One of the key figures in the creation of rock and roll as a modern art form, Little Richard was also one of its most energetic and outrageous performers, and for a brief time, one of the most successful African-American artists in music history. Like Ray Charles before him, Richard brought the devotional intensity of his gospel upbringing to raucous R&B tunes like "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly," but added a layer of passion to the material that proved irresistible to both black and white audiences of the 1950s. From 1957 to 1959, he was on par with such titans as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, but a conflict of faith forced him to abandon stardom for an evangelical life. His early music would inspire countless performers to launch their own rock and R&B careers, from James Brown and Otis Redding, to Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Michael Jackson. Often imitated but never surpassed, Little Richard was a living musical icon whose songs helped to define one of the most significant musical genres in history.
Like fellow rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard's life could be defined as a struggle between the secular and the divine. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, GA on Dec. 5, 1932, he was the third of 12 children born to bootlegger Charlie "Bud" Penniman and his wife, Leva Mae Stewart. Both parents were devout members of Episcopal and Baptists churches in Macon, and dispatched their sizable brood to perform for worshipers as the Penniman Singers. Richard displayed incredible lung power from an early age, as well as an oversized, even hyperactive personality, which often rankled his parents and church elders. His sexuality was an issue during his childhood, and because of his flamboyant nature and apparent bisexuality, his father was spurred to remove Richard from his house at the age of 13. They would reconcile when Richard began his recording career, but the reunion was cut short when a friend shot Charlie Penniman to death in 1952 outside a club where his son was performing.
Richard began performing for audiences at the age of 10. Initially, these audiences were churchgoers who came to see the youth perform faith healing and preach the Gospel in fervent, Pentecostal-inspired tones. His earliest influences were also gospel performers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and the explosive Brother Joe May, known to the faithful as the "Thunderbolt of the West." He would draw much of the relentless energy of his live act from these talents, especially his signature outburst, a falsetto "woooo" borrowed directly from Marion Williams, a gospel singer whose powerful voice could rise to a glass-shattering falsetto. Richard's other influences were decidedly more earthly in nature. He drew much of his sartorial style, which combined hipster suits with full makeup and a prodigious conked hairdo, from '40s jump blues performer Billy Wright, better known as the "Prince of the Blues." Another alleged influence was South Carolina singer Steven Reeder, Jr., whose staccato attack on the piano keys could be heard in Richard's later hits. Reeder, who performed under the name of Esquerita, also displayed a similar look to Richard's stage appearance, albeit more outrageous and sexually flamboyant.
Wright eventually set Richard up with his first recording contract with RCA Camden in 1951. There, he played competent if unexceptional jump blues before moving to Peacock Records in 1953. Again, none of Richard's material cracked the R&B charts. Dissatisfied with the direction of his career, he pulled together a band of veteran players, including New Orleans drummer Chuck Connors and saxophonist Grady Gaines. Dubbing them The Upsetters, Richard took the advice of singer Lloyd Price and cut a demo with the band for Specialty Records, one of the leading R&B labels of the period. After buying out his Peacock contract, Specialty's owner, Art Rupe, delivered Richard into the hands of A&R man Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, who had been influential in developing Ray Charles into a R&B sensation.
Envisioning Richard as an answer to Fats Domino, Blackwell brought him to Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio, where Domino had cut many of his chart-topping hits. The cream of New Orleans' studio musicians, including legendary horn player Lee Allen and the powerful drummer Earl Palmer, backed Richard on his first Specialty sessions in February 1955. However, the results were as unspectacular as his tracks for RCA and Peacock. During a break in recording, Richard began to play a raunchy boogie woogie called "Tutti Fruitti," which had been a staple of his live shows at underground gay clubs. Blackwell immediately recognized the song as a hit, but realized that its lyrics, which referenced gay slang ("tutti fruitti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it"), would require sanitization before he could cut the record. After calling in local songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, "Tutti Fruitti" was cleaned up and released by Specialty in October 1955, which launched Little Richard into the upper stratosphere of pop music.
"Tutti Fruitti" shot to No. 2 on the R&B charts, and was soon followed by 16 more Top 20 hits, including three No. 1 songs. The songs all followed the formula of "Tutti Fruitti" - hard-charging rhythm and blues, driven by Palmer's drumming and Allen's booting sax, and crowned by Richard's wailing vocals, which swooped from ear-splitting screams to guttural howls. On stage, Richard and the Upsetters were a force of nature, tearing into songs with unbridled ferocity while he whipped audiences into a frenzy with his supercharged presence and outrageous costumes. White audiences soon came to embrace Richard's music, despite widespread resistance by authority figures. Audiences at Richard's concerts featured as many white faces as black ones, even in deeply segregated areas like the South. In doing so, Richard was among the primary forces to establish rock and roll as a viable cultural force that crossed lines of race, class and region.
Despite his phenomenal success, Richard was undone at his own game by one of the most unlikely figures in rock history - the resolutely white bread pop crooner Pat Boone, whose tame cover of "Tutti Fruitti" outsold the original and out-performed it on the singles chart. Other white artists would soon release their own covers of Richard's songs, including Elvis Presley, who cut a respectable take on "Rip It Up." But in most cases, none could approach the gale force strength of Richard's versions. As with most pop and rock sensations, Richard's influence soon spread to other media, including motion pictures and television. He wrote and performed the title track for Frank Tashlin's saucy comedy "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956), and unleashed his stage persona to an even wider audience with appearances in the otherwise wan "Don't Knock the Rock" (1957) and "Mister Rock and Roll" (1958). All helped to further expand Richard's influence on rock audiences, which responded to him with the same quasi-religious fervor shown to Presley. He was routinely mobbed by female fans, which often rushed the stage en masse to grab articles of his clothing or to bestow him with their undergarments. In Baltimore, police had to stop the show twice in order to prevent audience members from throwing themselves off balconies.
The hurricane of unbridled hormones that Richard whipped up on record and stage continued in his private life as well. He frequently hosted orgies in his hotel rooms, and courted a voluptuous 16-year-old named Audrey Robinson, who performed burlesque under the name of Lee Angel, and whom Richard would supply with a steady stream of sexual partners for his voyeuristic pleasure. The good times would roll until 1957, when a string of seemingly unrelated incidents pushed Richard to abandon rock and roll altogether. While touring Australia with white rockers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Richard experienced a vision of angelic figures carrying the plane that he and his band were traveling in to Melbourne. He later saw what he believed to be a ball of fire streaking through the sky during a performance, and took the launch of Sputnik 1 in October of 1957 as a sign that his hell-raising was an offense to God. He immediately announced his retirement from popular music to preach the Gospel. After performing a farewell concert at the Apollo Theatre in New York, he instructed his employees to drive a fleet of Cadillacs to Los Angeles, where he handed over the keys to his mother. Richard then enrolled in the Seventh-day Adventist Oakwood College in Huntsville, AL, which resulted in his ordination as a preacher in 1959, the same year he married Ernestine Campbell, whom he met at an evangelical gathering in Washington, D.C. From that year until 1962, Richard released only gospel records, few of which were heard by secular audiences.
Richard's pursuit of a religious lifestyle unraveled as soon as it commenced. He found it difficult to follow the disciple of a Christian life, and his marriage to Campbell quickly faltered. By 1962, he was back on the rock and roll trail, performing largely in England, where his old records continued to sell. In April and May of that year, he shared a residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany with a little-known group from Liverpool called The Beatles. Richard took a shine to the quartet, and passed along valuable instructions on how to perform his songs, which were a staple of their repertoire. His influence was clearly heard in Paul McCartney's vocals, which accurately reproduced Richard's gritty delivery and skyscraping "woo."
Richard toured England in 1962 and 1963 to overwhelmingly positive response; the following year, The Beatles released a raucous cover of "Long Tall Sally," which prompted a spike in interest about Richard's career. A battery of new bands, including The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, sang his praises in print and on stage, which spurred Richard to return to recording in 1963. A slew of minor hits for Specialty and Vee Jay soon followed, including "Bama Lama Bama Loo" and a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," the latter of which featured a young guitarist from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix.
However, Richard's 1960s comeback was short-lived. He recorded numerous singles during the decade, including cuts for Okeh and Modern, who brought the formidable Stax Records session musicians on board for the sessions. But none of the tracks could reproduce the astonishing success of his '50s sides. Richard soon felt penned in on all sides; he could find no traction on the Billboard charts, and though he remained a popular live act, his acceptance of mixed audiences put him in conflict with the black cultural explosion of the period, who wanted him to play to black audiences exclusively. He soon began to backslide into his old sexual and chemical habits, though now with a growing dependence on alcohol in the mix.
In the early 1970s, Richard and his fellow '50s survivors found themselves in the midst of a revived interest in their music. He, along with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis, had been featured at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival, which also featured the debut of John Lennnon and Yoko Ono with the Plastic Ono Band. The concert, which was captured on film by director D.A. Pennebaker as "Sweet Toronto" (1971), helped to boost Richard's profile, and he responded with another dizzying barrage of recordings. The material, which covered a wide range of genres, from funk and gospel to acoustic pop and soul, resulted in a handful of minor hits, including the single "Freedom Blues, in 1970.
However, Richard's life off-stage was in its greatest downward spiral. His drug and alcohol abuse had reached critical levels, and nearly cost him his life when longtime friend and producer Larry Williams, himself a one-time R&B favorite, nearly murdered him in a cocaine-fueled rage. The incident, as well as the deaths of two beloved family members, spurred Richard to return to evangelism in the mid-1970s. He publicly rejected his lifestyle - including bisexuality, which he now regarded as an abomination - and began preaching the gospel to audiences across America. He also presided over several high profile marriages, including Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. However, he did not include rock and roll among his personal demons, and for much of the 1980s and 1990s, worked to reconcile the earthly and heavenly aspects of his personality.
Richard returned to the spotlight in the 1980s with the publication of The Life and Times of Little Richard, a no-holds-barred biography that featured extensive input from its subject. Its release was praised by his legion of fans, including numerous musicians who extolled his influence on their own careers, including McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Elton John and Bob Dylan; the latter of whom noted in his high school year book that his life's ambition was to join Little Richard's band. In 1986, he teamed with Billy Preston to record "Great Gosh A' Mighty (It's a Matter of Time)," which brought together his rock and gospel penchants into one rollicking track. The song was featured in the soundtrack for Paul Mazursky's hit comedy "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986), which also featured Richard in his acting debut as a decidedly Little Richard-esque preacher. The appearance led to other screen roles, all largely based on his own oversized personality, on television shows like "Martin" (Fox, 1992-97) and in features like "Mystery, Alaska" (1999) and the Frankie Lymon biopic, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (1998), in which he played himself as a young man.
The tail end of the 1980s and most of the 1990s were a period of celebration for Richard's career. In 1986, he was among the freshman class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although he was unable to attend the ceremony due to an injury from a motorcycle accident. A flood of similar tributes soon followed, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, one of the first BMI Icon Awards, the NAACP Image Award, and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2010, "Tutti Fruitti" - once a symbol of rock and roll's most hedonistic qualities - was deemed so culturally significant as to be added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Despite the accolades, Little Richard refused to be viewed as a museum piece. He continued to record secular and gospel music at an accelerated pace, including collaborations with U2, B.B. King, Elton John, and Living Colour, and toured with the vigor of a man far younger than his seventh decade. He stepped into the producer's chair to oversee the Emmy-nominated "Little Richard" (NBC, 2000), a fairly sanitized TV biopic, and appeared in numerous commercials for companies like Geico. A hip operation in 2009 slowed his productivity a whit, but he was still active and recording as of 2011.