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Little Richard [Penniman, Richard Wayne ]free

  • David Brackett

(b Macon, GA, Dec 5, 1932). American rhythm and blues singer, songwriter and pianist. His early influences were gospel music, Louis Jordan and other jump blues and urban blues artists of the late 1940s. After making several unsuccessful recordings in the early 1950s, he recorded Tutti Frutti in September 1955, which was a success in both the rhythm and blues and the pop charts. Although part of the first wave of rock and roll hits, it was far more aggressive and retained more aspects of African-American vernacular music-making than other early recordings in this style.

Tutti Frutti set the tone for the Little Richard's hits that followed between 1956 and 1958: over a fast boogie-shuffle rhythm with many stop-time breaks, he sings playful double-entendres near the top of his range in a searing timbre interspersed with trademark falsetto whoops. His piano playing derives from the boogie-woogie style, emphasizes the upbeat and features a great many glissandos. In performance, Little Richard would frequently leave the piano to dance exuberantly, occasionally on top of the instrument itself. In addition to his manic presence as singer, pianist and dancer, his visual appearance added to the sense of his outrageousness: with his large pompadour, liberal use of makeup and gaudy clothing, he raised the spectre of cross-dressing and ambiguous sexuality at a time when such issues were strictly taboo. However, it is possible that he was accepted by the white public at the time because his performance style was perceived as an updated form of minstrelsy.

After several more hits and appearances in three films, Don't Knock the Rock and The Girl Can't Help It (both 1956), and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll (1957), Richard decided abruptly to quit his career for the ministry. During this period he received a BA from Oakwood College (a bible school) in Huntsville, Alabama, was ordained a minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and recorded a gospel album that was produced by Quincy Jones. From 1963 Little Richard attempted to revive his career. Despite accolades from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (with whom he also toured Europe), and several good recordings, he did not achieve his former success. Three recordings made in the early 1970s earned critical praise and minor commercial response. Since then he has recorded intermittently, returned to preaching and appeared in films, television shows, commercials and children's videos.

Little Richard's extrovert and energetic style made him one of the most successful performers of the rock and roll era and his fervent, high-tessitura singing influenced many subsequent musicians including James Brown, Otis Redding, Paul McCartney and John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival). Always flamboyant and outspoken, his appearances continue to capture the spotlight after 40 years of performing.

Bibliography

  • L. Winner: ‘Little Richard’, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, ed. A. DeCurtis and others (New York, 1976, 3/1992), 52–9
  • C. White: The Life and Times of Little Richard (New York, 1984)