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Little Richard: 1932-2020

"I am the originator! I am the innovator! I am the emancipator! I am the motivator! I conceived and achieved it! Defined and refined it! Mold it and souled it ... Then the white man stole it!'

Little Richard, who passed away this Saturday at the age of 87 reportedly from cancer, has been called in the wake of his death one of the “pioneers” of rock and roll. But he was more than that. As he called himself, he was the architect. He saw what rock 'n' roll was and could be, and took it beyond its limits. Behind the funny, silly lyrics and catchy tunes, there was a hard-driving rhythm and a complexity of tonalities fused from a mix of Southern black folk, gospel and blues which reflected the influences of Richard’s life and experiences.

Always the consummate showman, he was true to himself and his audience. Never holding back, he gave it his all, expressing the full power of his voice and presence. As rock journalist Nik Cohn once described his performance in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock: “He played piano and he’d stand knock-kneed at the keyboard, hammering away with two hands as if he wanted to bust the thing apart. At climactic moments, he’d lift one leg and rest it on the keys, banging away with his heel, and his trouser rims would billow like kites. He’d scream and scream and scream. He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar.”

Born Richard Wayne Penniman, one of 12 children, in Macon, Georgia in December 1932, religion became the focus of his life as a child, attending Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist and Holiness churches, where he would stay for the music and dream of a life becoming a minster and serving God’s Word. One of his first major inspirations, along with the Blind Boys of Alabama and the magisterial Mahalia Jackson, was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel and rhythm and blues singer who, from the 1930s until the early '70s, was a trailblazer of rock who mixed gospel lyrics with the hip-shaking rhythms of R&B. And it was Sharpe who gave Little Richard his first big break when, in 1947, she heard him singing outside her songs while selling drinks to attendees outside the theater before her concert. She later invited him on stage to sing with her, which was his first public performance outside of the church.

He left home that same year after, kicked out by his father for his effeminate mannerisms and occasionally wearing his mother’s clothing and heavy makeup. And it was around this same time that he started calling himself Little Richard, following in the footsteps of other R&B performers who used a “Little” moniker such as Little Milton. Despite the hold that religion had on him, the pull of the secular world was too strong, and, by the late 1940s to the early 1950s, he was performing in vaudeville shows, even as a cross-dressing performer who sang alongside strippers and drag queens.

With his gender-bending persona, magnificent pompadour hairdo, pancake makeup and his mascara-painted eyes, he was quite a sight. As he famously once said, “Ooh my soul, I’m the prettiest man in rock ‘n’ roll,” and was decades ahead of the gender-bending trend, no doubt setting the template for musicians who came after him such as Prince and David Bowie.

After years of struggle, luck finally came his way in 1951, when he signed a record deal with RCA. For the next few years, things did not progress as he had hoped, and none of his early songs charted on the hit lists with RCA. Things were so bad for a time that he found himself washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station back in Macon while writing songs in his spare time. But his luck changed when, on a whim, he sent a tape of himself singing a dirty novelty song “Tutti Frutti Good Booty” to the indie label Specialty Records in Chicago. Fortunately the owner of the label was looking for a lead singer for some music tracks he had just made and Richard’s gravelly, hard-charging delivery was the right fit. In 1955, Little Richard recorded a cleaned-up version of the song and had a major hit not just with black listeners but white ones as well. He followed that up with one hit song after another: “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Rip It Up,” among others. His kinetic energy and force of personality he sounded as if “like he never stood still.”

But the hold of the word of God was still on him, and what he believed to be his sinful life. So, in 1957, he announced that he was giving up rock 'n' roll for gospel music, entering seminary school to become an ordained preacher. It didn’t last long. At a concert in the early ‘60s, he shifted back to rock and roll, and went out on a triumphant tour of England in 1962, opening for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both of whom have said numerous times that Little Richard was a major inspiration.

Despite the occasional hits from that point on, and becoming a genuine music icon, Little Richard became justifiably rankled by the lack of respect and mistreatment he got from the music industry. Richard was among the many black musicians, too numerous to name, who were robbed, cheated, and swindled from their rightful due. Conned out of royalties and music rights ownership, taken advantage of by unscrupulous promoters and disrespected by record companies, the exploitation of black musicians is an old and tragic story. Little Richard was no exception. His songs were covered by subpar white singers who had better promotion and more money behind him. One only has to hear Pat Boone’s woeful and tragically inept cover of “Tutti Frutti,” which became a bigger hit than Little Richard’s, to understand his anger. But, unlike others, he was vocal about it. At every opportunity he rightly spoke up about his mistreatment by the industry and the lack of respect and acknowledgement by music gatekeepers for the enormous contributions that he had made. Most people seemed to take complaints as his comic shtick. Although he often played it up for laughs, that was a real seriousness and rage if anyone listened to him. He was not just speaking for himself but for so many other black artists who were not able to speak up.

Though he made countless appearances on TV from the ‘60s through the ‘90s in concerts, talk shows, sitcoms, and even TV commercials, his film career is rather scant. However, there are two movie moments that stand out. First, in the great comedy director Frank Tashlin's 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It” with Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell in a brief nightclub scene (though his songs are used throughout the film and even the opening title sequence) where he sings “Ready Teddy” and “She’s Got It” (punctuated with his trademark “Wooooo!”) while Mansfield and Ewell plans their machinations to get her noticed in Tinsel Town. His music serves as a precise counterpoint and commentary to the comedy, and in the center of it is Richard resplendent in his all his Deluxe Color Cinemascoped glory, tall and slim, exuding energy and unbridled sexuality, wearing a suit too big for him.

Perhaps even better than that was his appearance as Orvis Goodnight in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”; he has a momentous scene when the police show up at his neighbors’ (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) house. He then explodes into frustration that, despite his money and expensive house, he can’t get the kind of attention and respect that someone in his upper-level income bracket should get. Orvis is constantly reminded that no matter how much money and fame you have if you’re black you’re still a second-class citizen. Not only is it a brilliantly timed, funny scene, and perhaps the highlight of the entire film, it simmers with potent rage.

Little Richard was truly one of kind. Not only will his music and talent endure, and not only was he a trendsetter, he spoke ignored truth to power through his image and music. He was larger than life, and life would have been duller without him.

Sergio Mims

Sergio Mims is a film critic and historian and is the host and producer of the weekly Bad Mutha’ Film Show WHPK-FM (88.5PM Chicago) as along as the classical music format chief for the station with his own weekly music show. 

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