Little Richard

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Born Richard Wayne Penniman to Bud and Leva Mae Penniman on 5 December,1932, this artist in the early 1950s started recording under the name Little Richard . He laid down the blue print that future stars like Elvis Presley would use to achieve stardom in the (then) new genre of music. Little Richard soon became a household word in American rock and roll.


Growing up before the US Civil Rights Movement, and before the
Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott, Macon, Georgia was a segregated society. Richard lived in a black neighbourhood and had contact with some white children but knew he could never cross the line to where they lived. As people did their work they would sing the black spirituals. His family used to go around and sing in the churches. From a young age he wanted to be a preacher.

When Little Richard started High School at Hudson High he joined the marching band playing the alto saxophone.
Richard began neglecting his studies and hanging around with travelling shows. He left home with Dr Hudson's Medicine Show. This was followed by a tour with B Brown and they toured all over Florida and Georgia. He then joined a Minstrel show Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam. This was followed by short tours To Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama with the Broadway Follies There he met Billy Wright who got him his first recording Every Hour. His father put the song on the Juke box at the Tip In Inn. A Piano player named Esquerita came to the Penniman house and taught Richard how to get the right sound out of the piano. With role models like Liberace ( who was known for his flamboyant clothing and makeup) and Esquerita who was openly gay, Richard was plagued by questions about his sexual orientation.

Tragedy Strikes

Little Richard was in the studio recording on 12 January,1952 when his father was killed. The criminal justice system in those days cared very little for the death of a black man, and although the man who shot Bud Penniman was arrested the charges were later dropped.
With his father dead, his first recording selling poorly, and his second recording not yet released, Richard was forced to get a job as a dishwasher in Macon.

About this time Richard married Earnestine Campbell, but married life didn't fit in with his chosen lifestyle, and after six years waiting for him to settle down his wife finally got a divorce.

Early Career

Little Richard put together a band called the Tempo Toppers and played as far away as New Orleans and Houston, Texas. But a dispute with their record producer soon ended that and Richard had to look for a new label and a new band.

His new band was Little Richard and the Upsetters. They would sometimes play on the outskirts of Macon for ten dollars a night and all the fried chicken they could eat.

In his personal life he did things that attracted the attention of the vice squad that charged him with 'lewd behaviour'. The lawyer his mother found got the charges dropped in exchange for his leaving town. Little Richard was no longer welcome in Macon, Georgia.

The Specialty Records Era

By 1955 he had already switched labels twice. By this time he was already setting up the blueprint for his style of music, and traveling from one gig to another; however in the early 1950s blacks were not allowed in many hotels so he would spend many a night sleeping in his Cadillac. He was performing in Tennessee when he got a call from Specialty Records. They were impressed by the demo tape he had sent and wanted to meet him at J and M Studios in New Orleans. It was under their label that he finally broke into the top ten. The session there was not going well so they took a break going to a local hot spot called the Dew Drop Inn. There on the hotel piano, he played the song that would make him famous.
His naughty lyrics included the words 'Tutti-Fruiti-good booty'
A local lyricist cleaned this up and back at the studio he used her new lyrics:
Tutti Fruiti-Aw Rootie.
She however kept the boogie woogie flavour with the opening interjection 'awop bop a loomop alop bam boom!'
Over the course of the next two years he would go on to record over 50 songs most of which rode high in American music charts but the one he usually started his concerts with was

During this time as Richard saw his records climbing the charts certain white supremacy groups and fundamental conservatives tried in vain to stop them from getting air time. They particularly made no headway in New York City where Alan Freed not only played them but also invited people like Buddy Holly or Little Richard to play live at functions there and paid them the same as he would a white person.

U- turn

In 1957 he cut short a tour of Australia. He felt that he needed to follow where God was leading him. Although raised in another religious denomination1 he converted to Seventh Day Adventism where after attending bible college he became an ordained minister. It is speculated that if he had stayed the course and left for the United States when he originally planned he may well have been a victim of a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean instead of living to do occasional concerts fifty years later.

On Tour

In October 1962 he brought his style of music to the UK and continuing on to the continent of Europe where in November of that year he shared the bill at Hamburg's Star Club with The Beatles. Sir Paul McCartney would later say:

When the Beatles were first starting we performed with Richard in Liverpool and Hamburg, and we became close friends.
John Lennon would meet Little Richard again in 1969 at the Toronto Peace Festival. During the intervening years Little Richard had been busy, churning out numerous albums and making long road trips. In his biography The Life and times of Little Richard the Quasar of Rock by Charles White he is quoted as saying:

When I retired from show business millions of fans were stunned. Now I was back, and I was a tornado, fast and round, faster than sound.
In 1968 Little Richard would play at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. This was followed by guest spots on US Television.

Someone once said: Cocaine is God's way of telling you you are making too much money2. By 1970 Little Richard had lots of both. In his biography he says:

Back on the road cocaine eased the fatigue along boring highways and gave everyone a rush of raw energy for the gig. But coke is no joke-the pleasure became the problem...

The Other Side Of The Man

In 1975 he went to Los Angeles to see his brother Tony. He was however sidetracked for a day and during this time his brother died of a heart attack. Suddenly feeling his own mortality, he once again gave up Rock and Roll for a season and did the work of an evangelist. Speaking from the pulpit, Richard would tell about the pit he had been saved from; a pit of perversion and cocaine. One person said after hearing him preach

The thing I like about Richard's ministry, is that he never pushes a person. He just shows them what God has done for him; and that is a beautiful philosophy.

He has recorded many gospel songs such as Just Came From The Fountain or the very different sounding Jesus Walked This Valley. Known as Reverend Penniman in his church, he leads music and has presided as a minister at weddings and funerals. Since the Seventh Day Advent Church worships on Saturday he has cut short other activities Friday evenings.

Later Life

In 1986 He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In February 1993 Little Richard received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 35th annual Grammy Awards.
And on March 2, 1994 Little Richard was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

At the age of 76 Little Richard was still scheduling concerts3.

1 African Methodist Episcopal. 2Robin Williams
US actor and comedian.
3 concerts on 6 June,2009, Dana Point, California;

7 Jun, 2009, New York, New York;

8 Jun, 2009, Alexandria, Virginia;

9 Jun, 2009, Annapolis, Maryland;

13,Jun, 2009, Riverbend Festival -Chattanooga, Tennessee;

12 July, 2009, Carlton, Maryland;

26 Sept. 2009, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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