- Dec 05, 1932
- May 09, 2020
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I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.Paul McCartney, from Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles
Richard Wayne Penniman (December 5, 1932 – May 9, 2020), better known as Little Richard, was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. He was an influential figure in popular music and culture for seven decades. Nicknamed “The Innovator”, “The Originator”, and “The Architect of Rock and Roll”, Penniman’s most celebrated work dates from the mid-1950s, when his charismatic showmanship and dynamic music, characterized by frenetic piano playing, pounding backbeat and raspy shouted vocals, laid the foundation for rock and roll. His innovative emotive vocalizations and uptempo rhythmic music also played a key role in the formation of other popular music genres, including soul and funk. He influenced numerous singers and musicians across musical genres from rock to hip hop; his music helped shape rhythm and blues for generations to come.
“Tutti Frutti” (1955), one of Penniman’s signature songs, became an instant hit, crossing over to the pop charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom. His next hit single, “Long Tall Sally” (1956), hit No. 1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart, followed by a rapid succession of 15 more hit singles in less than three years. His performances during this period resulted in integration between White Americans and African Americans in his audience. In 1962, during a five-year period in which Penniman abandoned rock and roll music for born-again Christianity, concert promoter Don Arden persuaded him to tour Europe. During this time, Arden had the Beatles open for Penniman on some tour dates, capitalizing on his popularity. Penniman advised them on how to perform his songs and taught the band’s member Paul McCartney his distinctive vocalizations.
Penniman is cited as one of the first crossover black artists, reaching audiences of all races. His music and concerts broke the color line, drawing blacks and whites together despite attempts to sustain segregation. His contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, all recorded covers of his works. Taken by his music and style, and personally covering four of Penniman’s songs on his own two breakthrough albums in 1956, Presley told Penniman in 1969 that his music was an inspiration to him and that he was “the greatest”.
Penniman was honored by many institutions. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its first group of inductees in 1986. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 2015, Penniman received a Rhapsody & Rhythm Award from the National Museum of African American Music for his key role in the formation of popular music genres and helping to bring an end to the racial divide on the music charts and in concert in the mid-1950s, changing American culture significantly. “Tutti Frutti” was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010, which stated that his “unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music”.
[…] In 1962, concert promoter Don Arden persuaded Little Richard to tour Europe after telling him his records were still selling well there. With fellow rock singer Sam Cooke as an opening act, Penniman, who featured a teenage Billy Preston in his gospel band, figured it was a gospel tour and, after Cooke’s delayed arrival forced him to cancel his show on the opening date, performed only gospel material during the show, leading to boos from the audience expecting Penniman to sing his rock and roll hits. The following night, Penniman viewed Cooke’s well-received performance. Bringing back his competitive drive, Penniman and Preston warmed up in darkness before launching into “Long Tall Sally”, resulting in frenetic, hysterical responses from the audience. A show at Mansfield’s Granada Theatre ended early after fans rushed the stage. Hearing of Penniman’s shows, Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, asked Don Arden to allow his band to open for Penniman on some tour dates, to which he agreed. The first show for which the Beatles opened was at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom that October. The following month they, along with Swedish singer Jerry Williams and his band The Violents, opened for Penniman at the Star-Club in Hamburg. During this time, Penniman advised the group on how to perform his songs and taught Paul McCartney his distinctive vocalizations. Back in the United States, Penniman recorded six rock and roll songs with the Upsetters for Little Star Records, under the name “World Famous Upsetters”, hoping this would keep his options open in maintaining his position as a minister. […]
From ‘Tutti Frutti’ to ‘Long Tall Sally’ to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ to ‘Lucille’, Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager. I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, “I taught Paul everything he knows”. I had to admit he was right.
In the early days of The Beatles we played with Richard in Hamburg and got to know him. He would let us hang out in his dressing room and we were witness to his pre-show rituals, with his head under a towel over a bowl of steaming hot water he would suddenly lift his head up to the mirror and say, “I can’t help it cos I’m so beautiful”. And he was.
A great man with a lovely sense of humour and someone who will be missed by the rock and roll community and many more. I thank him for all he taught me and the kindness he showed by letting me be his friend. Goodbye Richard and a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop.Paul McCartney, from Facebook, May 10, 2020
Last updated on November 10, 2020
Songs written or co-written by Richard Penniman / Little Richard
Albums, EPs & Singles which Richard Penniman / Little Richard contributed to
By Various Artists • CD Single
Contribution: Performed by • 1 songs