Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5th 1932, the third of twelve children. His father was a bricklayer, who owned a night club and sold bootleg moonshine. He was also a church deacon. His mother was a member of New Hope Baptist Church in Macon. His wider family was extremely religious. The early nickname Lil’ Richard reflected his small stature and skinny frame as a child.
Richard grew up dreaming of being a star. He loved performers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ike Turner for their musical abilities and their flamboyance. Amazingly he was invited to perform at one of Tarpe’s shows by the lady herself, when he was just fourteen. She was appearing at the Macon City Auditorium where Richard had a part-time job. Tharpe overheard Richard singing one of her songs before the show started and decided to put him on the bill. Richard duly opened the show and was paid too! That was it. He was definitely going to be a star. Before entering the tenth grade, Richard left his family home and joined Hudson’s Medicine Show in 1949.
He later joined a band, performed as a drag artist and then formed a rhythm & blues band called The Upsetters. He signed a recording contract with RCA-Victor and then with Peacock Records, without much success, but his luck was about to change.
Richard met Lloyd Price, who recommended that he cut a demo and send it to Price’s record label Specialty in California. Richard took the advice and recorded the demo tape at WBML Studio, Macon, on February 9, 1955. He sent it and then waited. For months he heard nothing, until in September he finally got a call from the company, offering to sign him. Art Rupe bought out the contract with Peacock Records and put his new A&R man Robert Blackwell to work with Richard. Blackman wanted to turn Richard into the next Ray Charles but Richard made it clear that, like Lloyd Price, he wanted to work in New Orleans.
Richard was sent down to J&M studios in New Orleans to record a number of tracks with the studio’s musicians, including Melvin Dowden (piano), Justin Adams, Edgar Blanchard and Ray Montrell (guitars), Frank Fields (bass), Lee Allen (tenor sax), Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler (baritone sax) and Earl Palmer (drums). At first things didn’t go as well as Blackwell had hoped, but then, during one of the breaks in recording, Richard and Blackwell went down to the local club The Dew Drop Inn, where Richard started playing “Tutti Frutti” on the piano. At last Blackwell could hear the excitement he was looking for. Unfortunately the words that Richards sang were a bit too strong for Blackwell’s liking. He hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to tidy up the lyrics and it only took three takes to get the song done. It was issued in November 1955, as Richard’s first release on Specialty, and went to number two on the R&B chart, number twenty-one on the Pop chart and number twenty-nine on the UK Pop chart. The song went on to sell over one million copies.
The J&M sessions over the next two years yielded dozens of tracks, many of which became hits in America and wider afield. In 1956, Little Richard became a star, thanks to “Long Tall Sally”, “Slippin & Slidin'”, “Rip It Up”, “Ready Teddy”, “She’s Got It” and “The Girl Can’t Help It”. The following year saw the flow of hits continue with “Lucille”, “Send Me Some Lovin'”, “Jenny, Jenny” and “Keep A-Knockin'”. January 1958 saw the last major hit for Richard before he took a new turning in his life. The song was “Good Golly, Miss Molly”.
Altogether in this two year period Specialty released fifteen Little Richard singles that charted on the R&B chart, with three going to number one. Twelve made the Pop chart, with “Long Tall Sally” the highest at number six. Nine charted on the UK Pop chart.
In October 1957 Little Richard decided to abandon his career in Pop music. He become a preacher in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, fulfilling a few remaining shows and watching “Good Golly, Miss Molly” reach number four on the R&B chart. And then he was gone (for a short while).
His debt to New Orleans is very big indeed. Lloyd Price pointed him in the right direction. The Dew Drop Inn gave him a chance to take the music of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price to another level. The song-writing and production skills of Robert Bateman ensured that the opportunity would not be lost. And the studio band at J&M Studios, backing the unique showmanship of Little Richard himself, made the sound unmistakable.
It is a debt that Little Richard has acknowledged:
“Well, the city is a very unique city, it’s a rock and roll city, and it’s a jazz city, as well as a rhythm and blues city. It’s a musical palette, New Orleans is, to me, the capital of music. I’ve always respected it as that, and always will.” (Quoted in a 1993 Offbeat interview with Keith Spera).
It is largely as a result of his work in New Orleans that Little Richard was one of the first group of inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on January 23rd 1986. He was in good company: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Fats Domino were amongst those selected.
Headline Photo: Anna Bleker (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2: Krächz (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 3: Robbie Drexhage (Wikimedia Commons)
In the 1993 interview with Offbeat magazine, Little Richard, who was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, mentioned his love for the city of New Orleans.