While the question of who started Rock N’ Roll will never be answered definitively, Little Richard was by far one of its main architects. His early recordings for Specialty Records inspired musical giants like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, his live performances inspired the likes of James Brown and Otis Redding, and at one point he even employed a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in his band. He’s been in movies, on TV shows, and is a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. That said, even with all of the success he enjoyed in his career he had a complicated life. Once, while on tour with his band in Australia in 1957, he had a religious “awakening”. He immediately cancelled a concert, decided he was going to do gospel music, then suddenly started disposing of all his jewelry. While this story has taken many forms over the years (some versions have him on a boat throwing the jewelry overboard), one thing is certain, he did leave pop music for a while and strictly recorded gospel. When he retuned to pop music several years later he found other musicians had taken his share of the spotlight. He continued to record and had some limited success with songs here and there but nothing like he’d experienced in the 50’s.
In the studio, Richard was never better than he was on the recordings he made for Specialty Records in the 1950’s. Produced by the legendary the producer Bumps Blackwell and recorded by some of New Orleans finest players, these recordings inspired generations of musicians. It was during one of these early Specialty sessions that Richard’s legendary hit “Tutti Frutti” was recorded. Originally a playful song about homosexual sex, Blackwell felt the lyrics were too much for general audiences so he asked songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to help clean up the lyrics so the song could be on the radio. Richard himself plays piano on the track. As the song was a late addition to the session, the groups main piano player Huey Smith didn’t have time to learn the part. The song was a hit and eventually reached #17 on the pop Billboard charts. It also inspired several cover version some of which actually charted higher than Richard’s original version. Regardless, this was the beginning of a successful run for Richard and Specialty.
While the Specialty years were Richard’s most successful years in the recording studio, one of my personal favorite Little Richard recordings is his version of Don Covay’s “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me” recorded for VeeJay Records in 1965. The song is a bit of a change stylistically for Richard who was trying to adapt to the new sound of Soul music that was becoming popular thanks to artists like The Temptations and Otis Redding. Here, Richard gives an outstanding performance that finds him shouting like a Baptist preacher and to make things a little more interesting, features a relatively unknown guitarist at the time named Jimi Hendrix.
Another time that Richard hit pay dirt in the studio was at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals AL. The year was 1970 and Richard was in town recording what was supposed to be his comeback album, “The Rill Thing”. While the album didn’t hit the charts like the Richard would’ve hoped, he did record a song called “Greenwood, Mississippi”. Written by guitarist Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack, the tune is a straight-ahead Country Rocker with a little bit of Soul-flare. Easily the strongest tune on the album, Richard’s vocal take reminds folks where John Fogerty got his vocal sound from.
Even though Richard was pretty absent on the Billboard charts for most of his career he was always an in-demand live performer. In his early years on the road Richard’s act was so popular he sometimes would get double booked. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, an impersonator would be hired to play the show the real Little Richard couldn’t perform at. This seem to work for a while until TV became more popular in households across the country. While it might sound like a shady act to fool an audience in this way, things could’ve been worse. A few times Richard’s management hired a young man by the name of James Brown to be “Little Richard” for an evening. Otis Redding was another popular choice. All that said, most folks who were in the audiences said they knew they weren’t getting the REAL Little Richard but were still entertained.
There’s no question that Little Richard is one of the most influential musicians of all time. But did he invent Rock N’ Roll? No. It’s hard to say there was ONE person who is responsible for one of music’s most popular genres, but he is one of Rock’s main architects. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get more recognition while he was alive but to be fair part of that was because of Richard himself. He was a talented but complicated guy. Nevertheless, he is Rock n’ Roll royalty and we all owe him a big debt of gratitude.