Little Richard and his band in Mister Rock 'n' Roll (1957)
Scene One. September 13, 1955. J&M Music Shop, 838-840 North Rampart Street, New Orleans. A warm, rainy day. Richard Penniman arrives early in the morning with three of his bandmates at the music shop, on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine at the edge of the French Quarter. They meet one of the owners, Cosimo Matassa, who operates a small recording studio at the back of the store. (I make the journey to the same spot 54 years later, only now the building is a laundromat named – with a double pun – “The Clothes Spin”, a picture of a vinyl record behind the name on the sign. Now it’s apparently a different laundromat.)
Fats Domino had already made the studio famous. Now Specialty Records decided to try some recordings with Penniman here. Penniman had been making rhythm and blues records as Little Richard for a few years without success. The session in New Orleans was little different. On the first day and into the second, Richard recorded standard early 1950s blues fare, a lot like Billy Wright, Richard’s early idol – competent but not very memorable.
As the story goes, Richard takes a lunch break with the band and the producer at a local restaurant, where he begins fooling around on the piano with a joke song from his club routine, and lightning strikes. Richard trades that restrained blues crooning for something much wilder and shows off tricks he learned from an obscure piano player named Esquerita, pounding the piano high on the treble. Did it really happen this way? It’s a common tale – take Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black fooling around during a break in a lackluster session to create “That’s All Right Mama”. Whatever the truth, the story continues that Richard returned to the studio and sang the same song to songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie so she can clean it up – facing the wall instead of her because he was so embarrassed by the lyrics: “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy . . .”
In typical fairytale fashion, La Bostrie finishes the revised lyric with 15 minutes to spare before the session ends, the band cuts three takes, and Richard’s first hit single is in the can.
Scene Two. 1710 Virginia Road, Los Angeles, a year and a half later. A luxurious home in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. A gold Cadillac in the drive.
A knock on the door.
Richard’s mother and brothers and sisters, all of whom he had packed up and moved from Georgia into his new house in Los Angeles, were used to famous guests and hangers-on coming by constantly. But this knock wasn’t from Chuck Berry or James Brown or someone just looking for money. It was a missionary from a local church named Wilbur Gulley. Richard had grown up in Baptist and Methodist and Pentecostal churches, listening to the music and singing gospel with his family. Now he was born again.
Brother Wilbur put Richard in touch with Joe Lutcher, who had briefly been an R&B star eight or nine years earlier and was now a born-again Seventh-Day Adventist. Lutcher could relate to Richard, the pressures and conflicts he was feeling. A few months later, Richard announced he was leaving show business, and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that came with it, in the middle of a tour of Australia. He cut the tour short to head home, making plans to study theology and evangelize.
Little Richard’s career and his whole life were split between the sacred and the profane. And for Richard it really was “profane”. Over the decades he would pinball between rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, a wild life on the road and devoting his life to god, the proverbial angel and devil on opposite shoulders.
As a rocker, Richard’s performances were wild, his hair was wild, and the words to his songs suggestive. In the 1956 film Don’t Knock the Rock Richard plays “Long Tall Sally” with his leg raised, stretched out straight onto the piano, as a sax player solos on top of the piano. Was the pose phallic? The song, after all, is about Sally “built for speed” with “everything that Uncle John needs” (as he is apparently cheating on Aunt Mary).
Little Richard in Don't Knock the Rock (1956)
But Richard was also one of the few stars of 50s rock ‘n’ roll with a deep gospel background; besides him there were only a few R&B voices like Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter and the music of Ray Charles. A decade later and Richard could’ve been a great soul singer. Listen to “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me”, a soul ballad he released as a single in the fall of 1965. Today the song is best known for featuring an unknown 22-year-old guitarist who called himself Maurice James, before he reverted to his birth name of Jimi Hendrix. But on the recording Richard is the star – he preaches, he pleads, he bares his soul.
After returning to secular music in the early 1960s, Richard had only the occasional minor hit – “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got”, 1970’s “Freedom Blues”. He would instead be largely remembered for his past, for being “The Originator”, “The Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Now his music was overshadowed by his influence. James Brown and Otis Redding started out idolizing Richard and copying his moves. The Beatles covered several of his songs live and on record.
Whatever Little Richard owed to someone like Esquerita, he really was an originator. Esquerita eventually recorded for Capitol, but his playing there is erratic, his singing hoarse, and the overall effect chaotic. By contrast, Richard’s performances are controlled and powerful. Somehow he had managed to harness all of that energy and gospel fervor on two-minute recordings.
Listening to Little Richard’s records now, we hear more than 50s rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia. His best songs are joyous, exhilarating, moving even today. And that’s what really matters.