Little Richard

Little Richard

Richard Penniman was born in Macon Georgia, on December 5th, 1932, and since my blog was posted he passed May 9, 2020 at age 87. He grew up with 11 brothers and sisters and learned music from family, friends and at Church. By 1951 he had a contract with RCA Victor and cut some tracks in Atlanta. Here is his first song “Taxi Blues“. He doesn’t sound like the Little Richard we have come to know, but very few artists find their ‘voice’ on the first attempt. And so there was an evolution to his style, in 1952 he was starting to Rock it up with “Get Rich Quick“. By 1953 he was still recording more traditional blues and some new material from other songwriters, such as “Ain’t That Good News” credited as ‘Duces Of Rhythm & Tempo Toppers’ (with lead Little Richard)”. But he still had not released his flashy and flamboyant style, even though his live performances were getting fairly raucous compared to the toned down records. He would have seven single releases from 1951-54 before hitting the charts.

Sometime in mid 1952, Little Richard would meet Eskew Reeder and his musical future would start to change. Eskew who’s stage name is Esquerita, was a couple years younger than Richard but a gifted self taught piano player with a flamboyant style and a voice to match. Over a period of time he would tutor Richard and would have a tremendous effect on his music. He is older here as pictured but it has been documented that this was essentially Esquerita’s ‘look’ as he was already a traveling stage performer at the time he met Little Richard. It certainly appears to me this is where Richard got some of his image and musical stylings. If you listen to this audio I think there is some revisionist history going on in Richard’s recollections of their relationship. While Esquerita’s recordings post date Little Richard’s initial success his musical style was already there to be observed by Richards. I’ve read several proclamations from Little Richard saying things as quoted here from Rolling Stone Magazine, “I am the architect” (of Rock and Roll) and how he believes “…from the bottom of my heart, I am the inventor” (of Rock and Roll). Well if that’s true, then Esquerita is the inventor of Little Richard. If we know anything about Rock and Roll it is that no one person or even a small group ‘invented’ it. Was Little Richard a big part of that? Yes absolutely. To be fair Sam Phillips and a few others (Ike Turner comes to mind) also made similar claims. But when did this R&R thing really start to happen? What we know as Rock and Roll was in little pieces around the US, but it’s real genesis was in the Southern States which of course includes Richards home state of Georgia. Certainly from the late 1940’s and early 50’s  there were plenty of opportunities for Richard to pick things up from artists other than Esquerita to help him develop his music and modus operandi.
The song that launched him into being the Little Richard we know was called “Tutti Frutti” (October 1955). Not uncommonly there is some dispute as to who actually wrote the song, credited as co-writer Dorothy LaBostrie claims she mostly wrote the whole song, Richard says he did and there is good evidence he had played at least parts of it in prior live performances, so the genesis of the song is certainly his. Richards could most definitely write and he has many single and co-writing credits on a couple dozen songs and a few of them were his big hits. Joe Lubin also shares a credit on “Tutti Frutti” soley I believe for ‘cleaning up’ some of the lyrics and technical composition (as it was not an uncommon practice), Lubin’s seasoned songwriting talent would lie more with Pat Boone and Doris Day stuff than Little Richard. Regardless it is one heck of a Rock and Roll song and it really did have a huge impact on the type of songs and performance styles of the day. The tune combines boogie woogie piano, blues, gospel, creative lyrics and along with the inspired delivery it’s earned the #43 spot on Rolling Stone Magazines The 500 Greatest Songs of all Time. In 1956 it rose to #2 on the R&B chart and contrary to what I’ve seen written that it reached #17 ( among others) it actually peaked at #21 for the week ending February 8, 1956 on Billboard Hot 100. Covered over 130 times, say what you will about it but with an amended version it was first covered by Pat Boone* in January 1956, followed by Elvis Presley. Here is a live performance by Queen from the Wembley Stadium shows in 1986.
Richards was on a hot streak in 1956, songs making it huge on Billboard’s two charts Hot 100/R&B were “Long Tall Sally” #13/#1, “Slippin’ and Slidin‘” at #33/#1, “Rip it Up” at #27/#1, “Ready Teddy” at #44/#1. Out of five songs he had four that went to #1 on the R&B charts and the only reason “Tutti Frutti” got stalled at #2 is because “Great Pretender” by ‘The Platters’ would not budge from the #1 spot from the beginning of January through to the week ending March 10. Richards would not ever gain a #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, nor did Chuck Berry for that matter, until 1972 with the novelty song My Ding-a-Ling”.

Photo: Specialty Records Archives

Just to put things into perspective Little Richard was a dynamic performer and although he did develop his own style he did not always present himself on stage with his signature pompadour and glitzy outfits. In part that was due to requirements of TV show hosts and producers. Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley had already started recording at the same time and had established their own sound and style prior to the release of “Tutti Frutti”, so any claims or even opinions that support Richards ‘inventing’ R&R and his impact have to be tempered just a bit. Even Jerry Lee Lewis who released his first record late in 1956 had already started to develop his wild style and reputation during stage performances. As had James Brown, though that was a slow build. James Brown who was strongly influenced by Richard would emulate this and take it a step further by recording a live album at the Apollo. What Little Richard did that few others could is bring the energy and excitement of the live performance to the recording studio and have that come out of your radio or record player. He was the one to popularize this type of recording, so to me this is Little Richard’s biggest contribution to R&R.

I don’t want you to think I’m down on Little Richard but some of his statements and support requires a bit of balance. These inventing R&R assertions really have done a disservice to his reputation as he has been at times written off and his importance watered down as a result. You need only watch some of these clips of Little Richard to see and hear he was a tremendous talent, a truly groundbreaking performer that opened the door for Rock and Roll to really spread its wings and show it’s wild side. The man is truly a Rock and Roll Legend. Of course today the stuff he did does not seem to be very controversial but at the time his exciting performances pushed boundaries, he was also quite a brave person as he had to deal with many issues as a gay black man performing in the 1950’s.

His life and career would have it’s challenges, musical tastes are a fickle thing and after three years in the limelight and topping the charts, by 1958 all that would start to slowly disappear, though he did have a couple songs enter the charts in the UK up to 1964. He ‘found’ religion and continued to perform and record and his legend earned him a revered spot in the hearts and minds of those who understood his talent and the importance of his contributions. For example there is a great live version of “Rip it Up” with Little Richard on the ‘Tom Jones Show’ from 1970.

Here are more great original tunes from Little Richard. “Lucille” #1 R&B, #21 Hot 100 and #10 UK, “Send Me Some Lovin‘”#3 R&B,  “Good Golly, Miss Molly” #4 R&B, #10 Hot 100, #11 UK, covered over 80 times, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969).

Jenny, Jenny” #2 R&B, #10 Hot 100 and #11 UK was a reworking of this song, “Johnny, Johnny” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers with Mari Jones. (yep Johnny and three guys all wearing you guessed it, blazers! Oh yes and one Mari, pretty sure she wore a dress 😉
Keep A-Knockin’” #2 R&B, #8 Hot 100 and #21 UK was a very pumped up cover of this song from 1928 “Keep a Knockin’ an You Can’t Get In” by “Boodle It” Wiggins. There is a bridge version or two such as from Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Vocals by Helen O’Connell (1939).

In all Little Richard would cover about 60 songs excluding the times he covered his own songs for his collaboration album, ‘Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka’. Other than the above mentioned I’m not aware of any of his covers that made the charts in a big way except “Baby Face” from July of 1958 which was his highest charting song in the UK at #2, #12 R&B and #41 Hot 100. The original is from Jan Garber and His Orchestra in 1926, written by Harry Akst and Benny Davis it was a #1 hit at the time and in total covered about 100 times, Richard was about the twentieth artist to record it.

*For a bit more on my take on Pat Boone you can check out my post on Rock and Roll Part 4.
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