Liner Notes

Ten Reasons Why You Should Honor Little Richard's Memory

by Duke Egbert

littlerichard_400When people talk about rock and roll trailblazers, it’s almost always the white musicians they talk about -- Elvis, Jerry Lee, those guys.

But if we want to face the truth—and we do—rock and roll was invented by men and women of color. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first person to use distortion on an electric guitar, and her gospel stylings were a direct influence on early rock. Chuck Berry created rock and roll as teenage rebellion and celebration, and incidentally created the guitar riff.

And then—then there was Richard Wayne Penniman, the man who created rock and roll itself. He was fabulous, he was gritty, he was flashy, and he was a star: Little Richard.

1. Little Richard had the first ever charting rock and roll hit. Go ahead, argue with me. But “Tutti Frutti” owned the charts in 1955, a year before “Heartbreak Hotel.” And, frankly, it’s a more frenetic, pounding, raw song; there’s more “Tutti” in punk and heavy metal than there is anything Elvis ever did. There is pure, unadulterated power in his early songs.

2. Elvis Presley said he was ‘the greatest.’ Presley covered Little Richard’s songs four times on his first two debut albums in 1956. Before those albums, the only hit Presley had was on the country charts.

3. He spent ten years paying his dues on the ‘minstrel circuit.’ The minstrel circuit is a loose term for the African-American touring shows of the late forties and early fifties. Discovered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, during this time Richard also played with Louis Jordan and Billy Wright (more on that in a bit). He dealt with prejudice, oppression, being unable to buy food in restaurants and buy a bed in a hotel, and hostile white cops.

4. He was one of the first, if not the first, well-known drag queens of color. Little Richard played in drag often on the minstrel circuit, under the name Princess LaVonne.

5. He was an early supporter of gay rights, though later in life he denied it to try to get in ‘good with God.’ There is no denying some of the things he said late in life were prejudiced and unacceptable. However, he learned his makeup techniques and his iconic pencil moustache from the openly gay R&B performer Billy Wright. He was always ambiguous about his own sexuality; he could never reconcile it with his faith.

6. He was too loud for Pentecostal church choirs. Little Richard credited his childhood singing in his father’s church (his father was a church deacon -- who also bootlegged moonshine and owned a night club). However, he was often told to quiet down, as he was being too exuberant for those choirs.

7. Along with Fats Domino, he proved that artists of color could sell out ‘white’ venues. And this was in the South, with community organizations (usually white supremacists) doing their best to discourage white attendance to his shows.

8. He was the first documented recipient of one of the most iconic (and tacky) acknowledgements of his stardom—women throwing panties on stage. Baltimore, Royal Theatre, June 1956. Tom Jones was still in puberty.

9. He was a member of the first class ever inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Insert joke about the Hall getting something right for a change here.

10. He could scream, wail, holler, roar, sing the praises of his god, preach, declaim, and make people happy, horny, and joyful. Artists from Bruno Mars to Mick Jagger to Tom Jones credit him as their greatest influence. He preached at Wilson Pickett’s funeral and once did 20 marriage ceremonies at once. He had fabulous hair and wore rhinestones before James Brown. He was a true badass and an American original. Rest in Peace, Richard Wayne Penniman. (Though he’s probably in his heaven, teaching angelic choirs how to wail and scream.)

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