Rebellion, outrage, scandal, hypersexual egomania, ripping it up, rocking it up, gigantic hair, and mascara — all these things are in rock & roll because Little Richard put them there. He was the loudest and wildest and rudest of the Fifties pioneers, the most flamboyantly and untamably free. He invented the rock star. That is why the world is mourning today for Little Richard, who died this morning at 87.
“Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. He was living with his brother in Nashville,” singer’s agent of 40 years, DickAlen said. “He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say ‘I’m not well.’ He’s been suffering for many years with various aches and pains. He just wouldn’t talk about it much.”
“The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Heebie Jeebies” — these songs have been an inspiration to rebel hearts ever since. When John Lennon was asked in 1970 by Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner about his taste in music, Lennon replied, “A-wop bop-a-loo-bop.” That battle cry — the opening holler of “Tutti Frutti” — kicked off Little Richard’s career in 1955. It was the sound of a poor gay black kid in Macon, Georgia, announcing to the world that his time had come, exploding with falsetto screams and piano-stomping flash and a six-inch pompadour. As Little Richard said in his article with Rolling Stone Magazine that included in his legendary 1970 cover story, “I came from a family where my people didn’t like rhythm & blues. Bing Crosby, ‘Pennies From Heaven,’ Ella Fitzgerald, was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.”
He famously had the loudmouth and the most chaotic ego in the music world. There’s a great scene in the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary Hail Hail Rock & Roll where he’s talking about the old days with Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Chuck complains about his royalties, joking, “I majored in math.” Little Richard yells, “I majored in mouth!”
Richard Penniman was born in Macon in 1932, one of 12 kids. His dad sold moonshine whiskey, but threw Richard out of the house at 13, accusing him of being gay. He toured the vaudeville circuit and started making records, doing straight jump-blues sides. But they got him nowhere — by the age of 22, he was a has-been, working at the local bus depot. That’s where he wrote his first hit. “I was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots for me to wash,’ and I said, ‘A-wop bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ And that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the kitchen.”
All around the world, people heard Little Richard scream those lines and said, yes. Over in sleepy London town, a kid named David Jones decided it was “the voice of God.” It inspired him to become David Bowie. (His childhood photo of Little Richard was on display in the long-running exhibition, “David Bowie Is.”) “Little Richard was just unreal,” Bowie told Rolling Stone. “Unreal. Man, we’d never seen anything like that.” In Liverpool, the Beatles devoted their teen years to studying that voice. “A wild, hoarse, screaming thing,” Paul McCartney calls it in Many Years From Now. “It’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to go outside yourself.” Bob Dylan wrote in his high-school yearbook that his goal was “to join Little Richard.” That is the kind impact a little boy from Macon, GA left on the world of music. The Man The Myth, The Legend, The Mouth- Little Richard.