Little Richard: kingmaker of rock’n’roll

Dead at 87, he lives on as the inspiration for many who followed his star.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Culture USA

From his towering hair to his almighty voice, there was nothing small about Little Richard, the rule-breaking pioneer of rock’n’roll music who has died, aged 87. Without Little Richard the world would have been a much smaller, quieter place.

Little Richard was dubbed with assorted titles in the weekend’s glowing obituaries. Steven Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who played strip-club owner Silvio in the The Sopranos, called him, ‘The man who invented rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley popularised it. Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype.’

With a justifiable lack of modesty, in his lifetime Little Richard variously described himself as the ‘king and queen of rock’n’roll’ (he self-identified as ‘omnisexual’) and its ‘architect’. With hindsight we might also see him as the kingmaker of rock’n’roll. Although Little Richard’s own career as a hit record-maker really only lasted a couple of years, his musical style and swagger would inspire and influence generations who followed, from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones through David Bowie to Prince – and just about everybody in between.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in December 1932, he grew up as one of 12 siblings in the town of Macon, Georgia, which he recalled as ‘a beautiful place’ full of ‘a lot of mud and a lot of cows and a lot of chickens and a lot of pigs’. When Richard was 19 his father, a bootlegger-turned-nightclub owner, was shot dead outside his club.

Little Richard said he always knew there must be something louder than the gospel music of his childhood – ‘and it turned out to be me’. Between 1956 and 1958 he broke through the time warp and race barrier to hurl American popular music into a new age, with a string of truly electrifying singles: ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Rip it Up’, ‘Ready Teddy’, ‘She’s Got It’, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’.

If you want to know what all the fuss is about, watch him performing those songs live on YouTube, a sound still fit to rip it up after all these years. Then think what it must have looked and sounded like more than 60 years ago. In 1970s suburban Surrey, we thought the androgynous David Bowie was like nothing we’d ever seen before. Imagine the impact the ex-drag artist Little Richard had in the 1950s, beating and kicking hell out of his piano in full mascara, pan make-up and pompadour hair-do, while shaking the foundations with the falsetto roar of his singing voice.

Charles White, author of an authorised biography, describes the explosive effect of Little Richard as being like ‘a fire blizzard across an arctic waste’. Pioneers such as him and Presley didn’t only shake up the frozen old world of popular music. (When ‘Rip it Up’ entered the UK Top 30 in December 1956, Blitz heroine Vera Lynn was still in the charts.) They also set a wild cat among the tamer pigeons of what was then passing as new, teenage music.

When the movie Rock Around the Clock arrived in Britain in 1956, starring Bill Haley and the Comets, teenagers famously rioted in cinemas. Then in 1957 came another film, The Girl Can’t Help It, which unwittingly made Haley look like the ageing, rotund rockabilly singer he was. The Girl Can’t Help It was ostensibly quite an old-fashioned musical comedy starring Jayne Mansfield, but with an ‘ironic’ subplot about teenagers liking this crazy rock’n’roll music.

Their cameo roles in that film saw Little Richard, along with remarkable teenage rocker Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino, performing ‘live’ to British youth for the first time. The effect was extraordinary. Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry recalls that Little Richard ‘hit me and the rest of my generation like a bolt of lightning’. After watching the movie in Liverpool, a 16-year-old John Lennon was jolted into making his own musical ambitions a reality.

Down the half-century that followed, you can hear the sound of Little Richard in vocals from Paul McCartney to Slade’s Noddy Holder and beyond (Jimi Hendrix said he wanted his guitar to sound like Little Richard’s voice). And you can see his spirit moving in many more, as the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Robert Plant and Patti Smith warmly acknowledged over the weekend. Dylan said that ‘his was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do’. David Bowie said much the same before his own death. Even by the mid-Seventies, on the eve of the punk-rock revolt, some of us teenagers still thought the likes of Little Richard and Eddie Cochrane were the punkest rockers around.

Little Richard never received the rewards his remarkable talent deserved. Even at his peak, racial segregation ensured that pale imitators made money by covering his songs. (If you can stand more than 20 seconds of Pat Boone’s bloodless murder of ‘Tutti Frutti’, you have a stronger stomach than mine.)

Then at the height of his short-lived success in 1957, he decided that the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite was a sign from God, gave up rock’n’roll and became a preacher. For the rest of his life he would ricochet between periods of wild indulgence in sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll comebacks, and ostentatious piety. Even after a life of such wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom, he outlived many of those young rockers whom he had inspired.

Though ‘the king and queen’ is dead, Little Richard of course lives on through his music and legacy. As 85-year old Jerry Lee Lewis, the only other man to make wild rock’n’roll with a piano, said on Saturday, ‘He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly.’ We have already been a long time waiting for another voice as big as Little Richard.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, is published by William Collins.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture USA


Highland Fleet Lute

12th May 2020 at 9:07 am

Little Richard – Ooh! My Soul 78 rpm!

Highland Fleet Lute

11th May 2020 at 9:43 pm

BTW. R.I.P. Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk

Vivian Darkbloom

11th May 2020 at 6:14 pm

Where are the rebels now? Almost all agitating for a further expansion of the lockdown. To think I grew up with a soundtrack of punk, industrial, hip-hop, rave and techno, all anti-establishment with a DIY ethos and full of characters who were for personal freedom and who mocked unearned authority. Now? Bowing down to state diktats and cowering in their homes.

Highland Fleet Lute

11th May 2020 at 9:34 pm

I’ve never understood that broad post-war arc that more-or-less runs from from Teddy Boys, through Soho modernist jazz bop, mods, rockers, beat music, Beatlemania, Swinging London, Brit-psychedelia, hippies, skinheads, suedeheads, punk rock, new romantics, 80’s club culture, the rave scene, etc, as “the counter culture”. I’ve always understood it to be The Culture.

We make the culture not the damn The House of Commons or The BBC or whoever.

Vivian Darkbloom

12th May 2020 at 1:00 am

HFL: This is so true. I’m triggered by your comment; forgive me but I’m going to rant for a while.

It’s OUR culture. We made it, we own it. It’s disconcerting to watch our culture being appropriated. We hear a lot about cultural appropriation but an unproductive class which has no culture of its own has taken something which it could not make itself and, not only stolen it, but turned it into a commodity, just another product to be played as the background of an advert or as something to add a certain ’cool’ to a consumerist lifestyle. I have to add to my initial list the other cultural movements which I also love: modernist jazz, psychedelia, classical/orchestral/chamber music or whatever it’s called nowadays. All co-opted and “owned” by a cultureless vulture class. Even folk music has suffered from this. Vashti Bunyan to sell cars; the great Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs as Sunday supplement fodder for the comfortable middle classes.

We can’t ignore the elephant; the bourgeoisie who have latched onto our culture and drained it of vitality and meaning; and I’m not even a class warrior but the evidence is clear. Most of this music was made by working class people or artisans; most musical revolutions were driven by working class artists, from JS Bach to Little Richard through to jazz and the anonymous producers of dancehall, reggae, and rave. Unable to create something of value themselves they have taken other people’s work and repurposed it as a lifestyle accessory.

Where the hell are these folk who were involved in the various cultural movements you’ve mentioned? Did they get well-fed and complacent or was it all just a pose? All those punks we looked up to when I was in my teens, shouting anti-establishment slogans and how you should just live your own life. After punk, as I got older, industrial music, funk, hip-hop, took over my LP collection. Throbbing Gristle was a major inspiration; now it’s worse than sad to view Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Twitter account. She’s cheering the lockdown, posting government propaganda, and wittering on about petunias and baking like a dim-witted Guardian columnist. I can’t imagine William Burroughs, were he still on the planet, supporting such a state clampdown and loss of freedoms. That old hippy Daevid Allen passed knowing that he had lived his own life and spread the joy and happiness that was Gong. I can’t imagine he would’ve supported this unconscionable state repression; I’d like to think he would take the piss out of it.

And then there’s the Rave generation, with which I was heavily involved in my late twenties. For sure we took too much MDMA and gave ourselves over to hedonic exploits. There’s a case to be made that we were too involved in fun and too little involved in social concerns. But at least we resisted the Puritans who told us they knew what was best for us and tried to live the lives that we wanted. I remember being at Trafalgar Square to protest the draconian Criminal Justice Act and being surrounded by politicos who had jumped on the “cause”; Socialist Workers Party activists who knew nothing about rave culture but sensed a political opportunity. I think then I realised that politics was all about the acquisition of power and if that road to power meant riding on the back of culture then I wanted nothing to do with it.

There has been a bourgeois takeover of culture and society – a gleichschaltung – and the fact that so many “rebels” have profited and joined in tells me that the “won’t get fooled again” slogans were just empty rhetoric to advance their self-interest. Once they got the nice house and the nice car and the nice acclamation from nice middle-class dilettantes and tastemakers they crumbled and bought into the value-system they pretended to oppose. All that beautiful music never really touched their souls.

Where are the rebels today? I have a horrible feeling that the post-war culture of freedom and self-expression – the plastic arts, literature, painting, cinema, music – was an ahistoric anomaly and we’re moving into a repressive and restrictive norm, same as it ever was, or even worse, cheered on by those we thought were on the side of liberty and self-determination.

And yes, R.I.P. Florian Schneider. The Beatles and Kraftwerk; the two most influential bands of post-war culture. In a perfect world my dream would be that Ralf Hütter gives stewardship of the Kraftwerk legacy and the Kling Klang studio to Derrick May. Now there’s a thought.

Highland Fleet Lute

12th May 2020 at 10:18 am

“And then there’s the Rave generation, with which I was heavily involved in my late twenties.”

Throughout much of the 80’s/90’s I used to do one, two, sometimes three clubs a night. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was something of a blow to all of that, but The Smoking Ban was an absolute masterstroke of establishment asymmetric warfare against the social infrastructure, the culture and on those who make that culture.

If you can barely scrape by, keeping a non-smoking pub open, how the hell are you going to be able to run a night club?

I look forward to seeing how social-distancing restaurants work out. If the waiters have to wear dog-muzzles, presumably the diners will too.

How are they going to eat?

Highland Fleet Lute

12th May 2020 at 10:15 am

“And then there’s the Rave generation, with which I was heavily involved in my late twenties.”

Throughout much of the 80’s/90’s I used to do one, two, sometimes three clubs a night. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was something of a blow to all of that, but The Smoking Ban was an absolute masterstroke of establishment asymmetric warfare against the social infrastructure, the culture and on those who make that culture.

If you can barely scrape by, keeping a non-smoking pub open, how the hell are you going to be able to run a night club?

I look forward to seeing how social-distancing restaurants work out. If the waiters have to wear dog-muzzles, presumably the diners will too.

How are they going to eat?

Vivian Darkbloom

12th May 2020 at 5:32 pm

Agreed. The smoking ban, if seen in retrospect, was another brick in the wall for personal freedoms and autonomy. The nudge culture and behavioural psychology theories being finessed; an intrusion of the state into private or discrete business and personal choice. I didn’t understand why a reasonable compromise couldn’t be reached; individual landlords deciding whether to ban smoking in toto or setting up specific spaces for smokers in their pubs and other premises. British pub culture has not been the same since, even though for decades there were Smoking bars within licensed premises. Restaurants as well. As you say, distancing is just not viable in a volatile business with often small profit margins.

As for club culture it’s taken a serious hit. DJs and producers thrown out of work. Houghton festival cancelled again (although a pricey event compared with those of the 1980s and ’90s).

In the blink of an eye people have switched from distrust of the authorities to unthinking compliance with “the man” they previously railed against.

Highland Fleet Lute

13th May 2020 at 6:56 am

One other brick I forgot to mention re: “the rave lockdown” was The Public Entertainments Licences Act 1997, which was introduced as a direct result of media and police hype around the death of Leah Betts. Some of the “Essex Boys” documentaries on YouTube are highly informative in that regard, esp. regarding the point: No one ever died from taking MDMA, not even Leah Betts.

Similar could probably be said about good clean tobacco….

“In the blink of an eye people have switched from distrust of the authorities to unthinking compliance with “the man” they previously railed against.”

Someone recently made the point that the so-called left, despite a lot of their apparently liberal/libertarian concerns, invariably end up making the best Nazi totalitarians because they always require the government to do something for them. To bring in this law, to bring in that law, etc, which ultimately leads to the criminalising of huge areas of everyday life.

You made the point about Cosey Fanni Tutti. Similar could said about Vivienne Westwood and her idiotic championing of NGO billionaire environmentalist rackets and Viv Albertine ending up as a mediocre Guardian feminist. John Savage a raging anti-Brexiteer, etc.

Ultimately though, left wing/right wing is neither here nor there. The more you can baby-ise the public, the more helpless and dependent on politicians they become.

The so-called left frequently use a lexicon they didn’t realise was dreamt up by right wing tory think tanks in the 1980’s, “community”, “diversity” etc, (as part of their ‘strategic’ response to the big Brixton riot), and the so-called right are perfectly happy to use any ideologically gauche trick in the book in order to maintain their schtick.

It’s all about control. It’s iike one of those McDonald’s TV commercials that eulogises “the folk life of the everyday people” on the one hand, whilst doing everything possible to stamp it out on the other.

Highland Fleet Lute

11th May 2020 at 4:26 pm

That’s one less walking quasar in the world, more’s the pity.

May you R.I.P. and reincarnate soon.

Garreth Byrne

11th May 2020 at 4:12 pm

What amazing fast piano playing, even in youtubes made up to twenty years ago! His voice + rhythm were faster than Presley and Hayley. I find his youthful visual ornamentation of self a bit over the top. He overcame some of his demons, withdrew from pure entertainment, then came back on request to show that he could still wow them. He had a heart amid the changes. Let him jive among the angelic hosts.

Rosie Maxima

11th May 2020 at 7:02 pm

Rather a lovely tribute in itself!

Linda Payne

11th May 2020 at 3:35 pm

He was very special

Glenn Bell

11th May 2020 at 2:39 pm

Little Richards music will live forever on its own merits, it doesnt need to be dissected or studied. Great music, like all great art, simply is, great artists simply are. Why do people feel the need to complicate and obfuscate beautiful things?

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 4:18 pm

If he should have no comment then why do you comment on him?

Perhaps all linear notes should be replaced with ‘Glenn Bell has spoken.’

Glenn Bell

11th May 2020 at 11:30 pm

I was actually commenting on you and your verbal diarrhoea

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 11:40 pm

Oh how articulate of you, a poo metaphor, you really must school us in elegant verbality, show us how it is done.

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 12:29 pm

Notably the ‘ars nova’ of the fourteenth c. with its isorhythmic motets, was denounced by some as ‘lascivious’, or s exual, compared to the limited ‘ars antiqua’ (as we now call the periods) rhythms of the thirteenth c., much as rock and rollers like Elvis were condemned for the ‘lascivious gesticulations’ of their music and postures. (Elvis thrusts his pelvis for dramatic effect – Pelvis Elvis? Ahahaha) Ironically rock and roll has some roots also in gospel music, and arguably as far back as the hymnody of the Puritans, just as secular music was influenced by sacred music, and vice versa, back in the Middle Ages. (‘We might as well be back in the Middle Ages’, he refrains from protesting yet again.) Arguably it was all downhill since plainsong – “organum? or gasm more like!”

> Though the style of the ars antiqua went out of fashion rather suddenly in the first two decades of the fourteenth century, it had a late defender in Jacques of Liège (alternatively known as Jacob of Liège), who wrote a violent attack on the “irreverent, and corrupt” ars nova in his Speculum Musicae (c.1320) vigorously defending the old style in a manner suggestive of any number of music critics from the Middle Ages to the present day (Jacobus 1955–73, book 7, passim). To Jacques, the ars antiqua was the musica modesta, and the ars nova was a musica lasciva—a kind of music which he considered to be excessively indulgent, capricious, immodest, and sensual (Anderson and Roesner 2001). – wiki

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 9:26 am

“‘Born Richard Wayne Penniman in December 1932, he grew up as one of 12 siblings in the town of Macon, Georgia, which he recalled as ‘a beautiful place’ full of ‘a lot of mud and a lot of cows and a lot of chickens and a lot of pigs’.'”

Titter, it reminds me of the episode of Red Dwarf where the crew gets infected by the Despair Squid and The Cat is revealed to really be Dwayne Dibley in an anorak and plastic sandles. Well LR put any such rumours to bed. IS LR a type of The Cat too?

And a type of JB, funk and 70s Afro-centrism? Certainly LR was an initial breakthrough artist, which puts him in that position.

I remember at school, reaching out to black kids by telling them that I liked LR, to be informed that he was a ‘b atty man’. How complicated it was navigating prejudice in those silly, silly days.

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 9:59 am

I am reminded also of Back to the Future, where Marty tears up the Chuck Berry song, and the roadie phones his cousin to let him hear the ‘new sound that he is looking for’. Rock n roll gets ‘invented’ by a white kid in a time loop.

And indeed, white kids had come to ‘own’ rock n roll by the 1980s, pretty much post-Hendrix, with the developments into hard rock and then metal. Black kids had largely gone down the more ‘dancey’ road of soul, funk, disco, reggae, hip hop and then house, ‘R & B’, while rock n roll had largely lost its dance.

So, yes R n R was appropriated early by whites like Presley and Berry and that would be its ultimately destiny, sine the dancey aspect.

An aside, I was surprised to speak with someone who did not know that ‘R & B’ originally meant ‘rhythm and blues like LR.’ It now means a contemporary elegant, fusion genre.

Jerry Owen

11th May 2020 at 10:06 am

More Vir
Reaching out or patronising?
The latter is more likely.

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 10:27 am

I do not think that there is anything ‘patronising’ about a kid trying to find commonality, to make connections and to expand the peer group. It is called ‘fraternising’.

I realise that you are just personal trolling, so I will desist from engaging you. I have intention of ‘getting a room’ with you. Why not engage the article instead?

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 10:33 am

* NO intention, lol

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 10:19 am

Rock and roll also had European influences like country and western, hillbilly and folk. All music is largely a fusion of various musical influences that predate it. So, to be fair to Presley and Berry, there is no such thing, in a long mixed society, as music that is purely derived from one group or another. Music is a melting pot and it ‘belongs’ to all, as does all culture.

Jim Lawrie

11th May 2020 at 10:55 am

No. Not European. English, Irish and Scottish influence.

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 11:11 am

Rock and roll as jigs and reels? The reels suggest the lead guitar part. No doubt British and Irish folk played some part but not exclusively, C & W shows German folk influences.

Mike Smith

11th May 2020 at 12:25 pm

Some black artists are now doing rock and metal now . Here is rapper Ice T
Doing Slayer

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 1:07 pm

Yep, and there was always Prince, as Mick highlighted.

Check this out, headbanging in 13 c. Amiens.

Mor Vir

11th May 2020 at 1:37 pm

Mike, wow that Ice T Body Count is like _total_ metal, stunning stuff.

Rosie Maxima

11th May 2020 at 7:11 pm

Controversial title but some valid points in its characterization of black music.

Also, this one is illuminating in the disproportionate recognition received by black artists for their musical contributions.

Highland Fleet Lute

12th May 2020 at 9:26 am

I don’t think race, gender, and all of those modern irrelevant obsessions/distractions have that much bearing on anything much.

As the Motown 45 wrapper bi-line used to say….

“It’s what’s in the groove that counts”.

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