Pounding the piano, howling his lyrics and screaming in a wild falsetto, Little Richard &8212; the so-called Quasar of Rock &8212; was integral to the birth of rock & roll. His unhinged performance style, mascara-coated eyelashes, and high pompadour were exotic and androgynous, and in many ways he personified the new pop music genre's gleeful sexuality and spirit of rebellion. In his own way &8212; and as he is wont to exclaim to anyone in earshot &8212; he is the king of rock & roll.
One of 12 children, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932. He grew up in a devout Seventh-Day Adventist family but also attended Baptist and Holiness churches; his two uncles and a grandfather were preachers, though his father sold bootleg whiskey. The young Penniman sang gospel and learned piano at a local church, but his parents never encouraged his musical interests, and at 13 Penniman was ejected from their house. (In a 1982 televised interview, he claimed it was because of his homosexuality.) He moved in with a white family, Ann and Johnny Johnson, who ran Macon's Tick Tock Club, where Penniman first performed.
In 1951 Penniman won a contract with RCA after playing at an Atlanta radio audition. His recordings during the next two years were fairly conventional jump blues; the songs "Every Hour" and "Get Rich Quick" failed to make a commercial impression for him. In 1952 he moved to Houston, where he recorded for Don Robey's Peacock label. Initially he recorded with backup groups the Deuces of Rhythm and the Tempo Toppers, though in 1955 he switched to fronting the Johnny Otis Orchestra for four songs. He toured small black nightclubs, performing mostly blues; his rock numbers were not well received.
Down on his luck, he sent a demo tape to Art Rupe of Specialty Records in L.A., who, as luck would have it, had been looking for a hard-edged voice like Penniman's to front some New Orleans musicians. Rupe signed on "Bumps" Blackwell as the producer and, with a Crescent City rhythm section, Little Richard entered the studio on September 14, 1955. One of the songs he cut was an old between-song filler piece called "Tutti Frutti" (with lyrics cleaned up by New Orleans writer Dorothy La Bostrie; one original line was "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it, you can grease it, make it easy").
Richard's whooping, shouting vocals, sexy-dumb lyrics, and wild piano banging on "Tutti Frutti" set the style for his future hits. The single sold to both black and white fans &8212; over three million copies by 1968 &8212; and its influence was incalculable. Out of Richard's approximately 36 songs for Specialty, seven were gold: "Tutti Frutti" (Number 17), "Long Tall Sally" (Number Six), "Rip It Up" (Number 17) in 1956; "Lucille" (Number 21), "Jenny, Jenny" (Number 10), and "Keep a Knockin'" (Number Eight) in 1957; and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (Number 10, 1958). Little Richard also appeared in three early rock & roll movies: Don't Knock the Rock (1956), The Girl Can't Help It (1956) &8212; in which his salacious reading of the title song is a revelation &8212; and Mister Rock 'n' Roll (1957).
But in 1957, at the height of his success, Little Richard suddenly quit his rock career after a tour of Australia. He claimed that a vision of the apocalypse came to him in a dream, and that he saw his own damnation. In his authorized biography he tells a story of a plane flight during which the overheated engines appeared in the darkness of night to be on fire. He prayed to God and promised that if the plane landed safely he would change his ways. A few days later, while performing outdoors, he caught a glimpse of the Russian satellite Sputnik, and days after that, a plane he was scheduled to have flown in crashed. Interpreting these incidents as divine signs that he should change his ways, Richard entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, where he received a B.A. and was purportedly ordained a minister in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. (Richard has since claimed that he was never a minister.) Specialty tried to keep his conversion a secret, issuing the hit "Keep a Knockin'," pieced together from half-finished sessions. In 1959 he recorded his first religious album,God Is Real.
Little Richard did not return to rock until 1964. After a failed attempt to gain a major audience on the evangelical circuit with his gospel recordings, he tried to resurrect his rock following with the anachronistic and unsuccessful "Bama Lama Bama Loo" on Specialty in 1964. The world was already switching its attention to the newer sounds of the Beatles. (Ironically, Little Richard was one of Paul McCartney's idols.) Through the years, Little Richard mounted many unsuccessful comeback attempts on Vee-Jay, Modern, Okeh, and Brunswick.
His best shot came in the early Seventies, when he got a contract with Reprise and recorded three R&B/rock LPs &8212; The Rill Thing, King of Rock 'n' Roll, and Second Coming &8212; which garnered some fair critical notices and led to some recording sessions with Delaney and Bonnie and Canned Heat. He did some late-night talk shows and club dates during the early Seventies, but by the decade's close, he was again stressing his attachment to the church, preaching and singing gospel, and renouncing rock & roll, drugs, and his own homosexuality. Over the years, he has alluded to having embraced heterosexuality, but in 2000 he probably described his past most accurately when he told the Los Angeles Times, "I was what you called back in that day a freak. I was flamboyant in every direction. I'm glad I'm able to look back on it and say, 'Thank you, Lord,' and go on."The year 1984 saw the publication of The Life and Times of Little Richard, an authorized biography by Charles White. Incredibly frank, the book got plenty of attention for its juicy anecdotes (including a threesome with a stripper and Buddy Holly) and guilt-ridden accounts of his battle to tame his sexuality. "Homosexuality is contagious," he is quoted as having said. "It's not something you're born with." The book ends with a chapter-long sermon from Richard. Later he claimed that in some portions of the book he had been misquoted. He shares the copyright with Charles White and his longtime manager Robert "Bumps" Blackwell.
Each time it seems Little Richard has faded from the spotlight, he returns with as much pomp and circumstance as ever. In 1985 &8212; at nearly age 60 &8212; he launched a formidable comeback with a featured role in the hit film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills; he also appeared in Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Last Action Hero. He made guest appearances on such popular television series as Miami Vice, Martin, and Full House and has been a pitchman in commercials for a number of companies, including Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Charlie perfume. He contributed backing vocals to the 1988 U2–B.B. King hit "When Love Comes to Town," and duetted with Elton John on the latter's Duets and Tanya Tucker on Rhythm, Country & Blues ("Somethin' Else").
In a development that surely would surprise his first-generation fans, Little Richard had his greatest latter-day recording success in the Nineties with a new generation: their grandchildren. After recording a rock-rap version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for the all-star Pediatric Aids Foundation benefit album For Our Children (1991), Richard recorded Shake It All About. It included children's standards, such as "On Top of Old Smokey," and his own "Keep a Knockin'" (complete with him yelling "Shut up!" to his background chorus of kids). He also appears on Kermit Unpigged (1994) and in Shelley Duvall's award-winning children's video, Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme. And he sang the theme song to the PBS children's program, The Magic School Bus.
On into the 21st century, Little Richard has been just as busy, and remains one of the most recognized and quotable celebrities in the world. His life story was the subject of a made-for-TV movie in 2000, starring the actor Leon Robinson, who won an Emmy for the portrayal. He recorded Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" for a 2002 Cash tribute album and teamed with fellow Fifties rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis on a cover of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" for Lewis' 2006 album Last Man Standing. As a preacher he's performed weddings for several celebrities (Cyndi Lauper, Little Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and spoke at the funerals of musician friends Wilson Pickett and Ike Turner. The apparently ageless (and vegetarian) Richard continues to tour, his spirit and passion for the music &8212; and himself &8212; undiminished. As he announced from a stage shortly after his 66th birthday, "I'm still beautiful. I'm not conceited &8212; I'm convinced!"
Little Richard was among the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inaugural in 1992. He has also received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award. In his hometown of Macon he has been honored with a street bearing his name, Little Richard Penniman Boulevard. In 2004 he was ranked among the Top ten on Rolling Stone's Immortals list.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.
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