In 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was born the third of twelve children. Living on a dirt road in a very poor section of Macon, Georgia, Little Richard's father, Charles "Bud" Penniman supported the family through his work as a Seventh Day Adventist preacher and his profits from being a part-time moonshine salesman.
Like other rock and roll stars to be, such as Elvis Presley and Willie Mae Thornton, Richard was influenced by the music of the church. A few gospel singers influenced him in particular: Marion Williams of the Clara Ward Singers, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. As a youngster, Richard sang in the church with the Penniman Singers and Tiny Tots Quartet.
Little Richard's life with his family was disrupted by his father's suspicion that Richard might be homosexual and he was forced to leave home at the age of 14. His first record contract came as a result of winning a talent contest in Atlanta that led to his signing on with the RCA Victor label in 1951. Only eighteen at the time, he recorded four albums with little success. Not having accomplished fame yet, Richard went home to Macon in the winter of 1952 after his father was murdered. He took a daytime job as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at the local Greyhound bus station and performed the blues at the Tick Tock Club in the evenings.
Also in 1952, Richard met Bill Wright, a blues singer from New Orleans who would influence him greatly. Wright's stage appearance consisted of loud, colorful attire as well as a hairstyle that was piled high upon his head and full of pomade, called a pompadour. But most of all, Little Richard was taken by the eyeliner and face powder that Wright would don for shows. Richard would later become known for his made-up and flashy appearance on stage, a look that he adopted from Wright. In many respects, Little Richard would become the most outrageous rock star of the 1950's. His concert work was characterized by unrestrained gospel like shouting, sustained and heavy piano stomping and a highly energetic and very sexy stage act.
With his RCA Victor contract expired, Richard worked with Peacock Records and produced two singles, "Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens" and "Little Richard's Boogie" in 1955 while staying in Houston, Texas. Once again, little success was had and Richard returned to Macon. Lloyd Price, the performer, was an acquaintance of Richard's and suggested that Richard send a demo tape that he had cut to Specialty Records, Price's label. Little Richard did so, but Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, took minimal interest.
Luckily, in 1955, Richard did get a recording session in New Orleans with Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios, the studio of Fats Domino. The man in charge of meeting Richard as well as recording the session was Bumps Blackwell. At first, the session did not appear to be promising when Richard was playing only slow blues. However, during a break, Bumps joined Richard at a local bar called the Dew Drop Inn, which had an old upright piano. With few customers around, Richard began playing around and singing a loud, raucous, flamboyant version of a song of questionable moral virtue, "Tutti Fruiti, Good Booty."
Upon seeing how promising this piece was, Blackwell called a local songwriter to mend the promiscuous lyrics. Bumps and Richard then hurried back to the studio with only 15 minutes left in the session and recorded a cleaned-up version of Little Richard's great hit, "Tutti Fruiti, Aw-Rootie." Thus began a recording relationship with Specialty Records that would last through October of 1957. During these years the hits were just flowing out of Little Richard. Some of the best remembered hits included "Long Tall Sally", "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Keep A Knockin'"
All of his shows were sellouts and he also got into the movies with the rock and roll film, "The Girl Can't Help It". Fats Domino also appeared in this picture, however, it was Little Richard who did the title track. He began a tour of Australia with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent in 1957 but suddenly decided to abruptly halt his rock and roll career. He performed one last session with Specialty, who would not let him out of his contract, but then enrolled in the Oakwood Seminary in Huntsville, Alabama to become a Seventh Day Adventist preacher. At this point he renounced rock & roll and his homosexuality. Richard would be gone from the music scene for several years, even though Specialty had enough material to continue to release albums for another year.
It wasn't until 1959 that Richard returned to music, this time as a gospel singer. His career in gospel was fairly fruitless and he returned again to rock and roll in 1962. He started with a tour in England and the following year completed a tour of all of Europe with the fledgling band, The Rolling Stones, as his opening act. Richard did receive attention from several record companies. Unfortunately, they were all only interested in re-releasing his old songs. The performer did sign on with specialty once again to re-master some of his old hits. In this period of five recording sessions, Jimi Hendrix played guitar for Richard.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Little Richard enjoyed more time in the spotlight with the release of "Freedom Blues", a minor hit in 1970. In 1976, he again returned to his place in the church and recorded "God's Beautiful City" for World Records in 1979.
It was not until 1986 that the public heard much from Richard. In that year, he made an appearance in the popular movie, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" that featured another hit after a 16 year dry-spell; "Great Gosh a 'Mighty."
Little Richard's most notable recent works include his version of the children's song "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" that was part of a compilation benefit children's album put out by Disney Records. He has also become rather close to some puppet friends with appearances on Sesame Street and an album spot on "Kermit Unpigged." With supermodel Cindy Crawford, Richard has starred in commercials for the fragrance "Charlie" by Revlon. Of course, the performer also had the great honor of singing at the Inaugural Party for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and he is seen regularly on the talk show circuit. His influence on rock music has been immense and the list of younger artists who Richard influenced is a long one that includes people like Jimi Hendrix and Prince.
Page author: N.G.