If you cross New Orleans rhythm-and-blues with gospel music of the deep south and add a generous dollop of genius to leaven the mix, you might come up with the one and only Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Today he turns 75.
Richard started recording at the age of 19 for RCA. On his early sides he imitates 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 to Specialty Records and teamed with Blackwell in 1955.
The authorized biography of Richard is The Life and Times of Little Richard, by Charles White. Blackwell recalled for 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? 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. The hook from “Long Tall Sally” probably sums it up as well as anything: “Have some fun tonight.”
“Tutti Fruitti” was Little Richard’s first hit, by way of Pat Boone’s wretched million-selling version of the song for white audiences. 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 the supreme architects of rock.
White’s account of the composition of “Long Tall Sally” begins with a walk-on by an impoverished young lady from Appaloosa, Mississippi named Enortis Johnson. Johnson had walked all the way from Appaloosa to New Orleans (“a fur piece,” like Lena in Light In August) looking for Richard with three lines written on a scrap of paper (“Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally/They saw Aunt Mary comin’/So they ducked back in the alley”). Blackwell recalled Johnson’s explanation:
“Aunt Mary is sick. And I’m going to tell her about Uncle John. Cos he was out there with Long Tall Sally and I saw ’em. They saw Aunt Mary comin’ and they ducked back in the alley.”
“They did, huh?” Blackwell responded. Blackwell and Richard proceeded to supply the rest of the lyrics and the melody, and Johnson got the first of the three writer’s credits on the song. Boone successfully covered this song too, as White adds in a footnote, “managing to sound as though he is not quite sure what he is singing about.”
In 1957, Little Richard abandoned 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 substantial. Listen to the Everly Brothers bring their sound to “Lucille.” Listen to Paul McCartney cut Little Richard to shreds in the process of imitating his every lick in the Beatles’ 1964 recording of “Long Tall Sally” (the first song McCartney ever sang in public), perhaps the best 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 and enduring.