Little Richard: an ultra-sexual force of anti-nature

He gave McCartney tips on how to scream in tune and paved the way for everyone from Otis Redding to Prince. Richard Penniman showed the world how rock’n’roll could be a manifesto for personal liberation

Little Richard’s Rip It Up entered the UK top 30, right at the bottom, in December 1956. It looked up at a chart that included Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, but was mostly filled with light opera gloop such as Malcolm Vaughan’s St Therese of the Roses, three different versions of the cod-calypso of Cindy, Oh Cindy, and toddler-friendly novelties including Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Island and Mitchell Torok’s When Mexico Gave Up the Rhumba, while the spirit of the blitz lived on with Vera Lynn’s A House With Love in It. Play any of these records either side of Rip It Up and the effects are guaranteed goosebumps, an involuntary laugh and real surprise. With the sheer volume of Richard’s raw-throated scream – ebullient, gleeful, quite filthy – the shock of the new can still be felt. Rip It Up – that title alone!

By the following March, he was a sensation in Britain, with three singles – Long Tall Sally, She’s Got It, The Girl Can’t Help It – in the top 20. The early rock’n’roll hits were all about teenage concerns: Elvis’s were about sex, Bill Haley’s were about dancing and Gene Vincent’s were about menace, and all of them dropped in fashion references. But Little Richard’s singles were unrelatable – they got by entirely on their freakish energy. Theoretically, the lyrics were about gals named Sue and Daisy, but something else was going on. Long Tall Sally was an almost monotone roar from the off, Richard’s voice a Martian wail, and references to bald-headed Sally, Uncle John, and sneaking in and out of alleys weren’t obvious Friday night knee-trembler material. Little Richard’s music was omnisexual and alien. It broke down barriers that Britain’s teenagers didn’t even know existed.

Of course, Richard Penniman’s sonic impact was only part of his outrageous long-term cultural impact. An erotic wild man, a drag queen, with a pencil moustache and pancake makeup, he had no predecessors; no one was about to confuse him with Dickie Valentine. Think how far beyond description Prince and Bowie seemed at their point of breakthrough, then think how Richard Penniman was doing much the same – and with greater extravagance – two to three decades earlier.

James Brown adored Little Richard, mimicked his scream and his rhythmic whoops, although Richard would be the first to defer to Brown’s dancing prowess. The sound and style of Otis Redding – the second most famous son of Macon, Georgia – owed Richard everything. Later, there would be Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins, Janelle Monáe. Beyond that, Slade’s breakthrough hit, Get Down and Get With It, was a cover of Richard’s UK-recorded 1967 single Get Down With It, and Noddy Holder’s voice was a direct descendant. Led Zeppelin took the thundering drum intro to Rock and Roll from Richard’s Keep A-Knockin’. Elton John was a shy member of Bluesology when they supported Richard at London’s Saville theatre in 1967 and saw the excitement generated by a peacock-plumaged star standing on top of a piano. When the Beatles supported Richard at the Tower Ballroom in the Merseyside resort of New Brighton in October 1962, he reportedly gave Paul McCartney tips on how to scream in tune; his advice would be put to good use on I’m Down, Hey Jude, Maybe I’m Amazed and other raucous Macca moments.

The most remarkable thing about his influence is that Richard’s time in the sun was so brief. After two years of raucous singles on the Specialty label, he released his first album, Here’s Little Richard, in May 1957. That October, he announced his retirement from show business. Pop lost him to the church, and his records for the next five years were gospel – and dreary gospel at that. All momentum was lost, and he spent the rest of his career playing catch-up.

You almost never hear them, but Little Richard did make good records – and some great records – after the 1950s. We can thank the impresario Don Arden for bringing him back into the fold.

When Arden arranged for Richard to tour Britain in 1962, he was reportedly unaware that he was booking a gospel show. Richard appeared in an ecclesiastical cloak, accompanied by Billy Preston on church organ. Fortunately for Arden, the support act, Sam Cooke, drove the audience wild; Richard’s competitive spirit overcame his godliness, and compelled him to play his hits so as not to be outshone. The gospel set lasted for all of one show. By 1964, Richard was back in the UK top 20 with Bama Lama Bama Loo, an obvious nod to his 50s hits, but strong enough to be a springboard for his comeback. He would remain a huge draw in concert, but there would be no more British hits, and Richard’s subsequent recording career is hard to follow.

With judicious editing, you can avoid the re-recordings and budget compilations and realise that his discography didn’t have to be so random and messy. As early as 1962, immediately after the Don Arden shows, he cut six secular sides under the group pseudonym the World Famous Upsetters so he wouldn’t compromise his position in the church. One single emerged: a tough update of Fats Domino’s I’m in Love Again, backed by an intense and beautiful Every Night About This Time, which matched his very best 50s sides but was barely heard.

The mid-60s soul era suited Richard’s powerful voice to a T. One of his finest recordings was 1966’s Dance A Go-Go (aka Dancing All Around the World). It matched the supercharged clanking backbeat of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Going to a Go-Go to one of Richard’s most ebullient vocals – he sounds like the happiest man alive. The song was only pressed as the B-side on promo copies of his deep soul ballad hit, Don Covay’s I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me). Almost no one heard it until the song turned up on compilations in the 70s. What a terrible waste.

The fault for these missteps may well lie with Richard himself. Take the song I Don’t Want To Discuss It – it has tricksy funk drumming allied with a flat-out northern beat, with Richard relatively restrained, but it works perfectly. Unfortunately, he hated it, and said he wanted to throw every brass instrument in the world – presumably with the exception of his signature honking sax – off a cliff. Give the people what they want: another cover album of 50s hits. Why need he bother with anything else? He was the King of Rock’n’Roll. Every so often, he’d feel the crown slip and make a little more noise.

There were two other lads on the comeback trail in the late 60s making the same claim. The trio may have been rival contenders for the title, but the mutual respect between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard was there on record – Elvis covered Richard (Rip It Up), Jerry Lee covered Richard (Jenny Jenny), and Richard covered Jerry Lee (Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On). The winner of this three-way tie was probably the singer who had never made the claim but simply let the public, and his record label, put the epithet out: Elvis became the King, no rock’n’roll qualifier needed.

Unlike Lewis and Richard, Elvis’s career sustained through the 60s. Even when he was cutting stinky soundtrack records, there was some sense of progress from his 50s recordings and his humility would pay dividends on the 1968 Singer Presents Elvis television comeback special, which gave his career a huge boost. Richard’s career, meanwhile, felt like a neverending succession of comebacks.

Why was this? One reason was that he had alienated a large part of his potential audience by refusing to play any kind of black awareness events. In any case, his existing audience was primarily white. Richard was never seen as a totem of the black community in the way that Joe Tex or James Brown were. Black radio stations tended to avoid him. Another reason was that he never stuck with a record label long enough for them to build a head of steam: in the 60s alone he recorded for End, Mercury, Atlantic, Specialty (a second stint with the label that broke him), Vee-Jay, Modern, Okeh, Brunswick and Reprise, where he settled for a record-breaking four years.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t opportunities for Richard to make it back to the top. At a festival in Toronto in 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono insisted on headlining, coming on after Little Richard, with the gall to include some of his songs in their set. Bumps Blackwell, who had produced those breakthrough singles for Richard in 1955, thought they were “rude”. A riled Richard played an electrifying set. This followed fast on the heels of another festival in Atlantic City, at which he had upstaged Janis Joplin. Suddenly, with a return to rock roots pervading the charts – Creedence Clearwater Revival at one end of the spectrum, Sha Na Na at the other – Richard was in demand again.

He still looked the part, too. People came expecting a wheezing man, someone as armchair-bound as Fats Domino, but he was as energetic and thrilling as he had been a dozen years earlier. Mo Ostin at Reprise signed him on the back of the Toronto show, and he quickly had an album (The Rill Thing) and a catchy new single (Freedom Blues) in the US charts.

Richard went on to cut four albums for Reprise in the early 70s, a period of brief stability. For once, however – and this is surprising, given that they were at heart a supportive and understanding label – he had genuine cause to feel a grievance with the record company. Reprise gave him material by writers who had clearly been inspired by him (I Saw Her Standing There, Brown Sugar, Born on the Bayou), but it felt like an odd form of cap-doffing that often made for an unsatisfying end product. (Similarly, Reprise got Fats Domino to record Lady Madonna in 1968, a tribute to a tribute). Freedom Blues turned out to be another false dawn.

Richard’s biggest problems in the 1970s weren’t record companies, but his drink and drug habits, which he later estimated cost him $1,000 a day. Larry Williams had begun in 1957 as a substitute Little Richard on Specialty with hits like Short Fat Fannie and Bony Moronie, before he turned provider – he wrote and produced Richard’s terrific 1967 single I Need Love, with Commandments of Love on the flipside. By the 70s he was one of Richard’s drug dealers, and allegedly called in a debt with a gun pointed at his mentor’s head. While later laughing and claiming Williams loved him dearly, Richard was also certain Williams would have shot him if he hadn’t stumped up the money on the spot. That was one of several dreadful episodes to befall the singer in 1977 – the murders of two close friends, the accidental shooting death of his nephew and his brother’s fatal heart attack – that sent him back into the arms of the church. Most likely, he’d have died the same year had he not changed his ways.

To all intents and purposes, this was the end of Little Richard’s career. Everything from this point on was built on the existing Richard persona, and that all too brief run of 50s hits. He would make regular appearances on stage and on chatshows, and would occasionally guest on the unlikeliest record. In 1990, Living Colour’s Elvis Is Dead saw him briefly and thrillingly try his hand at rap: “To all you pimps making money on his name … don’t you feel ashamed? Be my guest and let him rest!”. He had nothing left to prove, after all. He had done more to break down racial and sexual barriers than almost any artist in the 20th century, and his greatest recordings are imperishable. We were lucky to have him, and he knew it. He was the beautiful Little Richard from Macon, Georgia, an ultra-sexual force of anti-nature, the king of rock’n’roll.


Bob Stanley

The GuardianTramp

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