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 noted 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 are all 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.”