Reverend Richard Wayne Penniman (December 5, 1932 – ), better known by the stage name Little Richard, is an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. A key figure in the transition from rhythm & blues to rock and roll in the 1950s, Penniman’s legacy rests on a string of groundbreaking hit singles from 1955 through 1957, such as “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Long Tall Sally,” which helped lay the foundations of rock and roll and later influenced generations of later artists.
Little Richard’s early work was a mix of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, and gospel music, with a heavily accentuated back-beat, saxophone accompaniment, and raspy, shouted vocals, moans, screams, and other emotive inflections that marked a kind of music not previously heard by mainstream audiences. In 1957, while at the height of his stardom, he became a born-again Christian and withdrew from recording and performing secular music. Citing a calling to be an evangelist, attended Bible college and was ordained as a Seventh Day Adventist minister in 1958. He has since devoted large segments of his life to his ministry, but has also often performed in rock revival shows, films, commercials, and documentaries on the history of rock and roll.
Little Richard was honored as one of the first seven inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was one of only four of these honorees (along with Ray Charles, James Brown, and Fats Domino) to also receive the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award.
Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, the son of Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Penniman, a bootlegger. Despite his father’s occupation, the family was a religious one. Growing up amid poverty and racism, singing was an important part of his early life that, according to Richard, brought him and his family closer to God. The family formed a gospel group called the Penniman Singers that sang in local churches and entered contests with other singing families. Richard’s siblings nicknamed him “War Hawk” because of his loud, screaming-style singing voice.
Richard regularly attended the New Hope Baptist Church in Macon, where his mother was a member. However, of all the churches he frequented, Richard’s favorites were the Pentecostal churches because of the music and excitement he and his friends experienced doing the “holy dance” and speaking in tongues with members of the congregation. People sometimes testified to the young Richard’s gift of healing when ministered to them while singing.
Deeply influenced by the gospel artists of the 1930s and 40s, Richard cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe as his favorite singer when he was a child. In 1945, after hearing him sing before a concert, she invited him to sing a song with her onstage at the Macon City Auditorium. He was also strongly influenced by Marion Williams, from whom he got his trademark shout of “who-o-o-o,” inserted in his vocals. His appearance (hair, clothing, shoes, makeup, and so on) and sound were also reportedly influenced by the blues shouter Billy Wright. Another influence was powerful gospel vocalist Brother Joe May, known as the “Thunderbolt.”
Penniman’s piano-playing was partly inherited from pianist Eskew Reeder Jr., better known as Esquerita, who demonstrated to Richard how to emphasize high notes without compromising the driving boogie bass line that would also characterize Penniman’s playing. Penniman explained, “I used to get in a room and try to make my piano sound just like him. He had so much energy.”
Richard also learned to mix ministerial qualities with theatrics by watching the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon. In these shows, colorful lead performers would often wear lavish capes, robes, or turbans.
In 1951, Penniman won a talent show in Atlanta, which resulted in a recording contract with RCA that produced no notable successes. In 1952, Richard’s father was murdered, after which he returned to Macon and performed blues and boogie-woogie music at the local Tick Tock Club in the evenings. He went on to record for Peacock Records in Houston from 1951 to 1955. In early 1955, he recorded his last two singles for Peacock backed by the Johnny Otis Trio. These records sold poorly, however, and Penniman had little success until he sent a demo tape to Specialty Records on February 17, 1955.
Specialty’s owner, Art Rupe, purchased Richard’s contract from Peacock and connected him to A&R man Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell, who had nurtured Ray Charles and Quincy Jones at the start of their careers, intended to have Richard compete against Ray Charles and B.B. King by having him record blues tracks. During a break in a recording session in New Orleans in the late summer of 1955, however, Penniman began singing an impromptu recital of “Tutti Frutti,” in his shouted vocal style, while pounding out a boogie-woogie rhythm on the piano. Blackwell, who knew a hit when he heard one, had Richard record the song, after toning down its suggestive lyrics. The song was released in late 1955, and became the first of Little Richard’s many hits.
A rapid succession of hit songs soon followed, characterized by Richard’s intense vocals and driving piano, funky saxophone-section arrangements, and Richard’s high pitched screams before sax solos. The hits included “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Keep A-Knockin’,” all of which reached high or topped on the R&B charts and also crossed over to the pop Top 40.
In the commercial fashion of the day, several of Little Richard’s early hits were re-recorded in other styles. “Tutti Frutti,” was covered by Pat Boone, whose version initially outdid the source record on the pop charts, number 12 to number 17. Boone also released a version of “Long Tall Sally.” But this time, the Little Richard original outperformed it on the Billboard charts, number six to number eight. Bill Haley covered Richard’s third major hit, “Rip It Up,” but again, Richard’s version prevailed. With the record-buying public’s preference established, Little Richard’s subsequent releases did not face the same chart competition. Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers would soon pay tribute to Richard by covering his hits on their early albums.
Suddenly, at the top of the music world, Richard Penniman’s Christian conscience began to plague him. Fearing his own damnation, he abandoned rock and roll music to pursue a calling as an evangelist. This brought an abrupt halt to the recording style that had made him famous and changed the world of music. He attended Oakwood theological college in Huntsville, Alabama where he reportedly was ordained as Seventh Day Adventist minister in 1958.
Richard recorded only gospel music from just after his spiritual conversion in 1957 until the early 1960s. He was married in 1959. During this time, he expressed the opinion that rock and roll was of the Devil and that it was not possible for him to be a rocker and please God at the same time.
1960s and 70s
By 1963, however, Richard’s attitude had changed. He toured Europe with the Beatles as his opening act and soon returned to both recording and performing secular material. He was divorced in 1964, and in that year he again toured Europe with the then-unknown Rolling Stones. In 1964, he brought a fledgling guitarist into his band then known as Maurice James. Soon to become world famous as Jimi Hendrix, he toured with Penniman and played on at least a dozen Little Richard recordings between the spring of 1964 and 1965. In the mid-60s Little Richard recorded funky soul music with Hendrix joining some sessions, along with Johnny Guitar Watson on guitar. None of these session, however, yielded major hits.
Following the death of a beloved nephew in 1977, Little Richard turned away once more from secular music and returned to evangelism. He then recorded more gospel music and remained devoted to his ministry until the mid-1980s. He also represented Memorial Bibles International and promoted the Black Heritage Bible, which highlighted the characters in the Bible thought to be Black. In sermons during this period, Richard again proclaimed that it was not possible to perform rock and roll and serve God at the same time.
In the mid-1980s, popular attention was again focused on Little Richard following the release of Charles White’s critically acclaimed authorized biography The Life and Times of Little Richard. In the book, Richard candidly explained his struggles with and repentance for substance abuse and homosexuality. At the same time, the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored Little Richard as one of its first inductees.
This renewed attention resulted in a show-business comeback for Little Richard. In 1986, he finally reconciled his role as a minister and as a rock-and-roll artist. He recorded an album of inspirational songs for Warner Brother Records that he called “messages in rhythm.” His old friend Billy Preston helped him write the soundtrack of the motion picture Down and Out in Beverly Hills in which he also co-starred. The result was the song “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” which became a hit. Richard also received critical acclaim for his acting performance in the movie.
Richard began performing his old classic rock and roll hits in the late 1980s, but continued to evangelize by performing gospel material in his rocking style. He testified to his faith both on and off-stage.
Through the remainder of the 80s, 90s, and into the twenty-first century, Little Richard has been a popular guest on television, in music videos, commercials, movies, and as a recording artist. He has contributed new recordings to movie soundtracks (Twins, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Why Do Fools Fall in Love) and wrote and performed a song for the 2001 film The Trumpet of the Swan. In 1994, he was featured on an episode of Full House titled: “Too Little Richard Too Late.” He played himself in the 1999 film, Mystery, Alaska, singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” (slowly) before a pond hockey game between the local team and the New York Rangers.
He also recorded duets in the 1990s with Jon Bon Jovi, Hank Williams Jr., Living Colour, Elton John, Tanya Tucker, Solomon Burke, and in 2006 with Jerry Lee Lewis, in which they covered the Little Richard-influenced early 1960s, hit Beatles track, “I Saw Her Standing There.”
In 2000, Robert Townsend directed a biopic about Little Ricard’s life from childhood to his early 30s (c. 1962). Leon Robinson received an Emmy Award nomination for his outstanding performance in the starring role. He has since made numerous appearances at sporting events, on television shows, and in commercials. On February 10, 2008, he performed at the 50th Grammy Awards, singing “Good Golly, Miss Molly” with Jerry Lee Lewis and John Fogerty.
Little Richard has earned wide praise from many other performers and critics alike, as one of the major founders of rock and roll. James Brown called Richard his idol and credited him with “first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.” Smokey Robinson said Penniman’s music was “the start of that driving, funky, never let up rock and roll,” while Dick Clark described his music as “the model for almost every rock and roll performer of the 1950s and years thereafter.” Ray Charles asserted that Little Richard was “the man that started a kind of music that set the pace for a lot of what’s happening today.” In his high-school yearbook, Bob Dylan declared that his ambition was “to follow Little Richard.”
Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Fogerty, Dick Dale, Bob Seger, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, and numerous other rock-and-roll icons have also cited Little Richard as being their first major influence.
Little Richard was chosen as the eighth greatest artist of all time by Rolling Stone. At least six of the seven artists that preceded him on the list were heavily influenced by his music. In 1986 he was one of the first seven inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has also received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award.