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Little Richard - All about the musician: biography and facts

Little Richard has gone down in history not only as the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll," but also as a living treasure of 20th-century American and world culture....

The story of Little Richard, the great "architect of rock 'n' roll."

Little Richard is a legendary American performer and musician, an iconic pioneer of rock 'n' roll. He was one of the few artists of his era who managed to achieve such success and popularise his genre... No one could surpass his magnetism and brilliance! Gifted with an unusually powerful voice (his piercing "Oooooh!" is still one of the most eloquent shouts in American music) and an exhilarating piano style, Little Richard combined gospel, rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie in a purely electric sound! He also wowed audiences with his flamboyant clothing, outrageous stage behaviour and willingness to present a sexually ambiguous image at a time when such things were almost unknown in popular culture. It is no coincidence that his influence would be felt decades after his death.....

Little Richard was and still is the idol of such maestros as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, David Bowie and Bob Dylan... He has not lost his influence even despite the fact that he twice left the stage convinced that rock music was an offence to his Christian faith! With each new record Little Richard proved once again that his voice, passion and charisma were still in fine condition. Thus, among the strongest works of the late period is his 1986 Lifetime Friend, which gave the world the sumptuous hit "Great Gosh A'Mighty (It's a Matter of Time)"...

Early years...

Little Richard.
Little Richard.

Born into a family of 12 children, Penniman (the musician's real last name) studied gospel music in Pentecostal churches in the Deep South. As a teenager, he left home to perform rhythm and blues at medicine shows and nightclubs, where he earned the nickname "Little Richard" for his energetic stage antics. His first recordings in the early 1950s were in the soothing style of Roy Brown's Joy Blues. At that time they could not yet showcase his recognisable screaming singing, for which he would later be nicknamed "the screamer". His shrill, wheezing and thrusting voice would come to him later ....

Little Richard (real name Richard Wayne Penniman) was born in December 1932 in Macon, Georgia. The family was large and religious: his mother regularly attended a Baptist church, and his father was a deacon. Therefore, from an early age, Richard became a convinced churchgoer. His passion for music took hold of him in high school. By then, the lad knew how to play the piano and saxophone. He earned a reputation in the church for his strong high register vocals... Around the same time Richard got a part-time job selling refreshments at Macon City Auditorium, which allowed him to see his idols such as Cab Calloway and Lucky Millinder. Richard got on stage thanks to Sister Rosetta Tharpe: hearing Little sing one morning, the girl was amazed....

Start of a career

Little Richard.
Little Richard.

From the late 40s Little Richard performed travelling shows: first with Doctor Nubillo's, then with Dr Hudson's, during which he performed Louis Jordan's hit song "Caldonia" (which people of his religion considered sinful). At the start of the new decade, Richard performed in concert with Buster Brown & His Orchestra, a band whose leader gave him the nickname Little Richard. Subsequently, it tightly stuck to the performer ... During the same period Richard formed his own image: the artist began to use make-up, grew a pencil-thin moustache, and appeared in public in stylish stage costumes! All this fuelled the audience's interest in his person....

The artist's first 4 singles failed miserably... Possibly due to a lack of the trademark energy that Little Richard infected the audience with during live performances... This forced the rock'n'roll star to leave the stage and return home.

A useful acquaintance and new endeavours....

Back in Macon, Richard took a job as a dishwasher at a bus station diner. It was there that he met a musician known as Esquerita. Esquerita helped Richard: he taught the latter the strong piano percussion style that distinguished R&B from rock 'n' roll. Soon Little Richard was already performing with his new band, The Upsetters, and was spotted by Lloyd Price, a no-nonsense musician and producer. Signing a contract with Specialty Records, Richard travelled to New Orleans to record his biggest hit...

Success with Tutti Frutti!

His breakthrough came in September 1955 at a recording studio at J&M Studios in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Little Richard, backed by a solid rhythm and blues band, bellowed: "Tutti Frutti! - with his unforgettable - A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!"!

As legend has it, after an unsuccessful first session Little Richard decided to play a song he had written called "Tutti Frutti"! It is worth noting that in this composition, the artiste showed everything that Esquerita had taught him. After clearing the lyrics of obscene references to homosexuality, "Tutti Frutti" was released in October 1955!

The song became a super hit overnight! It entered the Top 30 R&B singles, but it was not a success on the radio... But how to say. It was a success, but it was performed not by Richard, but by Pat Boone. Unfortunately, radio stations found the original version of "Tutti Frutti" too noisy for airplay... However, this did not prevent the song from becoming a jewel in the repertoire of its rightful author.

Albums, singles

Jimi Hendrix performs with Little Richard
Jimi Hendrix performs with Little Richard

Over the next year and a half, he released a number of songs on the Specialty Records label that sold well among black and white audiences: "Rip It Up", "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy", "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Send Me Some Lovin'" to name a few... He was soon recognised as the number one rock and roll artist! Moving into a mansion in Los Angeles and buying a fleet of brightly coloured Cadillacs, Richard lived the good life...

"It was a golden period in my life when my records were selling all over the country and I and the band were working every night. At the peak of my career, our initial guarantee grew to 2,500 per gig, plus a 50 % fee!" - Little Richard

But all that changed in 1957: while travelling in Australia, the artist experienced the first of several apocalyptic visions that convinced him that he needed to turn away from the sinful influences of rock 'n' roll. However, at the height of his fame, he came to the conclusion that rock and roll was the work of the devil. He quit the music business, went to Bible college and became a travelling evangelist preacher. When the Beatles burst onto the music scene in 1964, they sang some of his classic songs and openly acknowledged their debt to their great mentor.

He would later return to record "Lifetime Friend" and confirm his status as a rock 'n' roll superstar... Dazzled by a phenomenal voice capable of generating wheezes, yelps and screams unprecedented in popular music, Little Richard performed hits that combined childishly funny lyrics with sexually suggestive undertones. Along with Elvis Presley's mid-1950s recordings, Little Richard's sessions from the same period marked models of singing and musicianship that still inspire rock musicians today.

Acting in films

After several years out of the public eye, Richard caused a media furore in 1985 with the publication of The Life and Times of Little Richard, Quasar of Rock. The book was a wild tale that lived up to all the legends of his onstage brilliance and behind-the-scenes decline (it also testified to his faith in more recent times), and it sold well and brought the artist back into the spotlight. Richard's appearance on a talk show promoting the book led to director Paul Mazursky casting him as a flamboyant producer in the 1986 comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills! Launching a successful second career, the rocker went on to star in film and television projects...

As his success grew, Little Richard appeared in some of the earliest rock 'n' roll films: 'Don't Knock on a Stone' and 'This Girl Can't Otherwise' - both released in 1956 - as well as 'Mr Rock 'n' Roll' (1957).

Little Richard, Mr Rock and Roll.
Little Richard, Mr Rock and Roll.

In the latter, he stands at a piano, shouting out songs with a wild "black" expression that seemed excessive in Eisenhower's early years. This impression was reinforced by his style: 15 centimetres of Pompadour hairstyle, eyeliner and copious amounts of make-up.

A new hope

Little Richard.
Little Richard.

The new wave of attention inspired Little Richard to return to the stage and the recording studio for another "shot at fame". Although the new song "Bama Lama Bama Bama Loo" (1964) evoked the fun and vitality of the mature generation, the young people buying records were not impressed. A major recording contract in the early 1970s produced three albums - "The Rill Thing", "King of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Second Coming" - collections that featured Little Richard in his thin, husky voice, somewhat out of keeping with the style and music (hard rock) of the period.

Little Richard continued to appear at concerts and festivals until 2013, the year he announced his retirement from the stage. In his increasingly infrequent television appearances, his screwball mannerisms, so threatening to his parents in the 1950s, now seemed amusing and certainly 'safe'. Surviving a career marked by an extraordinary change of course in music, managing to turn the culture, style and way of thinking of the time, Little Richard went down in history not only as the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll" but as a living treasure of 20th century American and world culture.

The last years of his life

Health problems began to affect the frequency and intensity of the artist's concerts. Little Richard struggled with sciatic nerve pain for a long time, and even underwent a hip replacement. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2013, he announced that he was retiring. He became a recluse and rarely spoke to the media, although in 2017 he gave a brief interview following the death of Chuck Berry, a man he called "one of my best friends in music." That same year saw the release of his 1957 debut album: it was a reissue accompanied by a bonus disc of demo recordings and alternate takes. On 9 May 2020, Little Richard was gone... The musician died in Tallahoma, Tennessee, after battling bone cancer. He was 87 years old at the time of his death.

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