May 9, 2020

RIP: Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020)

Little Richard, one of the founders of rock & roll, died today. Richard Wayne Penniman was 87.

Richard's string of hits from 1955-58 — a potent, sexually-charged mix of piano-based boogie, gospel shouting, and jump blues, topped with the irreverent anarchy of youth — "Tutti Frutti", "Long Tall Sally", "Rip It Up", "The Girl Can't Help It", "Lucille", "Jenny, Jenny", "Keep A-Knockin'", "Good Golly Miss Molly" — have lost none of their explosive power in the more than 60 years since they were recorded.

Tim Weiner, New York Times:
Little Richard, delving deeply into the wellsprings of gospel music and the blues, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before — something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous. ...

Art Rupe of Specialty Records, the label for which he recorded his biggest hits, called Little Richard "dynamic, completely uninhibited, unpredictable, wild." ... His live performances were electrifying.

"He'd just burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn't be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience," the record producer and arranger H.B. Barnum, who played saxophone with Little Richard early in his career, recalled in The Life and Times of Little Richard (1984), an authorized biography by Charles White. "He'd be on the stage, he'd be off the stage, he'd be jumping and yelling, screaming, whipping the audience on."

Rock 'n' roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, but Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. ...

His influence as a performer was immeasurable. It could be seen and heard in the flamboyant showmanship of James Brown, who idolized him (and used some of his musicians when Little Richard began a long hiatus from performing in 1957), and of Prince, whose ambisexual image owed a major debt to his.
Stephen Holden, in a 1984 review of White's worshipful biography, stated that the Little Richard story is "inherently fascinating":
When it comes to flaming androgyny, outrageous costume and unhinged libido, a contemporary pop rebel like Prince seems small potatoes compared with Little Richard, the original wild man of rock 'n' roll. "Awop-Bop-a-Loo-Mop Alop-Bam-Boom," the exclamation that punctuated his first major hit, "Tutti Frutti," in 1955, permanently altered the vocabulary of pop music. And in his mirrored suits, towering pompadour and heavy makeup, the singer did as much as anyone to establish the tradition of the rock star as sanctified freak.
Richard once declared that if Elvis Presley was the King of Rock & Roll, then he was the Queen of Rock & Roll. A less-common assertion, certainly, but not so surprising from the man who believed he had invented homosexuality.

I believe I was the founder of gay. I'm the one who started to be so bold tellin' the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that [at age 13]. I used to take my mother's curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere.
He was nothing less than magnificent.

In November 1966, Little Richard played a show in Paris. He was nearly 34 years old that night, ancient by rock & roll standards, but in these 27 minutes, he radiates a supreme and thrilling confidence, radiating a sexuality that is more powerful for being so understated.

Little Richard was one of only a handful of performers that can so captivate a crowd that you don't dare look away for even a second, for fear of missing some small gesture that somehow sums up the entire presentation.

The Times:
His father was a brick mason who sold moonshine on the side. An uncle, a cousin and a grandfather were preachers, and as a boy he ... aspired to be a singing evangelist. An early influence was the gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the first performers to combine a religious message with the urgency of R&B.

By the time he was in his teens, Richard's ambition had taken a detour. ... By 1948, billed as Little Richard — the name was a reference to his youth and not his physical stature — he was a cross-dressing performer with a minstrel troupe called Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam, which had been touring for decades.

In 1951, while singing alongside strippers, comics and drag queens on the Decatur Street strip in Atlanta, he recorded his first songs. The records were generic R&B, with no distinct style, and attracted almost no attention.

Around this time, he met two performers whose look and sound would have a profound impact on his own: Billy Wright and S.Q. Reeder, who performed and recorded as Esquerita. They were both accomplished pianists, flashy dressers, flamboyant entertainers and as openly gay as it was possible to be in the South in the 1950s. ...

His break came in 1955, when Mr. Rupe signed him to Specialty and arranged for him to record with local musicians in New Orleans. During a break at that session, he began singing a raucous but obscene song that Mr. Rupe thought had the potential to capture the nascent teenage record-buying audience. Mr. Rupe enlisted a New Orleans songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to clean up the lyrics; the song became "Tutti Frutti"; and a rock 'n' roll star was born.

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