In 1951, Alan Freed’s Imaginary Bandstand began playing rhythm and blues and ruled the nighttime air waves, causing DJ’s across the country to follow suit. By 1954, these rhythm and blues songs spawned a new music genre called “rock and roll” after the African American euphemism for sex. In March 1955, Bill Haley and his Comets’ song, “Rock Around the Clock”, appeared in the movie Blackboard Jungle, and Rock and Roll finally broke onto the music charts.
But there was still a problem with Rock and Roll in 1954 and most of 1955: Though kids of all races listened to Rock and Roll performers of all races on the radio, kids rarely saw the performers. Most never knew if they were white, black, or Hispanic. When the kids did go to live shows, they were generally of the same race as the performers. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” was the perfect example, released in May 1955, white kids loved it, but white kids that went to Chuck Berry concerts, went there thinking he was white.
Richard Wayne Penniman changed that.
“Little Richard” as he was known to his friends, was inspired by Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 (arguably the first Rock and Roll song) in 1951 to get into the music business. For the next three years he struggled charting as a rhythm and blues songwriter, pianist, and singer, despite his larger than life stage presence. In 1954 he went back to his hometown of Macon, Georgia, disillusioned with the music industry, and washed dishes in the diner at the local Greyhound station. He formed a new band, which played on the weekends, and was convinced by a friend to send a demo to someone he knew at Specialty Records, based in Los Angeles. In summer of 1955, as Rock Around the Clock was on every radio, he got a call and was told to meet producer “Bumps” Blackwell at their studio in New Orleans. Specialty Records wanted a Fats Domino, who was the first R&B artist to successfully bring black music to a white audience.
On the humid and miserable afternoon of 14 September 1955, Little Richard was having a tough recording session. Nothing was working out. Out of frustration, he and Blackwell went next door to (I Shit You Not) The Dew Drop Inn, for a drink or two. Within minutes, Little Richard was playing on the bar’s piano and a crowd began to form. He got a bit wild and gave an impromptu concert right there. His music was missing a bit without his backup band, so he simulated the drum intro to his new song with the now iconic “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!”
With just 15 minutes left in the session, he and Bumps raced back next door and recorded Tutti Frutti in just one take. That single take is the same version you hear today. Tutti Fruiti is a song about a large cylindrical spaceship making the difficult and uncomfortable journey to the seventh planet from the sun. He knew he had a hit, but because of the risqué material, Little Richard tried it out live before releasing it. In October 1955, he did a series of shows that got bigger and bigger, and the centerpiece was his rendition of Tutti Frutti. The kids went wild, both black and white. Little Richard was the first live black Rock and Roll act to crossover to white kids. Live Rock and Roll, music that didn’t care about the color of your skin, was born.
When Pennimen and Blackwell finally felt comfortable releasing the material in November, Tutti Frutti shot straight to number 2 on the charts, and electrified Little Richard’s career. Tutti Frutti was the first mainstream black American Rock and Roll hit to cross the ocean and chart in the UK. Tutti Frutti and Little Richard’s wild antics on stage became the template for the new genre of music about to take the world by storm: Rock and Roll. Tutti Frutti changed the music industry, and every band and producer wanted their concerts to be like Little Richard’s. The crossover was almost complete. The music industry finally had a black act that appealed to white kids live, now they just needed a white act that appealed to black kids. They found him later that autumn in Bill Halley’s opener, Elvis Presley, a fan of Little Richard. Also, that December, after hearing Little Richard and Tutti Frutti, country singer Carl Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” essentially creating the devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly. Elvis Presley and Rockabilly would eventually bring the white girls en masse to the concerts and record stores. And where the girls went the bots followed. The beginning of the Golden Age of Rock and Roll was but months away.
Little Richard changed live rhythm and blues forever, and introduced it to a brand new audience. Little Richard’s concerts, where white and black kids mixed and danced to a new form of music, were ten years ahead of the Civil Rights Movement.
Little Richard broke down barriers thought incontestable just the spring before. He didn’t care about skin color, he cared about the fans. We should all be more like Little Richard.
RIP Richard Wayne Penniman