For those of us who think we are perennial rock n’ rollers, it is hard to believe that Little Richard, an energetic extension of Richard Wayne Penniman could become 87, let alone that he could die.
His youth seemed eternal, his infinite energy and spirit fueled by multiple generations, genders, and races seemed like it never could run out—It seemed infinite and endless. He was the wild and raw youth in all of us, a bolt of lightning that blazed a fire across the musical sky and a raucous product of the pin-stripped, cold-war driven, post-war 50s that tried to keep a safe and secure cover on a youth movement that was boiling under.
A simple announcement interrupted the homebound pandemic mask-driven 20-20s: “Little Richard, the self-proclaimed 'The Originator,' 'The Emancipator,' 'The Architect of Rock and Roll' built his ground-breaking sound with a boiling blend of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel, died last Saturday of natural causes at the age of 87.”
His music seemed super natural, it demanded attention, it pounded and raged on the keyboard strings, it palpitated the pedals of the pulsing piano, it pounded the beat into your bloodstream, your veins, and your mind until it rocked you into motion, and you could no longer ignore it. His music kept a knockin, it ripped it up, it tutti fruttied ah ruddied your soul, it long-tall Sallied and ultimately bop bop a lulahed, and jenny, jenny, jennied into your heart.
He came from the roots of gospel and other spirits--his father was a church deacon, a brick mason, who sold bootlegged moonshine on the side and owned a Macon Georgia. nightclub called the Tip In Inn--and his peak was short-lived, his transcendent spark was boldly lit in 1955 through 1957. Little Richard shouted, moaned, screamed and trilled his way through a string of hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille,” all the while pounding the piano like a man gone controllably wild, punctuating his lyrics with an occasional shrill “whoooo!” And just as quickly as he emerged, on October 12, 1957, he cut his career suddenly short, when he was performing in Australia, and saw a blaze across the sky (now known to be the Russian satellite Sputnik), and took it as a sign that he needed to return to his religious roots and become a preacher.
Time Magazine said he played “songs that sounded like nonsense … but whose beat seemed to hint of unearthly pleasures centered somewhere between the gut and the gutter.” His music drew in both young black and white fans at a time when parts of the United States still were strictly segregated. “I’ve always thought that rock ‘n’ roll brought the races together,” Richard once told an interviewer. “Although I was black, the fans didn’t care. I used to feel good about that.” When white artists like Elvis and Pat Boone tried to cover Little Richard songs, they toned it down, trying to tame the wildness of rock-and-roll, and make it “safer” for the pop audience.
He returned to rock in the 60s and Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, James Brown, Otis Redding, Elton John, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince, a galaxy of rock stars, all cited Little Richard as a major influence. Jimi Hendrix, who played in Richard’s band in the mid-1960s, said he wanted to use his guitar the way Richard used his voice. When the Beatles heard him, they wanted to open for him, and during an intermission, Little Richard taught Paul the woos, oohs and howls that showed up in “I Saw Her Standing There” and many other Beatles songs.