- 09 May 20
One of the greatest singers in the history of rock’n’roll and a man who had a profound influence of everyone from Bob Dylan and The Beatles to Prince and Outkast, Little Richard took music in a different direction – and ultimately changed the way we live.
Little Richard, one of the greatest of the original rock 'n' rollers, has died. He was 87 years of age.
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Little Richard's given name was Richard Wayne Penniman. One of the ultimate showmen, he was also one of the greatest singers and performers of the rock 'n' roll era. His music proved to be enormously influential.
He is best known for records that were released during the 1950s, including songs like ‘Tutti Frutti’ – which was his first hit, in October 1955 – 'Long Tall Sally’, ‘Ready Teddy’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin' On’. ‘Tutti Frutti’ began with the extraordinary, primal yell of "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom" – a rallying cry that would define the exhilaration, the joy and the carnal rush of the new music that was ready to sweep the world.
Those songs are rightly considered classics, with all of them being covered many times by other artists – including The Beatles, who recorded ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly'. Little Richard has been acknowledged as a major influence on Paul McCartney’s vocal style.
But of course Little Richard was hugely and widely influential. The wild abandonment of his style inspired successive generations of rock 'n' rollers and black artists. His debut album Here’s Little Richard is often cited among the most influential records of all time. As a performer, he was vitally important in breaking down the race and colour barriers that were enshrined in the entertainment industry in America at the time.
And his impact on musicians was immense. He opened the door for soul stars like James Brown and Otis Redding to break through, influencing Brown in particular in terms of both his vocal style and his sexual forthrightness. Bob Dylan was known to cover Little Richard songs, as did The Beatles. Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones described him as an idol. Jimi Hendrix worked with him before going solo (there were money disputes between them, but that’s a different story). Elton John, Freddie Mercury of Queen and Lou Reed all considered him an idol and a hero.
He also shaped the music of Michael Jackson and Prince enormously. Indeed, it is possible to see Prince as having been very directly in the lineage of Little Richard – not just in terms of music and showmanship, but also sexuality. And Little Richard's influence runs all the way through to artists like Outkast and Bruno Mars.
Little Richard was a complex character sexually. There were early controversies in relation to voyeuristic activities. He was arrested in 1957 for watching men and women having sex. And in 1962, he was taken in again for “spying on men" having sex. He had a girlfriend Audrey Robinson, who reportedly had sex with other men while also pleasuring Little Richard. Later, he described himself as gay, and said that he had always known that he was gay – but Audrey Robinson disputed that. He was often described as 'effeminate'. You might say that he was ahead of his time in breaking down the stereotypes, by dressing up, using make-up and generally taking on many of the activities more generally associated with women.
Into this fascinating mix, he was also a ‘born-again’ Christian – and later denounced homosexuality and transgender activity as "unnatural" and "contagious". No wonder his legacy is regarded as somewhat confusing – though anyone who is cynical about the twisted impact of religion will not find it hard to understand the logical contortions it forced on a man who also described himself – probably accurately – as ‘omnisexual’.
“He was absolutely extraordinary,” Hot Press editor Niall Stokes said. “There never had been a sound like the one that Little Richard issued at the beginning of ‘Tutti Frutti’. It is one of those moments when you can truly speak about the course of musical history changing. Into a society that was in many ways horribly straight-jacketed came this singer and performer who seemed like he was from another planet entirely. There was a primal power there that was absolutely electrifying. It was charged, raw, and magnificently sexual. It cut to the core. If you went with it, you were damned. But it was impossible for so many of us to resist. Nothing afterwards would ever be the same.
“He was also an astonishing performer. All the old assumptions about masculinity and sex fell away. He was magnificently flamboyant, and clearly gender-bending long before that term was even dreamt of. It might not have been clear which way he’d swing, but with Little Richard, sexuality was right out there, in everything he did. It was an affront to the conservative values of the time – just what a fucked-up society needed. He inspired people to let their hair down. To go wild. To think sex. To want and to need sexual pleasure and satisfaction. To say that he was inspiring is to put it mildly.
“In that sense, he was hugely important to kick-starting the modern era. Would Elvis Presley have made the crossover with black music that turned him into a superstar, if Little Richard hadn’t been like John the Baptist to him? The answer is almost certainly no. So, it doesn't require too great a leap of the imagination to say that if it hadn’t been for Little Richard, we’d likely be living in a very different, much less colourful world.”
May he rest in peace.