What do you get when you cross New Orleans rhythm-and-blues with gospel music of the deep south? If you add a generous dollop of genius to leaven the mix, and you don’t blow yourself up in the lab, you might be lucky enough to come up with the one and only Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Today he turns 74.
Richard started recording at the age of 19 for RCA. His early sides pay tribute to the popular rhythm-and-blues artists of the early ’50s. But through luck and good timing, based on a two-song demo tape heard by producer Bumps Blackwell, he was signed by Specialty Records and teamed with Blackwell in 1955.
Years later Blackwell recalled for Little Richard biographer Charles White that Specialty Records owner Art Rupe had ordered Blackwell to find a singer who combined the sound of blues and gospel. When he heard the tape, Blackwell said, he heard that combination, but he also heard someting more. “The voice was unmistakably star material…I could tell that the singer had something to say and could say it better than anyone I could think of.”
What did that voice have to say? Well, if you’ve ever heard the original versions of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy,” “Rip It Up,” “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey,” “Lucille,” “She’s Got It” and the other Specialty recordings he tore through between 1955 to 1957, a lot of what the voice had to say still can’t be repeated in a family publication. But the hook from “Long Tall Sally” probably sums it up as well as anything: “Have some fun tonight.”
White’s account of the composition of “Long Tall Sally” is hilarious; it begins with a walk-on by a destitute, previously unknown young lady named E. Nortis Johnson who had three lines written on a scrap of paper. Blackwell and Little Richard supplied the rest, including the remainder of the lyrics, the melody and the the hook. Johnson got the first of the three writer’s credits on the song.
“Tutti Fruitti” was Little Richard’s first hit, by way of Pat Boone’s million-selling, retch-inducing version of the song for white audiences. Little Richard himself broke through with “Long Tall Sally.” The effect was galvanizing; Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, all instantly recorded their own versions of Little Richard’s material. He is one of rock’s true originals.
In 1957, Little Richard abandoned the music for the ministry and aborted his career. In the ’60s he reentered the business only to abandon it a second time for the ministry. Each time he returned to the music as a slightly more outrageous personality than when he left it. Yet it is the Specialty Recordings of the two years from 1955 to 1957 that stand as his monument.
His musical influence is incalculable. Listen to the Everly Brothers bring their sound to “Lucille.” Listen to Paul McCartney cut Little Richard to shreds in the process of copping his every lick in the Beatles’ 1964 recording of “Long Tall Sally” (the first song McCartney ever sang in public), perhaps the finest recording ever of one of Richard’s songs. Listen to Frank Zappa, the unlikeliest of Richard imitators, adapt Richard’s genius to his own in his version of “Directly From My Heart to You.” The legacy is durable, enduring, inspirational. Have some fun tonight! (Thanks to Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard.)
UPDATE: John Spettell writes:
How could you neglect to mention the enormous influence Little Richard had on a certain rock-and-roll piano player and short-time member of Bobby Vee and The Shadows who went by the name of Elston Gunnn (formerly known as Bobby Zimmerman and later as Bob Dylan)? In fact, Little Richard so blew young Bobby Z