American rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard is a hugely influential singer/songwriter. Combining charisma and showmanship, he’s credited with having led the youth music revolution of the 1950s with his dynamic singing and piano playing.
As one of the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he received two Lifetime Achievement Awards, from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and from the Recording Academy, and was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
His 1955 hit, Tutti Frutti, has been added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, with his “unique vocalising” and “irresistible beat” being cited as heralding a new era in music.
He also received a Rhapsody and Rhythm Award from the National Museum of African American Music in 2015 for his role in forming popular music genres and changing American culture in the pop charts with his flamboyant, driving sound.
Born Richard Penniman on 5th December 1932, he was the third of 12 children born to church deacon Charles and Leva Mae Penniman, of the New Hope Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. His nickname “Little Richard” was given by his family, because he was a small and thin child.
He came from a very religious family in a poor neighbourhood and recalled people singing gospel songs to keep their spirits up. Gifted with a wonderful singing voice, he liked to experiment by changing songs to a higher key. However, this led to him being reprimanded by the church minister one day, who accused the youngster of “hollering” too loud!
Attending Hudson High School in Macon, Little Richard wasn’t gifted academically but excelled at music. He learned to play the saxophone and piano as a youth.
First live gig
At the age of 14, he played a live gig with the popular gospel singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, at Macon City Auditorium, where he worked selling soft drinks to the crowds. It was reputedly this experience that inspired him to become a professional singer.
In 1949, aged only 17, he left school and home to join touring show, Dr Hudson’s Medicine Show. He became a rhythm and blues singer and in 1950, he successfully auditioned for a recording contract with RCA Victor. This was the start of his massively successful recording career and his extravagant and flamboyant live performances.
During the 1950s, he released a succession of hit singles and shaped the rock ‘n’ roll genre which spearheaded the youth culture of the era.
A prolific songwriter, he wrote the majority of his own hit songs, including his most famous singles, Long Tall Sally, Lucille, Tutti Frutti, Miss Ann, Slippin’ and Slidin’ and Ooh My Soul, to name but a few.
One of his biggest chart successes was Keep a Knockin’, released in August 1957. It peaked at number eight on the US Hot 100 chart and also featured in the film, Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll.
This was one of the few songs that Little Richard hadn’t written himself, although many people thought it was one of his own. It was actually written in the 1920s by Perry Bradford and Jay Mayo Williams and there had been several cover versions released in the 1930s.
Little Richard put his own unique spin on the song, bringing it bang up to date with the rock and roll feel. The lyrics related to a lover who was knocking at the door, but wasn’t allowed in because he had behaved badly. It was essentially a song about someone who had been found out misbehaving and so they were being punished.
The lyrics were actually very repetitive and consisted of the line, “You keep a knockin’ but you can’t come in!” being repeated multiple times, combined with the second line, “You said you loved me and you can’t come in.”
This didn’t matter when they were sung with Little Richard’s style and panache. Despite the massive success of the song, the entertainer courted controversy by telling the audience at his live show in Sydney, Australia, how he was renouncing rock ‘n’ roll to turn to God.
Back to his roots
He went back to his gospel roots and this became a pattern that repeated itself throughout the 1960s and ’70s, as he went from rock and roll to gospel and back again several times. He has released multiple hit records, starred in TV shows and films, and continued to tour for most of his life.
At the age of 79, he was still headlining in Las Vegas and a new a cappella version of his 1975 hit single, Try To Help Your Brother, was released in 2016. Now aged 86, the legendary star has survived a heart attack.
Although now retired from live performing, in recent years he has appeared in interviews on the religious network, Three Angels Broadcasting Network.
No need to knock, just come right in!
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