Picture the scene. It is the year 1955. Elvis Presley is playing on the radio. He’s just released the hip shaking catchy single ‘Baby, Let’s Play House.’ Bill Haley and the Comets are one of the most popular bands in America. It won’t be long before rhythm and blues pioneer Fats Domino appears on the scene. There is a frisson in the air; an exhilarating sense of potential and freedom, especially if you’re young and feeling rebellious.
It was into this vibrant scene that a curious man known as Little Richard first made his entrance. Richard – real name Richard Wayne Penniman – would give a name to the insatiable sound that had been gradually taking over the airwaves. Rock and roll was already everywhere; audiences just didn’t know what to call it yet. It would take a personality that you couldn’t turn away from to set it free and, unbeknownst to everybody but Richard himself, he was going to be the one to do it.
Nowadays, the cult of Little Richard is so familiar, so celebrated that it’s hard to imagine the star as an aspiring young singer. However, in February of 1955 he was in a studio in New Orleans trying to find a hit. He’d already won and lost two record deals and, despite the unwavering support of his producer Bumps Blackwell, it was make or break time. At just 22 years of age, Richard had already lived an extremely colorful life, so there was no shortage of inspiration.
He just had to get the right pieces in the right place and the magic would follow. It was when the diminutive singer jumped on the studio piano, during a coffee break, that one of the most famous rock and roll songs of the century was born. In his signature style – all flamboyance and ostentation, Richard pounded out the lyrics to one of his favorite tracks. It went ‘Tutti Frutti, good booty. If it don’t fit, don’t force it. You can grease it, make it easy.’ These were the original lyrics before they were changed.Compared with the S&M frolics of modern pop stars like Rihanna and Janet Jackson, the words to Tutti Frutti, probably sound a little mild. However, this was the fifties and not only were they lascivious, they were teasingly homoerotic. It would be another two years before Elvis Presley was famously banned from gyrating his hips onstage. For Richard though, naughtiness came naturally and he was captivated by sexuality of all kinds.
Before making it as a rock and roll star, he was a keen voyeur. In his early twenties, he was arrested for public indecency at a gas station. He had a penchant for watching women in compromising situations and would stalk about the underground gay scene in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. He was friends with drag queens, gays, and eccentric rockers. He was drawn to the brave and the bold. He certainly had his own larger than life reputation.
Back in the studio, Bumps made him play the song again. It had sparked something in his creative mind and he wondered if this could be the one – the big hit. By the time Richard had finished, he had already started ironing out the kinks, chopping and changing like all producers do. The lyrics would have to change. There was no way anybody was going to listen to an effeminate singer howling a song about ‘fitting it into the booty,’ never mind buy it on record.
Fortunately, singer Dorothy LaBostrie was listening in to the session. Bumps grabbed her and sat her down with Richard to rewrite the track. Just three electrifying takes later and it was ready. The single Tutti Frutti, with its fresh and radio friendly refrain of ‘Oh Rudy, A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boo,’ was released eight months later. It raced up the charts and was sat snugly in the top twenty by the start of 1956.
It would be the beginning of not just a glittering career for the singer, but also an inimitable one. Rock and roll stars have come and gone – plenty of them – but nobody has ever done it quite like Little Richard. In fact, the only person to come close to matching his distinctive blend of androgynous sex appeal and down and dirty blues was Prince.
It is no surprise then that soon after Prince passed away this year, whispers started to circulate about the health of this godfather of the genre. At an impressive 83 years of age, Little Richard has outlived many of his contemporaries and several of the legends that he inspired. He doesn’t make public appearances very often these days, but he continues to play; mostly for his own pleasure.
Rumors of his death brought out that famously spiky personality in May and he clapped back with an announcement that he may ‘have had hip surgery,’ but he’s still singing and walking around. According to friends and relatives, he was actually very shocked at the unexpected passing of Prince, whom he considered to be a ‘creative genius.’ If one thing is for sure, it’s that alive or dead, Little Richard will never be replaced. He’s the kind of musician who only comes along once in a lifetime. He’s a David Bowie, a Prince, a Freddie Mercury.
These are our legends and, within time, they’ll all become memories in a hall of fame. For now though, Little Richard wants the world to know that he’s in rude health and you’d better not consign him to the record books yet. Perhaps that lightening moment in a New Orleans recording studio was good luck. Then again, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this crazy rock and roll cat was always going to find a way to make it.
So, if you ever feel a little odd or strange; if you ever feel like you don’t ft in, grab your headphones, put “Tutti Frutti,” at the top of the playlist and remind yourself that the brightest stars are always the ones who break the mold.
Photo by Anna Bleker Annableker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons