Remembering Little Richard’s lightning-fast rhythms

Richard Wayne Penniman better known as Little Richard, was an American singer, songwriter, and musician.
Richard Wayne Penniman better known as Little Richard, was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Little Richard, who died last weekend, was a bona fide musical trendsetter who shaped the sound and style of rock and roll in the 1950s, with a distinctive electrifying rhythm propelled by an outlandish personality.

One record company executive said that Little Richard was so popular at the peak of his career that they could have recorded him blowing his nose and made a hit.

His life went full circle from wild rock and rock to Christian salvation, from the King of Rock and Roll to an evangelist and self-styled ‘king of the gospel singers’.

His influenced his peers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and the 1960s generation of global idols like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

The flamboyant performer who was the epitome of Rock & Roll died last week at the age of 87 from complications related to bone cancer. He joins a long list of global music superstars who have died in 2020, notably Bill Withers, Manu Dibango and Kenny Rogers.


“I created rock and roll, didn’t even know what I was doing,” he once said. His protégé, Jimi Hendrix, a one-time guitarist in Richard’s band said he wanted to do with his guitar what his mentor did with his voice.

Little Richard was about much more than just his music, he was the entire package; a loud and extravagant style, wild onstage antics like standing on top of the piano, running on and off the stage and throwing his jewellery into crowds of hysterical fans.

As he often said, he was wearing purple before another flamboyant star, Prince made the colour his trademark in the 1980s and he wore make up when no other music dared.

His music was uproarious with shrieking vocals, loud guitar, horns and piano. Presley may have been styled as the King of Rock and Roll but he credited Richard as “the greatest”.

His signature shriek on “Tutti-frutti” released in 1955 was a massive hit that broke the racial barrier at a time of deep social and political segregation, becoming a hit among both black and white audiences.

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Georgia in 1932 as one of 12 children. He learnt the piano and sang gospel in the local church choir and performed in several travelling bands before moving to Atlanta.

He was signed to his first recording deal in 1951 by RCA Records using the name Little Richard (this was a nickname given to him as a child due to his tiny and skinny frame)

The million-seller ‘Tutti-frutti’ was followed by a string of hits including another million seller “Long Tall Sally” (bearing striking similarity with Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock”), “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “She's Got It” all in 1956.

The hits kept coming with "Lucille" “Send Me Lovin’” and “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”.

At the height of his fame while on tour in Australia in 1957, Little Richard announced that he was dropping the devil’s music, apparently after seeing a “a sign from God”. He instead enrolled in college to study theology and switched to gospel music.

After a five-year hiatus that included recording a gospel album produced by Quincy Jones, he re-embraced rock and roll in 1964 and toured with the Rolling Stones and the Everly Brothers.

He was ordained a Minister of the Seventh Adventist Church in 1970 and in 1977, he quit rock and roll again, battered by years of drug abuse and personal tragedies like the death of his brother, he returned to evangelism.

The publication of his biography, The Life and Times of Little Richard, in 1984 written by the Irish born author Charles White returned him to the spotlight including a role in the film, Down And Out In Beverly Hills, and for the first time in his career, the release of faith-based rock and roll songs. He performed at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

He was among the first artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1993.

His life was dramatised in the biopic ‘Little Richard’ in 2000 and he continued performing in recent years despite health complications: heart surgery in 2008 and hip replacement surgery in 2009 which confined him to a wheelchair.

In 2013, Little Richard announced his retirement. The death of the artist who was variously acknowledged as the Innovator, The Originator and The Architect of Rock and Roll marks the end of one of the most dramatic lives in the history of popular music.