There never had been, and never again will be, anyone like Little Richard. While every member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s maiden class deserves a wing of that building to himself, no one dared challenge Little Richard when he consistently anointed himself “The Architect of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Others (Jerry Lee Lewis) may have lived more scandalous lifestyles (although Richard surely had his moments). Yet others (Elvis) exhibited plenty of stylistic flair. All of them (Fats, Chuck, Buddy, Ray) bulged with talent. But no one so wholly personified the cultural explosion that was rock ’n’ roll music as Richard Penniman.
Tributes from fellow artists spanning musical eras and genres poured in following the announcement of Little Richard’s death on May 9, of cancer, at age 87. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page recalled seeing Richard perform once in Miami (“and boy were they good”). Chance the Rapper tweeted of recently learning of Richard’s influence on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Little Steven Van Zandt credited him with nothing less than inventing rock ’n’ roll.
Little Richard, with his mile-high bouffant, pencil-thin mustache and bedroom eyes, was a sight to behold. To be sure, his early film and TV appearances — his over-the-top androgyny on full display, at a time when such grandiosity was deemed cute for a white performer (Liberace, anyone?) but threatening from an African-American — undeniably got him attention.
But it wasn’t mere flamboyance and cheek that put Little Richard on the map. Above all, it was the music. Here are five of Little Richard’s greatest hits, each one a cornerstone in and of itself.
The impact of “Tutti-Frutti” in late 1955-early ’56 was nothing short of seismic. With the arrival of Elvis on the national stage still a few months away, Little Richard’s clarion call — “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” — let it be known that this new music some were calling rock ’n’ roll was not for the timid. As originally written by Richard, it was too raw for radio (“tutti frutti, good booty” wasn’t going to cut it), so Specialty Records label owner Art Rupe hired a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to tame it (“tutti frutti, aw-rooty”). With Richard accompanying himself on piano and a quartet of New Orleans session greats kicking it into gear, “Tutti-Frutti” became the singer’s first hit, launching a storied career.
As manic as “Tutti-Frutti” was, Richard and producer/co-writer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell wanted the followup to be even wilder. They started with a snippet of lyric that had been presented to them by a little girl — “I saw uncle John with long tall Sally/He saw aunt Mary comin’ and he ducked back in the alley” — sprinkled some double entendre in with the otherwise innocuous words and set Richard loose to shout it out. If you’ve only heard the Beatles’ admirable, faithful cover, you owe it to yourself to check out the Penniman original, with its gutsy R&B heart and some of the best “woo”-ing in all of rock ’n’ roll.
It’s a universal truth: You’re young, you’re flush, the weekend is here, you’re on the prowl, you’re gonna party. Little Richard’s third Top 20 hit of 1956 was only slightly less frenzied than its predecessor, more than a tad funkier (drummer Earl Palmer sets the galloping pace on this one) and just as much fun. Covered by a slew of contemporaries, from Elvis to Chuck Berry to Buddy Holly, “Rip It Up” is a celebration of glorious irresponsibility (“Well it's Saturday night and I just got paid/Fool about my money, don’t try to save/My heart say go, go, have a time/’Cause Saturday night, I feel fine”) — and, when it comes down to it, freedom.
Little Richard didn’t waste any time on his earliest hits — the above three songs each begin with a bold vocal declaration before any instruments are even heard. On “Lucille,” Richard allows the band a full 20 seconds of intro to set the song’s bluesy tone with a pronounced, driving backbeat, before proclaiming just how upset he is that the girl of his dreams has run off and married someone else. Desperately, he searches — “I woke up this morning, Lucille was not in sight/I asked my friends about her, but all their lips were tight” — but it’s all to no avail. Poor Richard.