Home Music Music Lists

Little Richard: 20 Essential Songs

“Tutti-Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and other game-changing tracks from rock and R&B pioneer

Little Richard, Little Richard best songs, Little Richard rolling stone, Little Richard greatest hits, Little Richard bio, Little Richard, Little Richard best songs, Little Richard rolling stone, Little Richard greatest hits, Little Richard bio

Revisit 20 key tracks from groundbreaking rock and R&B icon Little Richard.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

What is there left to say about Little Richard that he hasn’t already said better himself? “I am the innovator! I am the originator! I am the emancipator! I am the architect! I’m rock & roll!” he once exclaimed to an interviewer, before adding, “Now I am not saying that to be vain or conceited.” 

No, Little Richard – born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia, in 1932 – was just being honest. His influence is incalculable. The Beatles learned their ecstatic falsetto shouts from him; James Brown said he was “the first to put the funk in rhythm.” In his yearbook, Bob Dylan listed that his ambition was “to join Little Richard,” and nine-year-old David Bowie bought a saxophone hoping to do that as well. Bowie’s glam period, the prancing and strutting of Mick Jagger, the psychosexual convolutions of Prince – all are hard to imagine without Richard’s androgynous flamboyance leading the way.

Little Richard was the freakiest of all the great rock & rollers – his sexual expressiveness was untempered by Elvis Presley’s down-home charm, Chuck Berry’s sly wit, Jerry Lee Lewis’s wolfish malevolence, Buddy Holly’s pop sensibility or Fats Domino’s avuncular geniality. Richard’s feral woo conflated the spiritual and the orgasmic in a way that changed the way musicians communicated desire forever. As Jimi Hendrix put it, ‘I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Keep A-Knockin'” (1957)

John Bonham ripped off Earl Palmer's intro to "Keep A-Knockin'" for Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" – a tacit acknowledgement that this 1957 single is rock & roll. Purportedly an answer song to Smiley Lewis' laid-back 1955 shuffle "I Hear You Knockin'," "Keep A-Knockin'" is nothing but noise. After Palmer backs into a hard-driving shuffle, Little Richard yells for his guest to just go away, and after that, it's a competition between Richard and his saxophonist to make the loudest racket. Rock & roll never sounded louder, better or more pure than this.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Good Golly, Miss Molly” (1958)

Illustrating T.S. Eliot's maxim that mature artists steal rather than imitate, Little Richard lifted a catchphrase that a Southern DJ named Jimmy Pennick used to exclaim for his song title, and nicked Ike Turner's piano intro from Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." "I always liked that record," Richard recalled, "and I used to use the riff in my act, so when we were looking for a lead-in to 'Good Golly, Miss Molly,' I did that and it fit." But of course, "Good Golly, Miss Molly" never sounds like anything less than Little Richard, his voice pushing dangerously into the red on each line, and each time he exclaims the title you'd think he just thought it up on the spot.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Ooh! My Soul” (1958)

"Elvis may be the King of Rock & Roll," Little Richard once declared. "But I am the Queen." He could be cagey or frank about his sexuality, sometimes in the same breath – "I believe I was the founder of gay," he once told John Waters, while admitting nothing. But from his towering, sculpted pompadour and fluttering mascara-enhanced peepers to his orgasmic whoops and un-macho physical exuberance, Richard was an unmistakable pioneer of rock & roll androgyny, and "Ooh! My Soul" may be his most flirtatiously gender-bent frolic on wax. He barrels through the verses like a hot-dogging star running-back, then cutely squeals the title like a coquettish cheerleader. "Ooh! My Soul" is the sound of Little Richard seducing himself, its post-climactic giggle confirming that he finds his own charms irresistible.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Kansas City”/”Hey Hey Hey Hey” (1959)

Little Richard cut two versions of the Lieber/Stoller classic in 1955. The conventional first take tracks closely to the original Little Willie Littlefield recording, but on the latter he stamps the song with his personality, breaking into a shout of "hey hey hey hey" that's echoed by an enthusiastic chorus. Before the second take was released in 1959 (around the same time Wilbert Harrison scored a hit with his own coolly strolling version), Richard would record a song called "Hey Hey Hey Hey," about "goin' back to Birmingham," with the same introductory seven-note guitar lick and drum roll as "Kansas City." And that's how Little Richard not only made "Kansas City" into a Little Richard song, but collected royalties from the Beatles when they covered it.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (1959)

In 1956, Fats Domino started to have hits with revivals of old popular tunes, taking the 1940 song "Blueberry Hill" toward the top of the R&B and pop charts. Little Richard followed his lead in 1959, reaching back 50 years for the Tin Pin Alley chestnut "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." It's a limber, nimble thing, goosed along by honking horns and propelled by an insistent shuffle. As fun as the rhythm is, the single is all about the singing. Grinning and mincing, Richard walks right along the edge of camp: He's not sending up a beloved chestnut, but he is giving it a sly wink.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Bama Lama Bama Loo” (1964)

"Bama Lama Bama Loo" is the first of Little Richard's attempts to get back to where he once belonged. After a spell hopping between labels in the early Sixties, he returned to Specialty in 1964 and released this bit of raving nonsense. With its gibberish and screams, the song was clearly intended to evoke "Tutti Frutti" and it misses that mark because he's a little bit older and a little less wild. Canny guy that he is, Richard turns aging into an asset, letting the rhythms slow slightly so they settle into a thick shuffle that grooves.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me” (1965)

It didn't cross over to the pop charts, but "I Don't Know What You've Got but It's Got Me" became Little Richard's last major R&B hit in late 1965 – and fittingly, the song's sensibilities belong to Sixties soul, not Fifties R&B. A church-y slow-burner so languid it was split in two for its single release, "I Don't Know" finds Little Richard tackling the deep soul emanating from such Southern outposts as Stax/Volt. Not surprisingly, this earthy milieu brings out the best in Richard. He connects to his gospel roots in a way he never quite did on his seminal Specialty sides, proving that he could testify with powerful passion.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“I Need Love” (1967)

Little Richard was pretty much exiled during his mid-Sixties stint at Okeh, attempting to navigate the shifting tides of soul. He eked out a meager hit with "Poor Dog (Who Can't Wag His Own Tail)" but much better was the electrifying "I Need Love." It went nowhere, failing even to crack the R&B charts, but the seven-inch finds Richard riding an uptempo Southern soul groove in the vein of Otis Redding. He makes this splashy sound his own, giving it a snazzy showbiz spin as he modulates his delivery, building to choruses so explosive they're cathartic.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Freedom Blues” (1970)

Like many old-time rock & rollers, Little Richard was given an opportunity to connect to a new audience at the turn of the Seventies. When he signed to Reprise in 1970, he declined to revive the spirit of his old hits – a temptation Fats Domino did not resist – and dove headfirst into the thick, funky mess of the era. Deeply Southern in its groove, "Freedom Blues" is part civil-rights rallying cry, part paisley-colored sign of the times. What's striking isn't simply Richard's impassioned performance, but how he marshaled counterculture signifiers into a single that still packs a wallop.

Show Comments