Little Richard – The Last Original Black Symbol of the two worlds of Rock and Roll

(May 10, 2020). We may never be able to erase the images of Little Richard – the once self-proclaimed “Queen of Rock and Roll” (dubiously to Elvis’s “King”), the creator of such lyrics as “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” and titles like “Tutti Frutti” – a song whose lyrics had to be cleaned up from what their original intent suggested (think “good booty” instead of “aw rooty”).

Nor should we want to erase those images.

Little Richard, with his flamboyant personality, his unique piano pounding and his shrieking falsetto, was just as important to American music history as just about any other musician of the 20th century, and no amount of obfuscation of that history will change it.

Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, passed away Saturday, May 9, from bone cancer.  He was 87.

While most tributes will focus on his music – the many rocking hits he had between 1955 and ‘58 being chief among them – this blog will address what is perhaps his most enduring legacy: his undying quest for recognition in an industry where it often came too little, too late.  

Richard Wayne Penniman, aka “Little Richard” died May 9, 2020.

In the world of rock and roll, there are often two main prisms through which its history is viewed.

A black one and a white one (one’s sexuality might also come into play, but we’ll get to that in a moment).  

The black perspective is that our people originated rock and roll, or the jazz and blues music that inspired it, and that black musicians rarely if ever get their just due.  White artists adapted the music, took credit for it – while only acknowledging the black musicians’ influences after they’d achieved massive commercial success with it – and reaped the greatest rewards for styles they clearly copped from black musicians.

Admittedly, as a black man, it’s not fair to authoritatively articulate the white perspective, but, using the various music boards of which I’m a member as a basis, as well as the reactions of some white people when it’s suggested that artists like Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry were the true originators of rock and roll, it’s clear that there’s less appreciation for the role that those and other black musicians had in laying the foundation for the careers of  people like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and so many others down the line.

Even more telling is the reaction from some – mostly non-blacks – when an artist who doesn’t fall into the traditional definition of “rock and roll” is inducted into its hall of fame.  The most recent examples are Whitney Houston, the Notorious B.I.G. and, last year, Janet Jackson, all of whom drew disdain from rock purists who felt that these acts didn’t belong – despite R&B and hip-hop music being musical descendants of the very same blues that started rock and roll nearly seven decades ago.

Adding to this dichotomy is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself, which – for its part – usually navigates the issue of race more neutrally, while more fairly acknowledging the role that black musicians played in creating and popularizing the music, even while rock’s purist fans don’t. 

It is within this context that the RRHOF inducted its inaugural class of “Performers” in 1986; six of the ten artists were black (and all were legends): Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Little Richard.  

Little Richard was the last of those original six to leave us when he passed away Saturday.  Chuck Berry and Fats Domino both died in 2017, while Brown and Charles died in 2006 and 2004, respectively.  Cooke was killed in 1964.

Little Richard, circa 1956

The importance of Little Richard’s role in the creation of rock and roll cannot be overstated, as even rock legends like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley have attested.  Elvis reportedly once referred to Penniman as “the greatest” after acknowledging his influence during an encounter between the two in 1969.  McCartney learned his early-Beatles shouting vocalizations from Penniman while the Beatles opened for him in the early 1960s…before they blew up themselves.

And Mick Jagger, upon learning of Penniman’s death on Saturday, took to Instagram to acknowledge the man, calling him “the biggest inspiration of my early teens. . . . When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music.”

There are countless other tributes and statements of respect to Penniman from rock legends throughout history, but citing the King, the most successful member of the Fab Four, and the leader of the greatest rock band ever, are more than enough to make the point. 

Yet, for as many words as Jagger unequivocally used to sing Little Richard’s praises, they still don’t seem to do justice to the role he played in shaping rock and roll.  Nor do they convince diehard detractors who still don’t believe that Penniman’s influence on – or importance to – rock and roll was as essential as, say, Elvis Presley’s.

But that just speaks – again – to the two different prisms through which we view these things, differences that are mostly driven by race.  

Consider that, of the four white artists who were in that class of ten original RRHOF inductees, all four – Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers – recorded covers of Little Richard tunes during their rises to stardom.

Elvis notably recorded covers of four Little Richard tunes, “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip It Up,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Ready Teddy,” for his first two RCA albums in 1956.  When Presley performed “Ready Teddy” on the Ed Sullivan Show in September of that year, the episode received one of the highest TV ratings in history with an 82.6 percentage share and an audience of 60 million viewers. Elvis’s first two albums, of course, went on to sell millions of copies.

Elvis Presley covered several of Little Richard’s tunes while building his career.

Part of the lack of attribution to Little Richard was perhaps due to his own youthful ignorance at the time.  He once told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 regarding the song “Ready Teddy” the following: 

“(John Marascalco and Robert Blackwell) brought me the words and I made up the melody and at the time I didn’t have sense enough to claim so much money, because I really made them hits.  I didn’t get the money, but I still have the freedom.”

Today it is only Marascalco and Blackwell whose names appears on the writing credits for that rock and roll classic.

Presley, regarded as the King of Rock and Roll for more than six decades, was often the target of Little Richard’s ire when discussing his own fame.  Richard famously said in interviews that “if I were white, there never would have been an Elvis Presley.”

Whether one agrees or not, it’s certainly worth exploring his premise. 

Both Little Richard and Elvis experienced their peaks around the same time, with Richard’s biggest hits happening between 1955-58 and Elvis’s beginning in 1956 and carrying into the early ‘60s.  During that time, Little Richard had already bridged racial gaps and had white people listening to and buying his brand of rock and roll music, but Elvis clearly took that music to a wider audience, during a racially tense era when no black artist could have achieved the kind of success he did.

And it wasn’t for lack of trying, including by three black artists whose styles were also influenced by Little Richard.  

Godfather of Soul James Brown – the hardest working man in show business – put out hundreds of records throughout the 1960s (and into the ‘70’s) with very few getting into the pop top 20.  Brown, who once said that Little Richard was the “first to put the funk in rhythm,” never had a No. 1 pop hit during his career.

Sam Cooke, who toured with Richard in 1961, and Otis Redding, whose gruff singing style mimicked Richard’s soulful yowls, both were on the verge of superstardom when their lives were tragically cut short while they were hitting their primes.  Even if they had lived, it’s hard to imagine either of them rising above the glass ceiling that existed for black artists during the tumultuous 1960s.

Little Richard in one of his more outrageous outfits.

Little Richard was indeed his own biggest advocate as no one could sing his praises better than he did himself.  It was easy for us music fans – black and white – to discard his claims as outlandishly wild and excessive, mainly because of the brashness with which they were delivered and the androgynous package from which they came.  

For instance, white people who’d exalted Elvis and the Beatles at the expense of Little Richard often cite numbers while rendering his claims as preposterous – both in numbers of total records sold and in the higher number of artists who had claimed the Beatles or Elvis as influences.  Put simply, there was no way an artist like Little Richard could have been more influential to rock and roll than Elvis or the Beatles because he didn’t sell nearly as many records or because he only had a fraction or the artists linking their rock and roll roots to his work…circular logic when considering that this was Richard’s point: there’d be no them without him.

Or perhaps his detractors would go more technical, stating that Richard never inspired a rock artist to pick up a guitar because he didn’t play one himself, despite all the evidence that rock and roll was as much about attitude as it was about an artist’s instrument of choice.  It was also about a swinging beat – one often created, mimicked and/or punctuated by Little Richard’s pounding piano riffs – and the raw (at times sexual) energy that Little Richard brought to the stage.

These detractors’ logic was flawed but expected given the lenses through which it was presented.

Little Richard lacked support from us, too.

Less understandable was the lack of love Richard received from his own community.  We black folks were just as guilty of disowning him, for reasons that seem inane today.  We watched his antics during the 1980s and dismissed them as campy humor, with some even looking on with disdain as the rock legend piled on claim after claim of being “the innovator,” “the originator,” “the emancipator,” “the architect” – the very epitome of rock and roll itself.  

He had to renew these claims as we black Gen-Xers developed more of an interest in rock while witnessing our own newer heroes like Prince and Michael Jackson blur genre lines and explode to superstardom during the first half of the 1980s.  We were awed that they were the first black artists of our lifetimes to experience such massive crossover success while we rarely recognized the bridge-builders who came before them, Little Richard among them.

Little Richard in later years

We were even quietly liberated by the notion that MJ and Prince could express their feminine sides as we threw around the new word we’d learned – “androgynous” – in describing their make-up-enhanced looks; their long, processed hair; and their overtly sexual cavorting on stage and video (especially Prince).

Little Richard, upon witnessing this adoration of Prince and MJ, would give us the verbal smackdown we needed while reminding us that it was he, not they, who had started all of this.  With his famously high pompadour and thickly lined eyelashes in tow, he’d admonish us for thinking it was anyone but him who first brought this type of color and excitement to music and onstage.

But we still didn’t take him seriously.  His flamboyantly gay persona had clouded our view of history, or our willingness to view his part in it.  While we could accept the dubious sexuality of artists like Prince and MJ – both of whom left reasonable doubt as to whether or not they were actually gay, Little Richard was that over-the-top, self-proclaimed “Queen” who referred to himself as the “Georgia Peach,” and even “the founder of gay.”  Even as Prince flirted with the very question of his sexuality (“am I straight or gay?” in the song “Controversy”), we didn’t want someone answering the question outright in the affirmative – and with as much fervor as Richard had.

This view often played out in the general discussion of who influenced MJ and Prince more.  We would brush Richard aside as mere noise while elevating people like James Brown and Sly Stone, artists whose own brands of funk – as well as James’ outlandish stage performances – would likely not have existed were it not for Little Richard.

Little Richard was quieted somewhat in his later years, particularly after he was included among that first class of inductees into the RRHOF but possibly because of the serious health issues he faced – including a broken hip and a heart attack in 2009 and 2013, respectively.  

In some ways, the RRHOF milestone validated him and all the arguments he’d laid out during the many decades before, even if it didn’t bring Penniman all of the riches that it had brought his (white) rock and roll peers during their heyday.  

But even in his older age he found a way to make that case again, lest we all forget. 

In 2010, when Rolling Stone magazine ranked him a respectable 8th in their 100 Greatest Artists list, most of the other artists in the rankings had tributes written by their peers.  But Richard took it upon himself to write his own, stating: 

“The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me.

“I fed them, I talked to them, and they’re going to always be in front of me.”

He’s right, you know.

100 Greatest: See where Little Richard ranked in this blog’s list of the 100 Greatest Black Artists.

It’s a shame we didn’t join Richard Wayne Penniman in making his case while he was here.  Now that he’s gone – the last of the original six black inductees into rock’s hallowed halls – who’s gonna carry the torch and remind us where it all started…?

R.I.P. Little Richard (1932-2020)

DJRob 

P.s.  Of the ten original RRHOF inductees in the “performers” category, only two are still alive: Jerry Lee Lewis (84 years old), and Don Everly (of the Everly Brothers; 83).

P.s.s  Of the 233 artists inducted in the “performers” category, 81 are black artists.  Dozens more have been inducted in the categories of “Early Influences” and as “non-performers,” while others have been included for “musical excellence.”

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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2 Replies to “Little Richard – The Last Original Black Symbol of the two worlds of Rock and Roll”

  1. “And everything thereafter was an image of him” The Architect of Rock-n-Roll. Rest in Rock Little Richard!

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