This story originally appeared in the April 19th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone dedicated to the 1950s.
More than any performer, Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties. With his mascara-smeared face twisted in a midscream paroxysm of rapture and dementia, hair piled high in a proud pompadour, he was an explosive and charismatic performer who laid the foundation of rock & roll. His outrageous personality captured the music’s rebellious spirit, and his frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals defined its sound.
Little Richard was born Richard Penniman on December 5th, 1932, in Macon, Georgia. His father, Charles “Bud” Penniman, sold moonshine and ran a tavern called the Tip In Inn. His mother, Leva Mae Penniman, raised Richard and 11 brothers and sisters in a small house in the Pleasant Hill section of Macon. As a youngster, Richard soaked up music, which was part of the fabric of life in the black community. He heard acts of all kinds at the Macon City Auditorium – blues, country, vaudeville – where he sold Cokes. He also went to church, not so much for the message as for the music: the fervid, unrestrained style of black gospel singing lit a ﬁre in him.
Little Richard learned to play gospel piano from an equally ﬂamboyant character named Esquerita, combining it with his own love of boogie-woogie in what became a blueprint for rock & roll. By his late teens he was a veteran of several traveling vaudeville revues, where he got schooled in the theatrical side of performing He cut his ﬁrst sides for RCA Camden in 1951, followed by a string of singles for Peacock. But it was at Specialty Records that the wild rock & roller within was turned loose.
“One day a reel of tape, wrapped in a piece of paper looking as though someone had eaten off it, came across my desk,” Specialty AALR man Robert “Bumps” Blackwell told Charles White, Little Richard’s biographer. Richard was scrubbing pots and pans at the Greyhound bus station in Macon while waiting to hear from Specialty about his submission In 1955 he got the green light, entering J&M Studio in New Orleans with Blackwell and some of the Crescent City’s ﬁnest musicians. After a slow start, Blackwell grasped the untapped potential of Richard’s singing and playing, and they switched gears from conventional urban blues to something that was raw, uptempo and undeniably new. The rest was rock & roll history, as Little Richard laid down a stunning succession of sides over the next several years, including “Tutti Frutti,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Miss Ann,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Keep a Knockin’.” Specialty recently issued a box set including every song Richard cut for the label.
Little Richard scaled the heights of fame as he toured the world with his peerless band the Upsetters. But his success, and the hypersexual lifestyle that went with it, came to an abrupt halt late in 1957 when he abandoned rock & roll for religion. He attended Bible college and recorded gospel music until the early Sixties, when he made a triumphant and unexpected realm to rock from the stage of a British concert hall. The second chapter of Little Richard’s career as a rock & roller saw him recapture his popularity as a live performer and cut some well-received albums for Reprise. By 1975, however, a substance-abuse problem drove him to abandon rock & roll for the Rock of Ages once more.
“I think that if Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was”
In recent years, Little Richard has begun testing the waters again, performing and recording occasionally. The following interview was conducted in the mobile environs of a limousine cruising the freeways of Los Angeles, a city he has called home since 1956. We broke her a lunch of fried chicken, pork chops and collard greens at a favorite soul-food eatery. During the meal a braided and bespangled entertainer calling herself “Afrodyete, the African Goddess of Love” presented him with a signed picture of herself; which was inscribed, “Stay
Chocolate.” With characteristic color-blind wit, Little Richard quipped, “Stay chocolate? Suppose I feel like being pineapple tonight?” –
Let’s start with a simple question. Did you invent rock & roll?
Well, let’s say it this way: When I first came along, I never heard of any rock & roll. I only heard Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ruth Brown and Roy Brown. Blues. Fats Domino at the time was playing nothing but low-down blues. When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public, because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I had never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.
I was inspired by Mahalia Jackson, Roy Brown and a gospel group called Clara Ward and the Ward Singers and a guy by the name of Brother Joe May. I got the holler that you hear me do – “woo-ooh-ooh” – from a lady named Marion Williams. And this thing you hear me do – “Lucille-uh” – I got that from Ruth Brown I used to like die way she’d sing, “Mama-uh, he treats your daughter mean.” I put it all together.
I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor. If there was somebody else, I didn’t know than, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day. So I say I’m the architect.
Where were you hearing music – on records, jukeboxes or the radio?
We didn’t have nothing to play records on, ’cause we were real poor. My mother had 12 children, so we didn’t have nothing. We had an old radio we would play late at night We would listen to WLAC out of Tennessee. Back in that time boogie-woogie was very popular. I would say that boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues mixed is rock & roll. Also, back in that time black people were singing a lot of country music. You didn’t see this separation of music as you do today. I’m a country-music lover. I think it’s a true music. It’s from the heart.
Can you remember the first time you sang for people and got a reaction?
Yes. I sung a song called “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. [Sings] “Oh, you hear church people say/We are in this holy way/ There are strange things happening every day…”
And I’d just but this [taps rhythm on car seat] and sing, “There are strange things happening every day.” People used to give me quarters and dimes and nickel to sing that song.
How did you choose the stage name Little Richard? Was there a Big Richard?
No [laughs]. At the time, they had Little Esther, Little Willie John, Little Walter. Everybody was using the title Little. And most people used to call me “Penny-man,” and nobody would say “Penniman” They couldn’t pronounce my name. Another thing – my family did not approve of what I was doing, and I felt that if I didn’t use my name, people wouldn’t know I was a part of them. I didn’t want to hurt them. Music was not respected back then. To them, it was down. Everybody was down on it.
As a teenager, you went on the road with several vaudeville revues. What was your role in those shows?
I just wanted to tear up the house. I would pick up tables and chairs in my mouth and dance with them. I would let somebody stand on the table and dance while holding up the table in my mouth.
That sense of competition stayed. You just weren’t going to let anyone upstage you.
That’s right. I still have that. I think you have to have that in life. I would go onstage, and we didn’t have stages like Michael and Prince or Bruce. We had to do with what they had. If they had spotlights, they had them, but now they carry everything.
You had to do it all with charisma.
Yeah, and that’s when I wore the colors, the sequins, the shoes made of stone, so they had something to light up.
In the 43 years you’ve been playing, has anybody upstaged you, taken a show away from you?
Uh, yes, Jimi Hendrix. He was my guitar player, and you know, we didn’t know he could play with his mouth. One night I heard this screamin’ and hollerin’ for him! I thought they were screamin’ for me. But he was back there playin’ the guitar with his mouth. He didn’t do it again, ’cause we made sure the lights didn’t come on that area no more. We fixed that! We made sure that was a black spot!
How did you wind up signing with Specialty Records?
Lloyd Price came through my hometown. He had this black-and-gold Cadillac, and I wanted a car like that. I said, “How’d you get famous?” He told me about Specialty and gave me the address. I did a tape, and I sent this to Specialty. A year later they got in touch with me.
Did Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, match you up with Bumps Blackwell?
No. Bumps was the A&R man for Specialty Records. He was in charge of everything. Art Rupe didn’t know anything about music. Bumps had been with Quincy Jones and Ray Charles and all those people. Ray Charles did his ﬁrst tour with us. He didn’t have a band. It was my band that played behind him. And he had “I Got a Woman” and sung that on the tour, with my band backing him up. Am I tellin’ the truth, Ray? You used to come by my room and tell me, “That’s the prettiest suit you got on. I like that suit, that green suit.” [Laughs]
Did you enjoy recording in New Orleans?
Oh, yes. You’ve got to remember that the same band recorded with me, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Shirley and Lee, Professor Longhair. It was the same band: Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, all those guys. When they played for me, I played the piano. When they played for Fats, Fats played the piano.
How would you compare recording in the Fifties with recording today?
I enjoyed recording back then better ’cause it was real. You had to play. It wasn’t no machines, you couldn’t just mash buttons and sound like a band. If you couldn’t play, you didn’t have no music.
Were your songs based on real characters? Was there a Miss Molly, a Lucille, Miss Ann, Long Tall Sally?
There was a Miss Ann. She was a white lady I used to work for. She had a club in Macon filled Ann’s Tick Tock. She and her husband, Johnny, were like a to me. They had been good to me when a lot of people hadn’t. I really appreciated them, so when I got famous, I made up a song. That’s the only real person.
What do you think it was about your music that helped bridge the gap between the races?
“Tutti Frutti” really started the races being together. Because when I was a boy, the white people would sit upstairs. They called it “white spectators,” and the blacks was downstairs And the white kids would jump over the balcony and come down where I was and dance with the blacks. We started that merging all across the country. From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites. Pat Boone covered “Tutti Frutti,” made it broader, ’cause they played him more on the white stations.
You could argue it both ways, but overall do you think Pat Boone’s cover versions helped or hurt your career?
I believe it was a blessing. I believe it opened the highway that would have taken a little longer for acceptance. So I love Pat for that.
That said, what did you honestly think of his recording of “Tutti Frutti”?
He did the best he could. I think mine was the best, but Pat Boone’s version was all right. I think he was forced to record it. He was a balladeer and not a rock singer. I believe his record company saw a chance for him to get bigger.
Is it true you sang “Long Tall Sally” so fast that he’d have difficulty covering it?
Yes. I figured that since he outsold me with “Tutti Frutti,” I’d put so many tricks in “Long Tall Sally” he couldn’t get it.
How do you think the Beatles did with it?
Fantastic. I think the Beatles did one of the best versions of “Long Tall Sally” I’ve ever heard.
“My family didn’t approve of what I was doing. Music wasn’t respected.”
You toured with them in England before they broke over here, didn’t you?
Oh, before they ever recorded, before anybody ever heard of a record company.
Did you see potential in them?
I saw it in Paul McCartney. Paul was the one who was so crazy about me. Paul and George. I believe they had it – they were gifted.
They were gifted, but they also did their homework.
They knew who we recorded with, they knew what doorsteps we walked up, they knew what saxophone we played. They knew more about it than me!
Do you see in Prince a young version of yourself?
Yes, I do.
Do you like his music?
Oh, I really like Prince a lot. I like Michael Jackson. I like Bon Jovi. I like Bruce Springsteen. I like a lot of them. I get that old thing from them – I think that’s the reason I like them.
Have you worked with any producer since Bumps Blackwell who have been able to capture your sound?
It has to be someone who feels that type of music. I think the problem today is that a lot of black entertainers don’t feel the old music. A lot of white entertainers still use the music, while black people have gone to another type of thing, the synthesized thing that you hear, like [sings], “My, my, my/Once bitten, twice shy babe …
“Once Bitten Twice Shy,” by Great White.
Now, that’s the old way. See, the blacks have gotten so that’s not what they want. They like this other thing, with the synthesizer, and the whites are still with the old music. So that’s the reason when you play for them, you feel comfortable. They appreciate the type of music, the old music, that you play.
Especially in the Seventies, your audience became really lopsided toward whites over blacks.
With the black audience, if you don’t have a hit record, they don’t support you. If you’ve got a hit record, it’s all right, but if you don’t, you’re in trouble
Do you think the black audience at large will ever get interested in black music from a more historical perspective?
They should. I believe that Michael Jackson’s generation will be more up on it than my generation. I believe black people love me, and I believe they appreciate me. But I’m not recording the kind of music they want to hear in this generation. I am where I am, so that’s it.
You’ve claimed that your band the Upsetters was the best show band in the country.
Oh, they were. They were choreographed by me and by Grady [Gaines, the tenor saxophonist]. They wore makeup. They wore beautiful colors. It was the only band with a makeup kit. You thought they were showgirls, but they were showboys. They were very good. Until this day, I haven’t seen another band surpass them.
Would you have preferred to cut your Specialty sides with the Upsetters instead of the New Orleans guys?
I did do one song with them, “Keep a Knockin’.” We did that in Washington, D.C. You can’t tell the difference, can you?
No, you can’t. Led Zeppelin nicked the drum intro on “Rock and Roll.” Have you heard that?
No. Did you know Led Zeppelin’s manager used to be my chauffeur? Peter Grant was my chauffeur for about three years! I used to argue with him all the time. I saw him in Miami later on, and he said: “Little Richard, I’m wealthy now. I’m a millionaire. You want me to buy you dinner?” I said, “No, Peter.” He said: “I’m gonna buy it anyway. I have a group called Led Zeppelin. I don’t have to take your abuse anymore.” [Laughs loudly] Old Peter! And you know, Sonny Bono used to drive me, too. That’s before Cher. That was about 1958. He was working for Specialty Records, and they used to send him to ride me around.
As far as your live shows, which are considered to be some of the most incendiary performances in the history of rock & roll, where did the energy come from?
I don’t know, and it still comes. We just did Palm Springs, and it was unbelievable. People was crying, screaming. You wouldn’t believe I was the age that I am. It was just like a power, and you felt like crying. When I touched the piano, the house just went insane.
In the Fifties you’d scream, pound the piano and toss clothes into the crowd. How did you rise to that level every night?
I didn’t drink or smoke at the time. I didn’t take any dope or nothing. The music turned me on. The music still does it! If the music is good, you got me.
Were you ever concerned that you’d taken an audience too far? Has it ever gotten to a point where it became dangerous?
I have seen ’em go a long way. I have seen people worked into frenzies. I’ve seen ’em foaming at the mouth, I’ve seen ’em fall out. I’ve seen people screamin’, cryin’, can’t stop. I’ve seen girls who just wanted to touch me, just screamin’, lookin’ at me, screamin’ and fallin’ out.
Wasn’t there a night when the stage actually caved in?
Collapsed. That was at the Olympic Auditorium [in Los Angeles]. The piano fell. The stage fell. One guy broke his leg. It was pandemonium: The crowd was screaming, and they kept screaming. I was on top of the piano, and I was screamin’, too, ’cause I was fallin’. Everybody was screamin’. Screamin’ and screamin’!
Did you ever get into what the jazz people call cutting contests, where you’d be on the bill with someone and you’d each be trying to top the other?
Oh, I’ve been on plenty of those. Me and Chuck Berry, for instance, have done it plenty of times. He’d say that he’s the star and I’d say that I’m the star. He’d say, “I’m gonna close the show.” I’d say, “No, you’re not” I’ve been on a bill with Jerry Lee Lewis like that ,too. And I’d say, “Okay, you can close the show.” And I’d go on first and sing for about two hours, and then can’t nobody come on the stage. We were all of us vain back in that time. It’s a shame. The young and crazy often need a-spankin’ and a-plankin’.
What was it like after a show? What would you do to wind down?
I would go to clubs just to hear girls scream. I would go to clubs to have a good time and then bring girls back to the hotel.
We have an impression of the Fifties as being a very staid and conservative era, but to hear you talk, it sounds a lot more sexually liberated than people might imagine.
Oh, it was liberated all right! It was experimental, too, ’cause we were young and hadn’t done a lot of things. Being a country boy from the South, I had been held back. My family was religious. Sometimes you couldn’t toe-tap or tap a toe or ask for mo’, and that’s for sure! And that’s the way it go! And we was po’!
I used to like a lot of girls back in that time. But I wasn’t into anything out of the ordinary. Just regular do’s.
Where do you stand on homosexuality now? You made some pretty strong statements against it in your book.
I’m not against it I believe God gives every man a choice. Every man has a choice to do what he will, bad or good, right or wrong, black or white, rich or poor. I was just saying that from where I stand, a lot of people think different things because of the way you look. Some people will judge you, and they don’t even know you. I played the piano, I wore the hair, I wore the makeup, and everybody classified me without asking me anything.
But didn’t you want to he “the Living Flame,” “the bronze Liberace”?
I am the Living Flame. Not so much the bronze Liberace, but I am the Living Flame. I just wanted to be a musician that spread joy to people. I’m not down on any lifestyle, any shape, form or fashion. Whether God has sanctioned our lifestyle or not, we still have a right to do what we want So I’m not putting anything down. Neither am I picking anything up! [Chuckles] And I’ll leave it right there.
When you had your first religious conversion in 1957, what persuaded you to walk away from the phenomenal popularity you’d worked so hard for as a rock & roller?
I wish I knew then what I know today. I was young and didn’t have anybody to talk to. I’ve always been religious, basically. I wanted to do God’s will. I’ve always wanted to do his wil. But at the time I had nobody no really counsel with.
Touring must have taken a toll.
No, I enjoyed touring, but I had a bad dream. I think the dream kind of disturbed me, the thoughts kind of shook my mind. The dream was “Prepare for eternal life.” That was it.
And you went to Bible school.
Yes. Let me let down this window and say hello to these people [rolls down the window of the limousine and greets a couple on the sidewalk]. I just wanted to make their day. Excuse me. I feel all right! [Laughs]
When you quit rock & roll for the second time, in 1975, you were coming out of a period of heavy cocaine and alcohol use.
Yes, yes, yes. My nose was big enough to put diesel trucks in. I was payin’ almost $10,000 a month for cocaine. I was into it. I was eatin’ it. I was snortin’ it, I was freezin’ everything that could be frozen. I was screamin’ and hollerin’. It was a terrible time for me. I’ve never had this drug they have today, crack. By the grace of God, I don’t drink or smoke now, haven’t done it in years. I’m just glad to be alive and show the young people that it doesn’t pay, that you can live above it and that it don’t make you famous, it makes you dead. It steals life from mankind, and we need God in our life. And that’s what it’s about.
Are you getting more comfortable with the idea of playing rock & roll again?
Well, what I feel about music now is that I love God, I will always love God, and I feel that I’m a messenger for him. To me, rock & roll music is the only way I know how to make a living. I’m making people joyful, and I still spread my love for God. So I’m still the person that God has placed, but the music is my job.
Did you think Elvis did anything as far as opening the door for the white audience to listen to black singers?
I think the door opened wider, but the door may have already been opened by “Tutti Frutti.” I think that Elvis was more acceptable being white back in that period. I believe that if Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was. If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House! A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.
It’s like they won’t even give me a Lifetime Achievement Award, and look at Paul McCartney. [McCartney was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys on February 21st.] I was the first famous person he ever met, the first famous person he ever traveled with. They give him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and they won’t give me one. They won’t even mention me! They give Dick Clark an award, but they don’t give me nothing! Don’t even mention my existence! It’s a shame, but that’s what it is.
Do you think McCartney should have mentioned you in his acceptance speech?
Yes. I just don’t understand some things sometimes. I was sitting there in front of him, and he didn’t say nothing. It makes you feel like crying, you know?
I was surprised about that myself.
I was shocked. I should have run up on the stage and did one of my outrageous numbers and said, “Listen, Paul, let’s face it, now you know that I’m the one that bought the hamburgers.” I should have done that. But I think that when you’re in love with God, your reward is what he says it is – eternal life. So I think I’m going to have to settle for that .And I’m not dismayed or disarrayed. I will settle for that. In fact, I’d rather have a crown of gold than to lose my soul.