“Little Richard” (1932-2020) was far more than a founding father of Rock and Roll, he was literally the “architect of Rock”. Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in the same era as the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding and James Brown. His daddy sold bootleg whisky around the area. His flamboyant style of piano playing began in the mid-50s as a blend of gospel spirituals, country and what was then Rhythm and Blues originating in the Mississippi Delta area. He was an influence for everyone from Elton John to the Beatles. Rolling Stone said Elvis popularized Rock and Roll, Chuck berry was the storyteller and Little Richard was the archetype.
Richard’s band consisted of multiple instruments, many electrified, raised the energy level of Rock several levels. Jimi Hendrix played guitar in one of Richard’s bands at age 18. James Brown is said to have sang backup briefly at a young age. Richard’s pumping piano was usually accompanied by frenetic songs with a barely hidden sexual orientation (sometimes clouded by gibberish to white audiences but understood by blacks present). The Beatles masterfully sang several of Richards songs in the same style. Several of Richard’s songs (Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti) sans the energy and spirit were notoriously covered for white audiences by Pat Boone.
If uniting black and white audiences was a point of pride for Little Richard, it was a cause of concern for others, especially in the South. Shaped by then social issues, Little Richard’s style music followed certain inevitable paths throughout the South, The tributaries that feed the “Chitlin Circuit”, an entertainment venue safe for black musicians started in Louisiana, became manifest in Mississippi through Alabama and Georgia. The path swung up through the Eastern Seaboard as far New York City, including the famous “Cotton Club” and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Paul McCartney said that the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” which he later recorded with the Beatles. Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was “to join Little Richard.”
A large number of notable performers have trod the Chitlin Circuit over the years including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix (with Little Richard), Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, The Temptations, Muddy Waters. It was considered a monster breeding ground for talent. Richard was one of the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He appeared in several period films and most of his life is too plentiful and colorful to detail here.
It’s said that talent is born, grows up, streaks across the sky, then ultimately expires. What’s left is how long and how bright. Some talent like Nick Drake and Pete Ham flash brightly but briefly. Others like Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee persist in the sky leaving a trail of devotees that carry on the glow.
There is a very complete biography by Charles White, Foreword by Paul McCartney: