This piece originally appeared in Deek Magazine on September 23, 2005.
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia. The Deep South (like most of America) was a wild place in those days. Richard’s father was a preacher and a bootlegger, selling hooch and salvation as an adherent of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church — a sect of Christianity founded by a farmer named William Miller, who once wrote a book with the unwieldy title, Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843.
Richard spent his youth on the dirt street where hustlers of all types would hang out in the hot, dusty Georgia afternoons, singing to snare marks and move goods. There were old men with vegetable carts, ward heelers making the rounds, soap box preachers selling religion… people hustled whatever they had to get by.
From an early age, Little Richard was too damn wild to worry what others thought about him. His queerness made him an alien in the straight world, his blackness an alien in the white world; but he possessed a sort of trickster quality and manic exuberance that he used to raise himself above racism and poverty. And his spirit was often a strain on those close to him.
“Richard would holler all the time,” his brother remembers. “I just thought he couldn’t sing anyways, just a noise, and he would get on our nerves hollerin’ and beatin’ on tin cans and things of that nature. People around would get angry upset with him yelling and screaming. They’d shout at him, ‘shut up yo’ mouth, boy’ and he would run off laughing all over.”
Little Richard, the youthful bundle of energy, grew up fast. At fourteen he ran away from home with Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. By fifteen he had made a name for himself as a drag queen, working for Alabama’s own Sugar Foot Sam. No parent I know would want their lovely African American boy singing in blackface or prancing around in a dress with someone called Sugar Foot, but these were the options available in the south in the forties.
In 1951, at the age of eighteen, Richard won a talent contest and was signed to a four disc deal with RCA Victor. Those songs did little, some becoming local hits before disappearing from view forever. This is not to say that Richard was not a dynamic presence; when he performed, it was obvious that he possessed a measure of greatness. But he had so far been unable to transform his greatness into either Art or Money.
Four years after his “big break,” Richard was still plugging away. He was a popular musician and had plenty of work. He was a rare talent, playing to both black and white audiences. The black crowds seemed to prefer a rawer, bluesy edge to the music; the white cats didn’t mind hearing something a little more jovial. Little Richard and his full-time band, the Upsetters, could do either. But it was proving impossible to capture that energy on record.
“Bumps” Blackwell was determined to change that. As an A&R man with Specialty Records in New Orleans, he heard promise in the tapes that Little Richard had sent him. Hoping that perhaps he might have another Ray Charles on his hands, he scheduled a session for September, 1955.
Bumps booked a room in New Orleans and the backing band that Fats Domino had been using. They spent days in the studio, jamming, trying to find the right sound. Richard was a sight: face powdered, eye liner, hair piled high onto his head. Little Richard Penniman was a pretty young man, no doubt about it. But as the session wore on, Richard’s legendary anarchic performance simply could not be captured on tape. Richard was mortified when they played the performance back and he heard how polite he sounded.
At some point, on the third day of the session, the group broke for lunch. Inside New Orleans’ legendary Dew Drop Inn, Richard spotted a piano. He started pounding the keys, out of frustration more than anything. He started playing a song he had written while washing dishes at the Greyhound station in Macon, Georgia, where he worked in between tours.
And he sang: “A wop bop a loo mop a good goddam! Tutti Frutti, loose booty / if it don’t fit, don’t force it / you can grease it, make it easy.”
The lunch crowd doubled over in laughter and Bumps realized that he had a hit on his hands. The music was perfect: joyful, exuberant, rushing with the kind of manic energy that everyone who knew Richard instantly understood. The lyrics, of course, would have to go.
Little Richard wasn’t so sure, at first, but he was working for Specialty now. Bumps got a local songwriter called Dorothy LaBostrie to sanitize the lyrics and soon enough the record was bounding up the Billboard R&B chart (which had only recently been renamed from the “Race” chart) to the number two spot, and even scored number seventeen on the Billboard Pop chart. This record jump started the career of one of America ‘s most beloved entertainers.
Little Richard remembers, “We decided that my image should be crazy and way-out, so that adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England and in the other as the Pope.”
Rock historian James Miller, in his book Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, has what might be the last word on the subject: “Emboldened by the success of his recording, Richard intuitively grasped the issues at play. Being black and being gay, he was an outsider twice over. But by exaggerating his own freakishness, he could get across: he could evade the question of gender and hurdle the racial divide.”