Created | Updated Jul 23, 2009
Born Richard Wayne Penniman to Bud and Leva Mae Penniman on 5 December, 1932, this artist started recording in the early 1950s under the name Little Richard. He laid down a blueprint that would allow future stars like Elvis Presley to achieve stardom in what was then a new genre of music. Little Richard soon became a household name in American rock and roll.
Before the US Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott, Macon, Georgia, USA was a segregated society. Richard grew up in a black neighbourhood and, though he had contact with some white children, he knew he could never cross the line to where they lived. As people did their work they would sing the black spirituals. His family used to go around and sing in the churches and, from a young age, Richard wanted to be a preacher.
When Little Richard started high school at the local Hudson High he joined the marching band, playing the alto saxophone. His interest in music grew further when he saw Cab Calloway while working at the Macon City Auditorium. Richard began neglecting his studies and hanging around with travelling shows, leaving home at age 14 to play piano for Dr Hudson's Medicine Show. This was followed by a tour with a blues outfit known as B Brown's Orchestra, which toured all over Florida and Georgia. He then joined a Minstrel show Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, where he appeared in women's clothing billed as 'Princess Lavonne - the freak of the year'.
This was followed by short tours to Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama with the Broadway Follies. There he met Billy Wright who got him his first recording 'Every Hour'. His father put the song on the jukebox at the Tip In Inn. A piano player named Esquerita came to the Penniman house and taught Richard how to get the right sound out of the piano. With role models like Liberace (who was known for his flamboyant clothing and makeup) and Esquerita (who was openly gay), Richard was plagued by questions about his sexual orientation.
Little Richard was in the studio recording on 12 January, 1952, when his father was killed. The criminal justice system in those days cared very little for the death of a black man, and although the man who shot Bud Penniman was arrested the charges were later dropped. With his father dead, his first recording selling poorly and his second recording not yet released, Richard was forced to get a job as a dishwasher in Macon.
Little Richard put together a band called the Tempo Toppers and played as far away as New Orleans and Houston, Texas. Unfortunately, a dispute with their record producer ended the band's short existence, and Richard had to look for a new label and a new band.
His new band was Little Richard and the Upsetters. They would sometimes play on the outskirts of Macon for ten dollars a night and all the fried chicken they could eat.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, Richard's behaviour attracted the attention of the vice squad and was charged with 'lewd behaviour'. The lawyer his mother found had the charges dropped in exchange for his leaving town. Little Richard was no longer welcome in Macon, Georgia.
The Specialty Records Era
By 1955, Richard had already switched labels twice. He was already setting up the blueprint for his style of music and travelling from one gig to another; however, in the early 1950s black individuals were not allowed in many hotels, so he would spend many a night sleeping in his Cadillac. He was performing in Tennessee when he got a call from Specialty Records. They were impressed by the demonstration tape he had sent and wanted to meet him at J and M Studios in New Orleans. It was under their label that he finally broke into the top ten.
At first, the session at J and M did not go well, so the Upsetters took a break and went to a local hot spot called the Dew Drop Inn. There, on the hotel piano, Richard played the song that would make him famous. His naughty lyrics included the words 'Tutti-Frutti-good booty'. A local lyricist cleaned this up and back at the studio he used her new lyrics: Tutti Frutti-Aw Rootie. She did, however, keep the boogie-woogie flavour with the opening interjection 'awop bop a loomop alop bam boom!'
Over the course of the next two years Richard would go on to record over 50 songs, most of which rode high in American music charts, but the one he usually started his concerts with was Lucille.
During this time, as Richard saw his records climbing the charts, certain white supremacy groups and fundamental conservatives tried in vain to stop him from getting air time. They particularly made no headway in New York City where Alan Freed not only played Richard's music, but also invited people like Buddy Holly or Little Richard to play live at functions there.
In 1957, Richard underwent a religious conversion and cut short a tour of Australia. He felt that he needed to follow where God was leading him. Although raised in the denomination of African Methodist Episcopal, he converted to Seventh Day Adventism where, after attending a bible college, he became an ordained minister. It is speculated that, had Richard stayed the course and left for the United States when he originally planned, he may well have been a victim of a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean instead of living to do occasional concerts fifty years later.
In 1959, Richard married Ernestine Campbell. However, married life didn't fit in with his chosen lifestyle, and after six years waiting for him to settle down his wife finally got a divorce.
In October 1962, Richard brought his style of music to the UK and continued on into Europe, where in November of that year he shared the bill at Hamburg's Star Club with The Beatles. Sir Paul McCartney would later say:
When the Beatles were first starting we performed with Richard in Liverpool and Hamburg, and we became close friends.
McCartney was especially influenced by Richard, and John Lennon would meet Richard again in 1969 at the Toronto Peace Festival. During the intervening years Little Richard had been busy, churning out numerous albums and making long road trips. In his biography1, he is quoted as saying:
When I retired from show business millions of fans were stunned. Now I was back, and I was a tornado, fast and round, faster than sound.
In 1964, Richard returned to the US and began a new act, The Little Richard Show, briefly hiring a young Jimi Hendrix in the process. During 1968, Little Richard would play at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. This was followed by guest spots on US Television.
As Robin Williams2 once said, Cocaine is God's way of telling you you are making too much money. By 1970 Little Richard had lots of both. In his biography he says:
Back on the road cocaine eased the fatigue along boring highways and gave everyone a rush of raw energy for the gig. But coke is no joke - the pleasure became the problem...
Around this time, Richard was struggling with drugs, alcohol and, according to his biography, his sexuality.
The Other Side Of The Man
In 1975, Richard went to Los Angeles to see his brother Tony. He was sidetracked for a day, during which time his brother died of a heart attack. Suddenly feeling his own mortality, Richard once again gave up rock and roll for a season and did the work of an evangelist. Speaking from the pulpit, Richard would tell about the pit he had been saved from; a pit of perversion and cocaine. One person said after hearing him preach:
The thing I like about Richard's ministry, is that he never pushes a person. He just shows them what God has done for him; and that is a beautiful philosophy.
He has recorded many gospel songs, such as 'Just Came From The Fountain' and the very different-sounding 'Jesus Walked This Valley'. Known as Reverend Penniman in his church, he leads the music and has presided as a minister at weddings and funerals. Since the Seventh Day Advent Church worships on Saturday he cuts short other activities to Friday evenings.
In 1986, Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has since been awarded a star on Hollywood's walk of fame. In February 1993, Little Richard received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 35th annual Grammy Awards, and in March 1994 he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Having celebrated his 76th birthday in December 2008, Little Richard is still going strong.