LITTLE RICHARD, December 5, 1932-

One of the leading pioneers of early rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard’s frenetic singing style helped bring down the covering phenomenon, whereby the major labels assigned mainstream singers to record smoothed-over versions (often with sanitized lyrics) of original R&B hits geared to the pop charts. Although teen crooner Pat Boone garnered comparable sales with his awkward covers of two early Little Richard songs—"Tutti Frutti" (Dot 15443; 1956) and "Long Tall Sally" (Dot 15457; 1956)—his remaining hits faced no competition in crossing over to a mainstream audience.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, his primary musical influences as a youth were singing in the church choir and playing saxophone in his high school band. When bluesman Buster Brown’s singer failed to show up at a local concert, Richard—then age fourteen—filled in. While touring with the band, he began wearing his trademark pompadour and was billed as "Little Richard" for the first time. He was working variety shows when Zenas Sears—a WGST, Atlanta, deejay—helped him get a contract with RCA. His first session on October 16, 1951 resulted in four recordings: "Every Hour" (a hit in the Georgia area due to on-the-air plugs by Sears), "Goin’ to Get Rich Quick," "Taxi Blues," and "Why Did You Leave Me." He would cut four more tracks on January 12, 1952, but they failed to catch on with the public. He then recorded eight songs (with his group the Tempo Toppers) on February 25 and October 5, 1953 for the Houston-based Peacock label, again with negligible results.

Little Richard spent the next couple of years touring the southeast with his new backup band, the Upsetters. A tip from R&B singer Lloyd Price led him to send a demo tape to Specialty records in February 1955. Producer Bumps Blackwell sensed his potential for communicating the same kind of gospel-blues blend that had made Ray Charles a star. The first session produced "Tutti Frutti" (Specialty 561; 1955), which reached number two on the R&B chart (and number seventeen on the pop listing despite the Boone cover). Over the next three years, Little Richard recorded a prodigious number of hits (mostly his own compositions), including "Long Tall Sally"/ "Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Specialty 572; 1956; #1 R&B, #6 pop/#2 R&B), "Rip It Up"/"Reddy Teddy" (Specialty 579; 1956; #1 R&B/#8 R&B), "She’s Got It"/"Heebie Jeebies" (Specialty 584; 1956; #9 R&B/#7 R&B), "The Girl Can’t Help It" (Specialty 591; 1956; #7 R&B), "Lucille"/"Send Me Some Lovin’" (Specialty 598; 1957; #1 R&B/#3 R&B), "Jenny, Jenny"/"Miss Ann" (Specialty 606; 1957; #2 R&B, #10 pop/#6 R&B), "Keep A Knockin’ (Specialty 611; 1957; #2 R&B, #8 pop), and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (Specialty 624; 1958; #4 R&B, #10 pop). His popularity was reinforced by appearances in three early rock ‘n’ roll films: Don’t Knock the Rock, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Despite his wild performing antics and gender-bending lifestyle, Little Richard felt a calling to become a preacher. By the late 1950s he was only performing religious music; however, he decided to return to rock music in 1963. Subsequent recordings for a variety of labels—including Vee-Jay, Okeh, Reprise, and Green Mountain—failed to generate more than moderate sales. By the early 1970s he was appearing in rock ‘n’ roll revival shows and expanding into non-musical endeavors. His critically acclaimed acting role in the 1986 motion picture, Down & Out in Beverly Hills, represented his most notable post-1950s artistic achievement. [White. 1984.]

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