May 10, 2020

BEFORE THE BEATLES DEAD END (profanity alert):

Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead at 87: Pianist-singer behind "Tutti Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly," and "Long Tall Sally" set the template that a generation of musicians would follow (DAVID BROWNE, 5/09/20, Rolling Stone)

Although he never hit the Top 10 again after 1958, Little Richard's influence was massive. The Beatles recorded several of his songs, including "Long Tall Sally," and Paul McCartney's singing on those tracks - and the Beatles' own "I'm Down" - paid tribute to Little Richard's shredded-throat style. His songs became part of the rock & roll canon, covered over the decades by everyone from the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions. "Elvis popularized [rock & roll]," Steven Van Zandt tweeted after the news broke. "Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype."

Little Richard's stage persona - his pompadours, androgynous makeup, and glass-bead shirts -- also set the standard for rock & roll showmanship; Prince, to cite one obvious example, owed a sizable debt to the musician. [...]

Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5th, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he was one of 12 children and grew up around uncles who were preachers. "I was born in the slums. My daddy sold whiskey, bootleg whiskey," he told Rolling Stone in 1970. Although he sang in a nearby church, his father Bud wasn't supportive of his son's music and accused him of being gay, resulting in Penniman leaving home at 13 and moving in with a white family in Macon. But music stayed with him: One of his boyhood friends was Otis Redding, and Penniman heard R&B, blues, and country while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium.

After performing at the Tick Tock Club in Macon and winning a local talent show, Penniman landed his first record deal, with RCA, in 1951. (He became "Little Richard" when he about 15 years old, when the R&B and blues worlds were filled with acts like Little Esther and Little Milton; he had also grown tired with people mispronouncing his last name as "Penny-man.") He learned his distinctive piano style from Esquerita, a South Carolina singer and pianist who also wore his hair in a high black pompadour.

For the next five years, Little Richard's career advanced only fitfully; fairly tame, conventional singles he cut for RCA and other labels didn't chart. "When I first came along, I never heard any rock & roll," he told Rolling Stone in 1990. "When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn't like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared."

By 1956, he was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon (a job he had first taken a few years earlier, after his father was murdered and Little Richard had to support his family). By then, only one track he'd cut, "Little Richard's Boogie," hinted at the musical tornado to come. "I put that little thing in it," he told Rolling Stone in 1970 of the way he tweaked with his gospel roots. "I always did have that thing, but I didn't know what to do with the thing I had."

During this low point, he sent a tape with a rough version of a bawdy novelty song called "Tutti Frutti" to Specialty Records in Chicago. He came up with the song's famed chorus -- "a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom" -- while bored washing dishes. (He also co-wrote "Long Tall Sally" while working that same job.) 

By coincidence, label owner and producer Art Rupe was in search of a lead singer for some tracks he wanted to cut in New Orleans, and Penniman's howling delivery fit the bill. In September 1955, the musician cut a lyrically cleaned-up version of "Tutti Frutti," which became his first hit, peaking at 17 on the pop chart. "'Tutti Frutti really started the races being together," he told Rolling Stone in 1990. "From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites."

Sadly, it took nearly 15 years to get rock back on track after the originators were displaced by the boy band music of the Beatles.

Posted by at May 10, 2020 7:50 AM

  

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