In Mark Lewishon’s extraordinary chronicle of The Beatles’ birth, a book that concludes with the release of their first single “Love me Do” in December 1962, the name Little Richard crops up more than 80 times in its 840 pages.
“John and Paul both revered the dynamic singer from Macon, Georgia. John was floored by Paul’s uncanny ability to mimic that screaming and hollering voice. Everyone was amazed by it. Paul would often break into it without warning, as if Little Richard was trapped inside him and occasionally had to surface for air.”
Paul explained; “Little Richard was this voice from heaven or hell, or both. This screaming voice seemed to come from the top of his head. I tried to do it one day and found I could. You had to lose every inhibition and do it.”
John Lennon added, “The most exciting thing about early Little Richard was when he screamed just before the solo; that howling. It used to make your hair stand on end.”
The teenage David Bowie was enthralled by the wailing sax on Little Richard’s records. The older David Bowie had a framed photo of Little Richard installed in the studio at every recording session.
Bob Dylan said “He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.”
If imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, then witness John Bonham’s “Keep a-Knockin’” drum intro kicking off one of Led Zep’s greatest and most blistering songs; “Rock and Roll” from Led Zeppelin IV. Or we could examine Slade’s breakthrough single, whereby Britain’s greatest ever rock & roll vocalist hollers “Wellll alllllright evry’body… Let your hair down.” Thereby follows four minutes of mayhem, the listener kicks back all the furniture and stomps like the Brothers Johnson wouldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams.
The list goes on. Little Richard’s energy, drive, showmanship, glamour, stagecraft, campness and sheer chutzpah has been begged, borrowed or stolen, whether they knew it or not (they did!), by Marc Bolan, James Brown, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Madonna, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry, Lady Gaga, Beyonce and a thousand others.
Enough. We’re gathered here today to praise the man born in December 1932 as Richard Wayne Penniman aka the Innovator, the Originator and the Architect of rock and roll.
This writer maintains that true rock ’n’ roll is fuelled by piano. Piano is what gives it the roll. Without it you just have rock. With all due respect to Jerry Lee Lewis, the king of piano-fired rock ‘n’ roll, which grew out of barrel house boogie, has to be Little Richard. He also happens to be one of the godfathers of soul and gospel.
You can read elsewhere of a career in some ways unfulfilled, of a star that burned brightly for a very brief period, then gave it up for the Church. You can read of comeback after comeback and of drink, drugs and sex. You can read about the first gay superstar, the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. You can also read many accounts of ordinary people having chance encounters with a rock ‘n’ roll hero who proves every inch the icon – a man of great generosity – a generosity of cash and of spirit. They’re all on the internet. Today we’re just listening and dancing to the music…
This playlist is roughly in chronological order. From the early 1952-54 singles it is evident that his star quality and talent is inherent. Then we get the explosion, the hits of 1955 to 57, though his discs didn’t hit the UK and Europe until ’57. Before that year was out, he’d retired from show business. He was back in 1962, supported in Hamburg by four unknown lads from Liverpool who called themselves The Beatles. Richard took an instant liking to them. The next five decades are represented by a few tracks that have some magic but lack the incendiary fire of the mid-to-late 50s classics. Who cares?
I was lucky enough to discover Little Richard via seven 45rpm singles on the London label. They were part of my parents’ collection that I was let loose to explore from the age of 10 when I would sit listening by their record player for hours falling in love with the music that has shaped me into the person I am. “Miss Ann” was my mum’s favourite. See if you can guess her name? These Little Richard singles are now more than 60 years old yet whenever I spin them in a DJ set, no matter the bar, club or party, the roof is instantly raised. There is something about them, about their manufacture, about the sound that bursts from them that no discs or CDs by any other artist comes close. Little Richard really does "Rock It Up", "Rip It Up" and "Shake It Up" like no one else.
To close, we heard news on May 9th, 2020 that Little Richard had passed on. For all the flaws, for all the years when we didn’t hear the voice of Little Richard, what he has left is some of the greatest, the most exciting, the highest octane, most life-affirming music ever laid on to wax. If you can’t party to these tunes, then please leave me off your invitation list.