13 Black Artists Who Inspired Rock: Little Richard
Heavy mascara and an androgynous sexual appeal, he bangs the piano with his groundbreaking style. His songs delivered with a powerful whooping voice. He is the legend, Little Richard. However, before fame, he was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia. Influenced by two uncles and a grandfather, all preachers. His young life centers around the church.
It is the church where Richard begins to sing gospel and learns to play the piano. Artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Matilda Jackson inspired him. In secular music, he imitated and perfected the look and sound of Esquerita. Little Richard credits Tharpe for being responsible for his career. She hears Richard singing one of her songs before a performance. She invites him to sing a couple on stage to open her show. Despite the promotors objections, the curtain rises with Richard on stage for the first time.
At 13, his father forces him to leave home. This decision is due to his contempt for his son’s early signs of homosexuality. Soon after, Richard moves in with Anne and Johnny Johnson, a white couple who owned the Tick Tock Club. The Johnsons and the Tick Tock Club allow him to perform.
First Recording Contract
At the age of 19, he auditions for a local radio station contest. He wins a recording contract. His first recordings were traditional jump blues songs that had no real commercial success. Seeking fame, he moves to Houston and starts recording with backup groups and then fronting the Johnny Otis Orchestra.
He continues to perform and record with various groups. He tours small black clubs known as the Chitlin’ Circuit where he is known for his strong voice and showmanship. Despite this, his brand of rock ‘n’ roll falls on deaf ears. While looking for his big break, he sends a demo tape to Specialty Records. Soon after, the tape makes its way to the desk of Art Rupe. Rupe was looking for a powerful voice to front some New Orlean musicians. Instantly, he knew Richard was perfect.
In 1955, Rupe hired “Bumps” Blackwell to produce Richard. Blackwell realizes he has a potential star, but couldn’t find the right song. Finally, after recording a few songs they a take a break for lunch. During the break, Richard begins raucously playing Tutti-Frutti. Blackwell knew this was the song he needed. However, the lyrics were initially about gay sex. Among the original lines, “Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy.” Blackwell has the lyrics modified before recording.
The rewritten Tutti-Frutti is a hit with Black and White audiences. However, artists like Pat Boone would cover his songs and those of other black artists (cover song had a racist connotation at the time). Boone’s stiffer delivery and wholesome presentation was an attempt at a safer white version. Fortunately, the covers did not stop Little Richard. He went on to record seven gold hits with Speciality Records.
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Over the years, he fought his demons and guilt. He resented his sexual orientation due to the religious conflict. He experiences drug addiction, and in his youth he found himself jailed for sexual misconduct. In his later years, he admits to being omnisexual.
In 1957, as he continues to struggle with his sexuality, music, and religion, he retires from rock music. Richard joins the ministry and records his first gospel album in 1959. As his inner conflicts persist, he returns to secular music. The transition happens as he goes on a European tour which he mistakenly believes is for his gospel music. The crowds demand his rock ‘n’ roll hits.
Little Richard is still today a household name and one of the sculptors of rock music. The Beatles imitate his whooping scream. They record or perform over ten of his songs. Paul auditions for the Quarryman (Beatles) by imitating Richard and it impresses John.
Jimi Hendrix – “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
Influence of Little Richard on Other Artists
Richard toured with the Stones and the Beatles. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Elton John credit him as a musical influence. He continues to influence artists with his sexuality and groundbreaking androgynous looks. He opened the door for so many gender-bending and influential artists in their own right like David Bowie, Prince, Freddie Mercury, Janelle Monet and others. Little Richard is a real innovator and a legitimate Godfather of Rock Music.
Johnny Otis – “Little Richard is twice as important as the Beatles and Stones put together.”
In 1986, his contributions came full circle with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among his other acknowledgments, Richard received a Life Time Achievement award from the Grammys in 1993. The NAACP recognizes him with the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award in 2002. GQ magazine wrote that Little Richard “is, without question, the boldest and most influential of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll.” I couldn’t say it better.