Of all the outstanding rock and roll pioneers to burst onto the scene in the 1950s, we can clearly determine why Elvis Presley stands out. But in our praise of Elvis, we must not forget the many other very important people who made a significant impact and whose work continues to resonate during the next century.
As a child, Richard Penniman was nicknamed Little Richard by his family due to his small, skinny frame. Interested initially in gospel music, Richard was once forbidden from singing in church, because his voice was too loud. He left school after being kicked out of the house by his father, and started performing in small time clubs and vaudeville shows. By 1953, he recorded 8 sides for Peacock records, but his relationship with the company head was strained so he moved on.
Over the years, Richard had been fascinated by the early R&B performers, and learned to play boogie-woogie piano. He eventually composed his own songs, often after improvising them in his stage act. One song he improvised, "Tutti Fruiti" was originally "Tutti Fruiti, good booty, if I don't fit don't force it, you can grease it and make it easy." When Richard got a contract to record the song for Specialty Records, producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell hired lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie to rewrite the lyrics, leaving in Little Richard's "a wop bop a loo mop" opening, closing, and bridge.
Tutti Fruiti was recorded in three takes in September of 1955 and released on Specialty records that November. It was, and remains, one of the absolute defining songs in rock and roll, inspiring nearly every song to come after. Huey Smith's piano, the saxophone work of Lee Allen and Red Tyler, and Little Richard's wild man vocals must have been quite accosting during rock and roll's infancy. Rolling Stone has written that, "a wop bop a loo mop, a lop bop bop" continues to be one of the most inspired lyrics in any rock song. Little Richard has stated that it was simply a drumbeat he'd had in his head when improvising the song on stage.
"Tutti Fruiti" has contnued to retain its importance. The Library of Congress added the song to its registry, indicating it heralded a new era in music. In 2007, Mojo magazine listed "The Top 100 Records That Changed the World." This list was voted on by an eclectic panel, including Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, and Brian Wilson. "Tutti Fruiti" took the number one spot beating the Beatles "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (2nd) and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" (3rd). The song was extensively covered, some good (Elvis) some bad (Pat Boone's hideously sanitized version that actually sold more copies during the conservative 50s). Other hits by Little Richard followed, including "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip it Up," "Slippin and Slidin," and "Ready Teddy."
When Little Richard performed in concert, his stage act was as wild as his recordings. He would lift his leg onto the piano he was playing, climb onto the piano and jump off, and would run on and off stage while singing. The audiences would respond accordingly, being whipped into a frenzy by the music. At a 1956 Baltimore appearance, fans had to be restrained by security from jumping off the balcony.
When performing in Hamburg, Germany as the 1960s began, Little Richard had The Beatles as his opening act, and helped them with stage presence and vocalizing during this early stage of their career as a group. The group would later cover "Long Tall Sally" and Richard's explosive reworking of Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City." When Richard toured the UK in 1963, a young group called The Rolling Stones was his opening act. Returning to the states in 1964, he hired a promising young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix as part of his band. Hendrix was fired a year later for continually upstaging the singer.
During the 1960s when the performers he had inspired started taking music in another direction, Little Richard returned to gospel and joined the ministry. He made a few attempts at secular music, re-recorded some of his old hits, and continued to make concert and TV appearances throughout the 70s. During the 80s he had a minor hit with Great Gosh All Mighty" for the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and recorded a successful children's album for Disney in the 90s.
In the 2000s, long respected as rock and roll loyalty and a living legend, Richard teamed with old friend Jerry Lee Lewis on a duets album, and contributed to a Johnny Cash tribute album.
Regarding Little Richard's influence, Paul McCartney has called "Long Tall Sally" the greatest song he ever heard, while John Lennon stated that after hearing that same record, "I couldn't speak!" David Bowie stated "when I heard 'Tutti Fruiti' for the first time, I knew I heard God!" Keith Richards stated that after hearing "Tutti Fruiti" "the world changed from black and white to Technicolor." Freddy Mercury stated that Little Richard was as much the reason for him becoming a singer as Elvis. Bon Scott and Angus Young of AC/DC stated they were inspired to music after hearing Little Richard. Elton John said Little Richard's music inspired him to take up piano. The groups Deep Purple and Motorhead have cited him as an inspiration, and Bruno Mars stated that he was "channeling the greatest, Little Richard" when he did the song "Runaway Baby."
Now past 80, and despite having suffered a heart attack in September of 2013, Little Richard is still active performing live. He has no plans to retire.