Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Little Richard: The King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Richard Wayne Penniman in 1972
Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020) in 1972

We mark the death on May 9, 2020 – just two years ago today – of the American musician, singer, and songwriter Richard Wayne Penniman, known universally by his stage name of “Little Richard.” Born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he died at his home in Tullahoma, Tennessee two years ago today from bone cancer.  He was 87 years old.

As a founding inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the following statement was read aloud:

“He claims to be ‘the architect of rock and roll’, and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer—save, perhaps, Elvis Presley – Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, and Good Golly, Miss Molly defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.”

Along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley, Little Richard was one of that handful of Black American musicians who synthesized blues, rhythm and blues (or R&B), and gospel into what came to be called rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s.  Penniman put it this way in an interview with Time magazine in 2001:

“It [meaning rock ‘n’ roll] started out as rhythm and blues. There wasn’t nobody playing it at the time but black people — myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. White kids started paying more attention to this music, white girls were going over to this music, [but] they needed somebody to come in there — like Elvis.”

Yes, “like Elvis”, who hit the bigtime in 1956.  What Penniman is saying is that white audiences required a white performer to “legitimize” rock ‘n’ roll and make it part of the white, mainstream culture.  And sadly, to a degree, this is true.  But Little Richard, whose ego was ordinarily as over-the-top as his makeup and gender-bending personality – here does himself a rare disservice.  Because to no small extent, Elvis built his persona on that of Little Richard’s.  And so did almost everyone else.

Little Richard: single-handedly raising androgyny in popular music to an art form
Little Richard: single-handedly raising androgyny in popular music to an art form

No One

No one had more impact on the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene than did Richard Wayne Penniman: no one.  The androgynous flamboyance of David Bowie, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Prince?  Little Richard had been there, done that, with even greater extravagance decades before.

With his pencil moustache and pancake makeup, his gospel-strong voice and his hooting and hollering, his erotically wild, drag queen persona, Little Richard didn’t just tear down barriers; he nuked ‘em. All in all, it was no small thing for a black, openly gay man from the south to accomplish what he did in the 1950s.  His impact on the rock ‘n’ roll community was seminal. James Brown worshipped Penniman and imitated his screams and whoops.  Otis Reading (also from Macon, Georgia) and Sly Stone built their musical personas around Penniman’s.  When the Beatles met Little Richard after a performance at the Tower Ballroom in the Merseyside resort of New Brighton in October 1962, Penniman gave Paul McCartney a lesson on how to scream in tune (a lesson McCartney would put to good use on Hey Jude, Maybe I’m Amazed, and I’m Down). …

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