• Cameron Sinclair

Little Richard - True Legends never die

Yesterday saw the passing of one of the greatest pioneers that the music world has ever seen: Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard. His family confirmed that the Rock and Roll legend has died at the age of 87 – but true legends never die.

The 1950s saw Little Richard reinvent the blues into the feverish new style of rock 'n' roll along with the likes of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. He was a wild and erratic man, with a pencil moustache and pancake makeup. A flamboyant pioneer who took music on a new and more exciting path.

In 1955 Richard released ‘Tutti Frutti’ a song which would propel him into the history books with its raw electric energy that sounds just as good now as it did all those years ago. Starting with the nonsensical but exhilarating first line "Awop bop a loo mop / Alop bam boom." A series of explosive cries that capture the electricity of love and sex in a way that actual words never could. A call to dance that nobody can refuse, even the most tedious of souls. Tutti Frutti sold more than a million records, pushing Richard to record 18 more hit singles within the next 2 yearsincluding “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille”. These tracks are looked back on as being era-defining and were seen to help change social attitudes, as well as shifting the course of music to what we see today.

Little Richard was outrageously camp and tremendously popular. As other artists of the 1950s kept the respectable manner of old-time musicians, he sought to break new boundaries with his dazzling brightly coloured, diamond-studded shirts and an incredible gravity defying hairstyle. Making him a style icon that many would seek to copy – including the likes of Prince, Bowie and Elton John.

A born entertainer, Little Richard stunned audiences across the world with his flamboyant dancing, high pitched voice and manic piano playing with one leg lifted up on top of the piano. In one infamous concert he played dead until a medical team was called in – before resurrecting himself onstage to an astonished audience. Due to the intense racism of post-war America he wasn’t allowed in many hotels whilst on tour, so often had to eat, sleep and dress in his car (a Cadillac of course). Before jumping on stage and having black and white kids dance together without a care in the world. He said in an interview for Rolling Stone ‘At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were “white spectators.” But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.’ Richard pathed a way for black artists in the music industry, breaking down barriers in a way that was inconceivable before him.

After becoming rich and famous, Richard indulged in the true Rock and Roll lifestyle blowing thousands on drugs, booze and sex parties. A custom many famous musicians of the century would soon to follow. But during a concert in Sydney it is said that he literally ‘saw the light’ above him in the sky, which he took as a message from God to repent his sins. It was in fact the Sputnik satellite returning to Earth, but Richard decided to give up sin, pleasure and popular music (the so-called devils music) and returned to the ways of his strong Christian upbringing - vowing himself to the Almighty. Spending the next 5 years recording gospel music, he eventually couldn’t resist his urge to rip it up again and went back on the road with his old hits.

During these touring years Richard inspired and influenced many up and coming Rock ‘n’ Rollers who would themselves go on to change music. A tour of Europe saw Brian Epstein convince Richard to let a young band from Liverpool open for him in Hamburg. Here he taught the Beatles techniques on how to emulate his vocal gymnastics. The next year The Rolling Stones were his support act. Mick Jagger said, “When we were on tour with him, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience”. In 1965 his band hired a new Guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, who said, “I want to do with my guitar what he does with his voice”.

As the years went by Richard slowly started to become eclipsed by his protégés. He turned back to alcohol and drugs reportedly spending roughly $1,000 a day on cocaine during the 70’s.He recorded several more albums ranging from rock and roll, blues and funk but his glory days were behind him. In order to battle his dangerous drug habit, he returned to religion, selling Bibles, recording gospel music and renouncing homosexuality, saying “If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody”.

To all intents and purposes this saw the end of Little Richards career. After all, he had nothing else to prove. He inspired a generation of musicians as well as breaking down racial and sexual barriers, more than almost any artist in the 20thcentury. We were truly lucky to have him - a performer, a pioneer and the king of rock ‘n’ roll.

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