It may have been former Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed who coined the phrase “rock n roll” as a euphuism for rock and sex but it was legendary rocker, Little Richard who put the roll into rock with his sexually suggestive song lyrics which only passed the scrutiny of broadcasting censors of that time (mid-50’s) because no one could quite figure out what he was singing about.
Sadly, Richard Wayne Penniman passed away Saturday at his Nashville residence after a prolonged battle against bone cancer at the age of 87.
“I created rock n roll, I’m the innovator, I’m the emancipator, I’m the architect, I’m the originator,” Little Richard once boasted. “I’m the one who started it.”
Few would argue that Penniman, the third of 12 children, who was kicked out of his Macon Georgia home by his moonshine-selling father, was a unique musical figure whose flamboyant physical appearance and sexually charged songs like “Long Tall Sally” (“Long Tall Sally she’s built for speed, got everything that Uncle John needs) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (“She sure likes to ball”) were deemed the devil’s music by many observers at the time but the kids, both black and white, found them infectious and rebellious.
Taken in by a white family who ran a local nightclub, Penniman soon found himself singing at the club and was rumoured to have picked up the nickname Little Richard because he was underage to sing at that venue.
Picked up by RCA Victor in 1951, he released four singles in a Louis Jordan jump-blues style but when that didn’t pan out, he toiled for a while as a dishwasher at a Greyhound Bus Station. But a 1955 demo found its way to Speciality Records’ head, Art Rupe who sent Little Richard down to New Orleans to record with Fats Domino’s backing band.
“This cat in a loud shirt with hair waved up six inches above his head walks into the studio,” reflected noted producer Bumps Blackwell. “The sessions weren’t going particularly well but then he started to sing “Tutti Fruitti and the rest they say is history.”
“Tutti Fruitti” went to #2 on the R&B charts, top 20 on Billboard in 1955, selling more than a million copies. This launched a phenomenal creative spell between 1955 and 1959 in which he reeled off a total of 20 hit singles including “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up” and “Lucille” which all went to #1 on the R&B charts.
“My means of expression, my music was a way in which a lot of people wished they could express themselves and couldn’t,” he noted. “They saw me as something like a deliverer.”
Little Richard’s music was also featured in major movies like the 1956 Jayne Mansfield vehicle “Girl Can’t Help It” and he made a personal appearance in the 1985 film, “Down And Out In Beverly Hills”
A near airplane mishap In Australia in 1957 triggered a re-evaluation of Little Richard’s life and he put his recording career on hold to become a Seventh Day Adventist minister. Yet his flamboyant, androgynous style and infectious music won over a new wave of pop musicians with the Beatles’ recording his “Long Tall Sally” and releasing their own song, “I’m Down” which was heavily influenced by Little Richard.
The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger paid homage to Penniman by saying “There is no single phrase to describe his hold on the audience, he was amazing”.
Linked in the same innovative category as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry in cultivating the popularity of rock n roll, Little Richard was one of the first inductees into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland in 1986 and received a Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award in 1993.
Little Richard was still touring into the 1980s and ’90s and this writer caught his performance on a themed bill with Berry, Lewis and Frankie Valli at one of the first concerts to be staged at Toronto’s Skydome. The concert was remembered more for Berry’s insistence not to have his image appear on the stadium’s video screens, a decision which almost sparked a riot before he had the sense to walk back that call.
But even though he was performing with his peers that evening, Little Richard proved to still be a standout performer whose vast catalogue of hits will no doubt stand the test of time.