Music

Little Richard Changed Everything

He not only embodied rock ’n’ roll, he transformed it, along with the rest of popular music.

He looks up, full of the glory of god, in shiny multicolored sequins
Little Richard died Saturday at 87.
Robbie Drexhage via Wikimedia Commons

Little Richard was a meteor in American culture, an artist who exploded into the collective consciousness and brought the future with him all at once. Little Richard was fond of describing himself as the “architect” of rock ’n’ roll, and no other artist of his era—not Chuck Berry, not Buddy Holly, not Fats Domino and not even Elvis—so wholly embodied the most intangible and intoxicating qualities of the music, that place where rhythm and harmony became indistinguishable from rebellion and sex, and vice versa. His importance is immeasurable, as both a staggeringly brilliant musician and as a cultural upheaval in human form.

Little Richard was born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, less than a month after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. His early life reads like something out of a lost Toni Morrison novel: the third of 12 children, his father was a fiercely religious church deacon who also sold bootlegged moonshine and owned a bar called the “Tip In Inn.” His mother had wanted to name him “Ricardo” but a mistake on his birth certificate led to “Richard,” the first and only time that anything in Little Richard’s life erred on the side of convention. As a child one of his legs was slightly longer than the other, resulting in a slight limp that his schoolmates mocked for being effeminate. He was addicted to music, soaking up as much as he could, at local churches and also at the Macon City Auditorium, where he worked as a teenager. It was at this venue that he received his first big “break” when, at 14, he was invited to open for Sister Rosetta Tharpe after she’d heard him singing her songs before a performance there. At age 16 he left home acrimoniously—his family disapproved of both his music and his increasingly capacious sexuality—and joined Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. Suffice it to say, this is a hell of an origin story.

It was during his time on the road that Little Richard first crossed paths with Eskew Reeder, Jr., better known as Esquerita, a South Carolinian pianist and singer whose flamboyant performance style would have an enormous influence on his own. Throughout the early 1950s, Little Richard bounced around. He was briefly signed to RCA, then recorded a handful of sides for Peacock. By the time he sent a demo tape to Specialty Records in early 1955, he was only 22 but already a music industry veteran, and something of a desperate one. Later that year, Specialty decided to roll the dice and bought him out of his Peacock contract. His first Specialty single, “Tutti Frutti,” came out in the fall and was a smash, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart and crossing over to Pop as well.*

At the time of its release, “Tutti Frutti” was the greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever made, even though Little Richard would soon make a number of others that were even better. Even at 65 years old, it is brash and thrilling and astonishingly alive. Whether you’re listening to it on a vinyl 45 or on Spotify, it jumps out of the speakers and right into the room with you. One of Little Richard’s greatest gifts was his ability to make music that sounded spontaneous that was in fact extraordinarily polished. His vocal on “Tutti Frutti” is unbelievably well-controlled, all the way down to his microphone technique. It’s the sound of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing—to his record, to his career, and to music itself.

The implications of Little Richard’s emergence into stardom were enormous. For starters, his success helped convince his Specialty label-mate, the gospel superstar Sam Cook, to take a shot at recording pop material, tacking an E onto his last name along the way. (The fact that Specialty recorded Cooke’s Soul Stirrers output and Little Richard’s in the same decade—two of the greatest runs of singles in the history of recorded music—is absolutely incredible, and in an interesting reverse trajectory, Cooke later left Specialty to sign with Little Richard’s old label, RCA, which was by then also the home of Elvis Presley.)

But more than that, Little Richard brought an uncompromised strand of black Southern music, the sound of the Chitlin’ Circuit itself, into the lives of teenagers around the globe, an irrevocable development whose impact cannot be overstated. This would become even more pronounced on the singles that followed “Tutti Frutti,” which almost sounds demure next to records like “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and a Slidin’,” “Lucille,” or “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” the last of which was released by Specialty in 1958 after Little Richard had quit secular music. It’s easy to say that without Little Richard there’s no Beatles, no Hendrix (who actually briefly played in Richard’s band in the mid-1960s), no Rolling Stones—and there absolutely isn’t—but that also kind of undersells him. It is simply impossible to imagine popular music in any form post-1955 without Little Richard in it.

At the time, of course, he was neither widely thanked nor properly rewarded for this. The notorious “Help Save the Youth of America” flyers circulated by Klan-adjacent “Citizens’ Councils” throughout the South in the early years of rock ’n’ roll didn’t mention Little Richard by name but they might as well have, and Little Richard saw his own radio play and record sales suffer from bowdlerized white covers of his work from the likes of Pat Boone, who had a bigger hit with “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard did. I’ve often found myself wondering how things might have been different if Little Richard didn’t take his abrupt hiatus from secular music from 1957 to 1962, but this, too, is impossible to know, and almost makes that 1955-57 period all the more special. It’s all right there.

Little Richard was a monster of a piano player and one of the most important singers of the 20th century, but his best music somehow exceeded the sum of those parts. One of my favorite of his recordings is “Keep a-Knockin’,” an absolutely insane piece of music that’s a little over two minutes of pure energy for energy’s sake. The lyrics are aggressively meaningless, almost taunting—if you’re in this for the words, then fuck off. The vocal is growling and shrieking, barely containable, full of melismatic runs and the trademark falsetto “woos” that basically invented the Beatles. The recording opens with a solo drum part that Led Zeppelin would later rip off in quintessential Led Zeppelin fashion on their fourth album, at the beginning of a great song with the perfect title “Rock and Roll.” Even (especially?) on the same LP that included “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin felt the need to remind themselves that there was simply no improving on Little Richard.

With Little Richard gone, almost none of that first generation of rock ’n’ roll stars are still with us. (The most prominent exception is Jerry Lee Lewis, a man whose obituary will be a complicated undertaking, to say the least.) With each of these deaths, it feels like we’re losing part of history, and we invariably look around to see who’s left. But there is no one left to lose like Little Richard, and there never was. He was the only one we’ll ever have.

Correction, May 9: This article originally misstated that “Tutti Frutti” was on Little Richard’s original demo tape for Specialty Records.