Elton John inherited his flamboyant style. Paul McCartney, his shrieking vocal. Indeed, there isn’t a performer of the past 50 years who hasn’t in some way been influenced by the remarkable Little Richard. Along with the late Chuck Berry, he can justifiably be called one of the twin monarchs of rock ‘n’ roll, a pillar of the institution. Even Jerry Lee and Elvis were forced to pay homage as they followed in his footsteps.
Along with introducing any number of indelible standards, Little Richard created an image that was equal parts showmanship and flamboyance, a carefully calculated combination that seemed shocking in the staid ‘50s and still remains worthy of notoriety today. Granted, Lady Gaga and Madonna made outrage synonymous with mass appeal, but for Little Richard, that over the top presence was a natural part of his persona. He didn’t feel compelled to dream up a new gag or gimmick. He could dress as outrageously as he wanted, and even the rumors about his homosexuality didn’t diminish his standing. He was simply himself. And being Little Richard was a remarkable feat all on its own.
In later years, the man born Richard Wayne Penniman renounced rock ‘n’ roll, but his larger than life charisma and outspoken attitude never completely went away. Likewise, the songs he gave us are still performed with regularity by a current generation that’s decades removed. Here then is our celebration of one of the biggest stars of all time, Little Richard.
Written by Bobby Troup (who is best known for penning another classic track, “Route 66) Richard immortalized “The Girl Can’t Help It” on wax and on film in 1956. Ironically, Fats Domino was originally picked to perform it, but ultimately declined. The title track to the film of the same name starring actress Jayne Mansfield, it continued Richard’s tradition of chastising bad women who ran afoul of men and manners, while making him a marquee name in the process
In the early ‘60s, Little Richard renounced rock ‘n’ roll and turned to religion. Although he would eventually make his way back, his religious fervor never subsided. This song, written by Richard and Billy Preston, first made its appearance on the soundtrack for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a 1986 film in which he also played an onscreen acting role. Surprisingly perhaps, the song became a hit and Richard reentered the charts, an indication that his comeback was complete.
There’s a sly bit of subtlety here, at least by Little Richard standards. The tempo is slowed somewhat, giving way to a shuffle that references an early form of zydeco. Based on an earlier song entitled “Got the Blues for You” and subsequently adapted and renamed “I’m Wise,” it was further changed when Richard retitled it, offering it up under his own aegis and including it on his first album in 1956.
While many of Richard’s early songs were based at least partially on rhythm and blues, “Lucille” helped turn the tide through a treatment that was overtly rock ‘n’ roll, thereby setting a standard for the frantic rhythms, chugging bass lines and over the top vocals that would typify many a rock anthem in the decades to come. Like many of his most successful songs, it revolves around a woman, one who keeps her adoring suitor a bay. Nevertheless, it packed enough punch to make it one of the most covered songs of the era. Trivia buffs take note: When Lennon and McCartney briefly jammed together in their first and only studio session after the Beatles broke up, “Lucille” was the song they chose for the occasion.
Little Richard couldn’t claim sole ownership of “Rip It Up.” Another early pioneer, Bill Haley, also offered up his version in 1956. Other contemporaries, including Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers also gave it a go. Even so, its charge and tenacity made it a perfect vehicle for Richard’s iconic energy and unrestrained enthusiasm. “I’m gonna rock it up and ball tonight,” he insisted, leaving little doubt as to his ultimate intents.
Written by John Marascalco and Robert Blackwell—the same team responsible for the aforementioned “Rip It Up”—this track was also widely shared, as Elvis and Buddy Holly are among the many others that did it honors. Like most of Richard’s hits, there’s not a lot of interpretation needed. The lyrics are as straight forward as the melody, and it’s unabashed energy that comes to the fore. Still, the combination of a wailing saxophone and Richard’s pounding piano create a tour de force, a shining example of early rock ‘n’ roll at its most tenacious and triumphant.
Little Richard was never one for subtlety, and here again, “Keep a Knockin’” drives the point home. A top 10 hit for Mr. Penniman, its origins can be traced back to recordings made by a number of artists all the way back to the 1920s. The underlying theme here is one of frustration. You can pound all you want, but you’re not gaining entrance. It took another tune, “I Hear You Knocking,” to acknowledge that there was actually someone on the other side of that door to begin with.
That remarkable refrain was enough to ensure this song would become a standard, and the equally intense intro—”A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”—suggested it needed to be taken seriously. A rocking, wailing battle cry of sorts, it became Little Richard’s first hit and catapulted him to stardom. Although it was typical of the banshee approach that Richard would continue to champion, the song itself had several false starts. The lyric “Tutti Frutti, good booty” was in the initial draft. Later it was changed to “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy,” an obvious reference to make on male intercourse. Richard was coming out quickly.
Although it’s notoriety partially stemmed from the fact that The Beatles recorded it early on, Little Richard and “Long Tall Sally” clearly had an influence on the Fab Four. Later, Lennon and McCartney would write their own version of another of his songs, “I’m Down.” It’s little wonder: the Fabs supported Little Richard on his 1962 British tour. Although ostensively written in part by a local deejay in tribute to his ailing Aunt Sally, Richard took it to a prurient place by penning this conclusive stanza, “Well, Long Tall Sally / She’s built for speed / She’s got everything that Uncle John needs” while singing it as fast as he could. It was only a matter of time before “Sally” became a standard.
A top five hit, “Good Golly Miss Molly” epitomized Little Richard’s style with a full-on blustery refrain that made the rest of the song seem almost inconsequential in comparison. Richard admitted that he “borrowed” the opening riff from the tune that’s cited as the first real rock ‘n‘ roll song, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.” As far the lyrics go, suffice it to say they were practically porn, especially in the context of the time. “Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball,” Richard roared, making “Molly” one of rock’s most overtly suggestive songs of all time.