Late in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, two dates stand out.
On November 8, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States.
Less than a month later, on December 5, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia.
In his presidential inaugural address on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt told the country:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself
Twenty-two years later, Penniman, known as Little Richard, was heard on radio stations and jukeboxes across the country with this proclamation:
Little Richard had arrived. For the opening of his first hit single, “Tutti Frutti,” he conjured an otherworldly language to drive the point home.
Rock and Roll music was taking hold of the American airwaves. Chuck Berry applied his brand to the genre with the hit singles, “Maybelline” and “Thirty Days” in the months before “Tutti Frutti.” In January ’56, Elvis Presley would command the world’s attention with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Still, no rock and roller was grabbing listeners by the collar like Little Richard. Raucous, raw and relentless, Richard Penniman was taking the music that shook the nation one and two steps further. He didn’t merely play the piano; he pounded the keys, fomenting a thunderous rhapsody. His voice was, for one thing, loud, but it was also, as Paul McCartney, told Rolling Stone, “a wild, hoarse, screaming thing.” As a younger man, McCartney could do Little Richard’s voice, which he said was “like an out-of-body experience…. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.”
From October ’55 through January ’58, Little Richard’s fired-up sensibilities resulted in a string of hits that became rock and roll classics. ”Tutti Fruitti.” “Long Tall Sally.” “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” “Rip It Up.” “Lucille.” “Jenny, Jenny.” “Keep A-Knockin’.” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Just one year after “Tutti Fruitti” was released, Elvis Presley covered three Little Richard songs on his second album, Elvis, which spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard Top Album chart. Little Richard was featured in The Girl Can’t Help It, ostensibly a Jayne Mansfield vehicle but long regarded as a film that had a great influence on rock artists, most notably The Beatles.
Little Richard was riding high. Several months before he recorded “Tutti Fruitti,” he worked at the Macon Greyhound station as a dishwasher. A true overnight-sensation, Penniman intrigued and excited millions. And no one loved it more than Little Richard; he made each day a 24-hour party. Penniman was enjoying all the decadence fame allowed, but something else was taking hold. Having spent his growing-up days in the AME, Baptist and Pentecostal churches, guilt preyed upon his fired-up sensibilities, Little Richard determined God was sending him signs to straighten up and pursue a career in Christian service. He was sure that a harrowing flight from Melbourne to Sydney ended safely because God had guided the plane. While in Sydney, he was deeply shaken by a red fireball he saw streaking across the sky. Then he learned it was the Soviet-launched satellite, Sputnik. Much of the world was shaken by Sputnik and there it was, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour above Little Richard’s head. He saw the satellite. He saw the light. It was time to get right with God.
So for Little Richard, it’s goodbye Hollywood and hello Huntsville, Ala. where he enrolled at Oakwood College, established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1986. Theological student Richard Penniman explored the scriptures and other religious books, including Daniel and the Revelation, written by Adventist Uriah Smith, who was reared in a family that adhered to Millerism, a belief that Jesus Christ would return on October 22, 1844. Proclaimed by the Baptist preacher William Miller, his prophecy only led to what is known as The Great Disappointment — the anguish afflicting some Christians when October 22, 1844 turned out to be just another day. As a disappointed teenager, Uriah Smith lost interest in religion but when his faith was renewed, he served in the Seventh-day Adventist Church as an author and editor of religious books and tracts. He advocated that Adventists should embrace religious liberty, abolitionism and not participate in combat (roles such as medics and chaplains were acceptable, however).
Interestingly enough, Little Richard, who caught sight of Sputnik blazing through space, found himself in Huntsville, the city where the first American satellite, Explorer 1, was launched in 1958. However, he paid little interest in what man was hurling into the skies. He studied the scriptures intensely. In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, David Dalton asked Little Richard about his favorite story in the Bible. He responded that yes it was a heavy question; that “the Bible is heavy …. I can’t say that it’s not heavy.” Then the ordained minister, in so many ways a great performer, began to expound on his faith:
“I like the story of Jesus, and I also like the story Of Peter and Paul and the story of Zachariah and Zephaniah and Malachi. I like a lot of the stories, because so many of them are strengthening stories, you see how men of old had the power and the spirit to go out on faith to work hard for God, not sinning but believing. You know how Peter and Jesus were out on the boat, and a storm came and started rocking the ship and Peter woke the Master up and says, ‘We will perish,’ and the Master tells him he should have more faith. He says, ‘I’m with you, Peter,’ and Peter says, ‘We’re about to sink here,’ and He rebuked the wind and caused peace to come to the sea.”
Jesus could calm the waters by commanding, “Peace be still,” but there was no keeping Little Richard still. Since quitting rock and roll, he continued to make music, but only in the spiritual and gospel fields. This went on for nearly five years. Most of Little Richard’s Christian records failed to chart.
Penniman’s departure from rock and roll contributed to a melancholy period for the music scene, running from the last three years of the Eisenhower Administration until the year Kennedy was assassinated. Elvis Presley joined the Army. Jerry Lee Lewis slid down the charts when it was learned he married his 13-year-old cousin. (Jerry claimed she was 15.) Buddy Holly died in a plane accident. Dubious charges were filed against Chuck Berry which put him behind bars from February ’62 through October ’63. In many ways, it seemed the magic was gone. A planned conspiracy against rock and roll couldn’t have been more effective.
Perhaps it was time for Little Richard to move back into the limelight. Working the pulpit — theology degree or not — didn’t thrill the crowds the way he did when singing of “Long Tall Sally” and “Miss Molly.” Taking deliberate steps, Little Richard would return to the rock and roll stage, even if he acknowledged it meant working with the devil. Things would kick off again in Europe, where he made appearances with his old Specialty Records friend, Sam Cooke, a former gospel singer who had smoothly shifted to the world of popular music. An eventful tour awaited, including a captivating show in Liverpool, England.
British promoter Don Arden was driven to bring American rock and roll acts to England. The prize catch was Little Richard. It took two trips to Los Angeles for Arden and Penniman to connect but finally, the deal was struck. Little Richard said, “Very well, I’ll sing rock ‘n’ roll again for you. But the Lord will punish you because I’ve always believed it’s somebody evil that’s going to bring me back.” Arden could live with that.
In his first comeback appearance, Penniman threw Arden and the fans a curve. It was the devout Little Richard who took the stage, singing “Joy, Joy, Joy,” “He Got What He Wanted (But He Lost What He Had)” and “I Believe,” all popular songs with the seminary folks in Huntsville but not what Don Arden paid for. In closing the show, Little Richard gave the fans a little of what they came for, offering a quick medley of his hits, but it was hardly enough.
Arden and Penniman had words after the show. Arden claimed he was double-crossed and Penniman called Arden the devil. Frazzled but thinking clearly enough, Arden went to Sam Cooke and asked him to convince Little Richard to give the people what they wanted. Sam came through. Little Richard took the stage proclaiming, “I am here by courtesy of the devil, Don Arden,” and then he killed it. The excitement was back.
The excitement carried over when Little Richard appeared at the Empire in Liverpool in October of 1962. Going on just before him was a local band called The Beatles, with a hit single, “Love Me Do,” moving up the UK charts. Little Richard was impressed. He said, “I’ve never heard that sound from English musicians before. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I’d have thought they were a colored group from back home.”
Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, learning along the way, asked Little Richard to help The Beatles in any way he could, even something as simple as posing for a photograph with the boys. Little Richard was happy to comply. Wearing a suit that made him the world’s best-dressed Seventh-day Adventist minister, he offered a big smile as The Beatles squeezed in around their hero.
Little Richard then went another step further, asking The Beatles to appear as his opening act at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were thrilled and Little Richard enjoyed taking the boys under his wing, giving them a cram course on the art of rock and roll. In a 1997 interview with Tom Snyder, Little Richard remembered, “I taught Paul the hollers and the screams and the rhythm of the boogie woogie.”
Of course, The Beatles were already students of Little Richard. They covered his songs in their shows long before they had a record deal. John Lennon said “Long Tall Sally” was so great that he could hardly speak after first hearing it. “Long Tall Sally” was one of the two Little Richard songs recorded by The Beatles, both with McCartney on lead vocals and both featuring great guitar work by George Harrison. “Long Tall Sally” was also the last song The Beatles performed in their last concert on August 29, 1966, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. By that time in The Beatles’ history, they were a self-contained band, only recording their own songs but they remembered their roots and their inspired friend.
John Lennon said Little Richard “used to read from the Bible backstage. Just to hear him talk, we’d sit around and listen.” Ringo Starr spoke of taking in two Little Richard sets six straight nights. On his 1975 “oldies” album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lennon included four Little Richard songs. McCartney, with his supergroup, Rockestra, included “Lucille” in a live recording featured on the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea album released in 1981. Little Richard was impressed.
In 1964, his music now being rediscovered by American rock and roll fans, Little Richard appeared on American Bandstand. Dick Clark asked him about working with The Beatles. “I was the star of the show if you can believe it,” Little Richard said, smiling, and then showed off the picture Brian Epstein arranged for him and The Beatles. That was a great time for Little Richard, basking in the adulation and proud of his contributions to rock and roll. As he told David Letterman in 1982, “I was the architect of rock.” Little Richard was more than that; he not only designed the music, he built it.
Little Richard also liked to remember how at the Liverpool show The Beatles met Billy Preston, the 16-year-old organist in his band. Preston was a musical prodigy who at the age of ten had played organ for the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and at age 12, starred in the film, The W. C. Handy Story, playing Handy as a boy. The grown-up Handy was played by Nat King Cole, who would become the biggest-selling act ever on Capitol Records until he was surpassed by The Beatles.
Several months after the first Little Richard-Beatles summit, Billy Preston recorded his first album, 16-Year-Old Soul for Sam Cooke’s SAR Records. From there, Preston continued to do session work and tour with other artists such as Ray Charles. Over the years, Preston and George Harrison had developed a warm friendship. Upon seeing Preston perform with Charles in January ’69, Harrison invited Preston to join The Beatles in the studio as they were struggling to get through sessions for the projected Get Back album. The Beatles were thrilled to have Preston with them; so much so that “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” the double A-side single he recorded with them. was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”
Preston also played organ with The Beatles on three tracks for their Abbey Road album (released October ’69), including the Harrison-penned “Something.” The Get Back project became the Let It Be album and Preston played on five of its songs, including the title track, released as a single on March 6, 1970. “Let It Be” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 11, 1970.
Little Richard, being the architect of rock and roll, wasn’t about to sit back as his old friends filled the airwaves. He was working on The Rill Thing, his best album in over a decade. The album’s opening track, “Freedom Blues,” was released as a single just as “Let It Be” was peaking. On the funky and rocking number, Little Richard makes it plain, “I got my duty rock and roll.” The guy certainly fulfilled his duty.
(Original vintage band poster, “In Person ‘Lucille’ Little Richard and his Orchestra. This work is in the Public Domain because it was published in the United States between 1925 and 1977, inclusive without a copyright notice. File obtained via Wikimedia Commons)