, CA and a cadillac, then moved his mother to California. He and his band, the Upsetters, were doing gigs all over the country with wild parties following the shows. Around the same time, he met a female stripper named Lee Angel who he fell in love with and nearly married. They traveled together for a while and remained friends but did not wed.
During those wild years of the fifties. Little Richard was making more money than he could count. He would actually carry a suitcase around on tour which was full of cash. People around him were stealing right and left and Richard knew it but he was having so much fun he didn't really care. By 1957 however, he was beginning to tire of the lifestyle. The IRS was after him to account for his earnings and the constant traveling and encounters with racism were getting to him.
LITTLE RICHARD'S MINISTRY
One day a Brother Wilbur Gulley knocked on Richard's door with the purpose of selling some religious books. He and Richard began talking about the Bible and church and soon they were associating on a regular basis. It didn't take Richard long to decide to leave his music career for the church. He quit in the middle of a tour of Australia, disappointing fans, promoters and his fellow performers.
He and a guy named Joe Lutcher together formed what they called the "Little Richard Evangelistic Team." Richard started preaching, helping to feed people on skid row, ushering at tent meetings and taking Bible courses with intentions of becoming an ordained minister. Church members persuaded Richard to take a wife, so Richard, wanting to do the right thing, agreed.
Little Richard the preacher
He married Ernestine Campbell in 1959, after keeping the bride and her family waiting at the church for 6 hours. The short-lived marriage crumbled after Richard was arrested in a raid on homosexuals in the restroom of the Trailways bus station. He also dropped out of school and by 1962 he was again playing rock'n'roll and touring Europe with Sam Cooke and Billy Preston.
LITTLE RICHARD'S SECOND COMING
After the successful European tour, Richard acquired a new guitar player by the name of Jimi Hendrix. The shows were manic and exhausting but the audiences always wanted more. In the U.S. Richard found racial attitudes to be discouraging. Some D.J.s in the south refused to play his records because he had left his ministry. Some television stations refused him air time because of his long hair and makeup.
Despite the problems, demand for Richard's shows continued. Jimi Hendrix did not like the constant touring so he was cut loose but later found his own fame.
Things began to change in 1968 when Little Richard was invited to Las Vegas for an engagement at the Aladdin Hotel. After that, he played at Harrah's Club in Reno for 17 nights. In 1969, he closed the Atlantic City Pop Festival, following a stunning performance by Janis Joplin. It was raining hard but Richard started out screaming "Lucille" and drove the audience crazy. Richard ended up throwing $3,000 worth of clothes and shoes to the frenzied crowd that night.
After New Jersey, there was a booking in Central Park then Richard played for 32,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Following that, he played at the Toronto Peace Festival along with other performers like Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Doors and Chuck Berry. It seems America was finally appreciating the musical genius that was Little Richard.
THE 1970'S AND BEYOND
During the 70's, Richard made appearances on several talk shows. David Frost, Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas all invited him on. There were constant shows, parties, cocaine and orgies. Richard was nearly killed when a stage collapsed at a Los Angeles concert.
When he became ill and was told he might have stomach cancer, he realized he could not maintain the lifestyle. Then his brother Tony who was younger than Richard, died suddenly of a heart attack. Richard knew then that he needed to get clean.
Once again, Richard became involved with church. He was emaciated and weak but did not have cancer. He rested at his home in Riverside, CA and gave up his addictions.
In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. At the Grammy awards in 1993, he received a lifetime achievement award. In 1994, he received another lifetime achievement award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Through the rest of the 90's and into the present time, Little Richard has continued to write and perform music both gospel and secular. Now Reverend Penniman, he has performed weddings and has preached at funerals, including that of Wilson Pickett and Ike Turner. He had hip surgery in 2009 but still does occasional live shows. On July 4th, 2011, he played in Washington D.C. and performed "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Long Tall Sally."
The Influence on The Beatles
It is well known that the Beatles have become the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Even though they were the greatest band ever, they had many influences from the United States in their early years. Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison routinely played songs by Little Richard. Songs that include:
- Long Tall Sally
- Kansas City
- Rip It Up
- Tutti Frutti
- Ooh, My Soul
And many other songs by Little Richard, he influenced the beginning of rock and roll and should always be remembered for this. Not only the Beatles, Little Ricarch also influences many rockers for years to come.
The Life and Times of Little Richard (the Quasar of Rock) by Charles White
Wikipedia (Little Richard)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum