Little Richard Biography

Richard Wayne Penniman, 5 December 1932, Macon, Georgia, USA. The wildest and arguably the greatest and most influential of the 50s rock ‘n’ roll singers and songwriters. He first recorded in late 1951 in Atlanta for RCA Records, cutting eight urban blues tracks with his mentor Billy Wright’s Orchestra, ‘Taxi Blues’ being the first of four unsuccessful single releases on the label. He moved to Houston, Texas, in 1953, and with the Tempo Toppers (vocals) and the Duces Of Rhythm (backing), he recorded four R&B tracks including ‘Ain’t That Good News’. Eight months later he recorded another four with Johnny Otis’ Orchestra but none of these were released at the time. In February 1955, at the suggestion of Lloyd Price, he sent a demo to Specialty Records who realized his potential, and in September, under the guidance of producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell, recorded a dozen tracks in New Orleans. The classic ‘Tutti Frutti’, which was among them, gave him his first R&B and pop hit in the USA. The follow-up, ‘Long Tall Sally’, topped the R&B chart and was the first of his three US Top 10 hits, despite being covered by Pat Boone, whose previous record, a cover version of ‘Tutti Frutti’, was still charting. Richard’s string of Top 20 hits continued with the double-sider ‘Rip It Up’/‘Ready Teddy’, the former being his first UK release and chart entry in late 1956. Richard’s frantic, unrestrained performance of his first two hits, ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Tutti Frutti’, in the film Don’t Knock The Rock, undoubtedly helped to push his subsequent UK single, which coupled the tracks, into the Top 3.

Little Richard’s next film and single was The Girl Can’t Help It, the title song of which missed the US Top 40 but together with its b-side, ‘She’s Got It’ (a reworking of his earlier track ‘I Got It’), gave him two more UK Top 20 hits. The remainder of 1957 saw him notch up three more huge transatlantic hits with the rock ‘n’ roll classics ‘Lucille’, ‘Keep A Knockin’’ (he featured both in the movie Mr. Rock & Roll) and ‘Jenny Jenny’ together with a Top 20 album with Here’s Little Richard. At the very height of his career, the man with the highest pompadour in the business shocked the rock world by announcing, during an Australian tour, that he was quitting music to go into a theological college. In 1958, previously recorded material such as the transatlantic Top 10 hit ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ kept his name on the chart, and a year later he had his biggest UK hit with a 1956 recording of the oldie ‘Baby Face’, which reached number 2. Between 1958 and 1962 Richard recorded only gospel music for Gone, Mercury Records (with producer Quincy Jones) and Atlantic Records. In late 1962, Richard toured the UK for the first time and the now short-haired wild man who pounded pianos and pierced eardrums with his manic falsetto was a huge success. In 1963, he worked in Europe with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who were both great admirers of his music.

Little Richard’s first rock recordings in the 60s were made back at Specialty and resulted in the UK Top 20 hit ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo’. In 1964, he signed with Vee Jay Records where he re-recorded all his hits, revived a few oldies and cut some new rockers - but the sales were unimpressive. In the mid-60s, soul music was taking hold worldwide and Richard’s soulful Vee Jay tracks, ‘I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me’ (which featured Jimi Hendrix on guitar) and ‘Without Love’, although not pop hits, were among the best recordings of the genre. For the rest of the 60s he continued to draw the crowds, singing his old hits, and in the studios he mixed 50s rock and 60s soul for Modern Records in 1965, OKeh Records a year later and Brunswick Records in 1967. The best of these were his OKeh tracks, which included ‘Poor Dog’, ‘Hurry Sundown’ and the UK-recorded ‘Get Down With It’ (which gave Slade their first hit in the 70s).

Little Richard joined Reprise Records in 1970. The label tried very hard to return him to the top, and under the expertise of producer Richard Perry he managed minor US hits ‘Freedom Blues’ and ‘Greenwood, Mississippi’, but his three albums (including the excellent The Rill Thing) sold poorly. The rest of the 70s was spent jumping from label to label, recording in supergroup-type projects and playing oldies shows. When he desired, he could still ‘out-rock’ anyone, but there was often too much Las Vegas glitter, excessive posturing and an element of self-parody. In 1976, he rejoined the church and for the next decade preached throughout America. In 1986, Richard was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and he successfully acted in the movie Down And Out In Beverly Hills, which included the rocking ‘Great Gosh A’Mighty’, which narrowly missed the US Top 40. Renewed interest spurred WEA Records to sign him and release Lifetime Friend, which included the chart record ‘Operator’.

Since the mid-80s Little Richard has become a frequent visitor on chat shows and music awards, an in-demand guest on other artist’s records and a familiar face in videos (by acts ranging from Hank Williams Jnr. to Living Colour to Cinderella). He even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a boulevard named after him in his home town. The leader of rebellious 50s rock ‘n’ roll, and the man who shook up the music business and the parents of the period, is now seen as a tamer yet much-loved personality, accepted by all age groups.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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