Little Richard whop-bopped America upside the head while inventing rock ‘n’ roll
From screaming vocals to uninhibited sexuality, he was the prototype for the modern music superstar
Little Richard did it first. Everything we see in modern music superstars — screaming vocals, dripping jewelry, pounding rhythms, uninhibited sexuality, extravagant hairstyles — Little Richard paved the way.
It would be easier to describe all the notes in one of his furious piano performances than to fully summarize the influence of Little Richard, who died Saturday at age 87. He was more than an inventor, pioneer, showman and musician. He called himself “the architect of rock and roll,” which was accurate but insufficient, because he also laid the foundation for artists from James Brown to Elton John to Prince to the countless rappers now named “Lil’.”
Yes, Little Richard’s greatest legacy is rock ‘n’ roll. His first hit, “Tutti Frutti” in 1955, whop-bopped America upside the head. After he moaned/screamed “Lucille,” future legends from Paul McCartney to Elvis took notes. Nobody had heard anything like his combination of boogie, gospel and jump blues, all filtered through the irrepressible soul of Richard Wayne Penniman, who grew up black, bisexual and effeminate in Jim Crow Georgia. Little Richard quickly recorded and released three chapters of the rock ‘n’ roll canon — “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” in 1956, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958 — and became the prototype for a rock star.
A remarkable thing about those records was that white fans danced to them, alongside black people. “When I was a boy, the white people would sit upstairs,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone magazine in 1990. “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 get-go, my music was accepted by whites.”
Now that rock ‘n’ roll has become a predominantly white genre, there’s a sad note to calling it Little Richard’s greatest contribution, because its creation by black artists such as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry has been obscured. Little Richard literally taught The Beatles how to play his songs when they were his opening act on a European tour in the early 1960s. Today, The Beatles’ cover of “Long Tall Sally” can pop up on a Google search before Little Richard’s, including a version that is labeled, without irony, “original.”
“Paul [McCartney] would come in, sit down and just look at me. Like he wouldn’t move his eyes,” Little Richard said in the 2003 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, by Charles White. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, Richard, you’re my idol, just let me touch you.’ He wanted to learn my little holler, so we sat at the piano going, ‘Ooooh! Ooooh’ till he got it.”
In 1990, McCartney received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. Little Richard did not get one until 1993. In McCartney’s acceptance speech, he did not mention his former idol. “I was sitting there in front of him, and he didn’t say nothing. It makes you feel like crying, you know?” Richard told Rolling Stone.
But Little Richard was not one for sorrow. He lived extravagantly, one of the first stars to embody the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle. A spiritual awakening made him renounce secular music and record gospel in the late ’50s, before returning to his classics in the early ’60s. He expressed conflicting emotions about his sexual orientation over the years as he struggled with his religious beliefs, but said in 2017, “Regardless of whatever you are, [God] loves you.”
And regardless of what music has become, Little Richard was a rock and roller. “I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor,” he said. “If there was somebody else, I didn’t know then, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day.”