Little Richard’s Raw Sexiness Inspired the Beatles, David Bowie and Prince
Light years ahead of the rest of us, Richard Charles Penniman erased the boundaries between the sexes and blurred the lines between religious ecstasy and rock and roll.
It’s not going out on much of a limb to say that the single greatest line in any rock and roll song—shall we double down and say all music ever?—is “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!!”
Surely that says it all.
As with any truly oracular pronouncement, it inspires consternation in the first-time listener, and the second-time listener, and the third, the fourth, and on and on. The mystery never diminishes.
As song openings go, it’s impossible to top. And then the music kicks in, like something from the eye of a hurricane.
“Tutti Frutti, aw Rudy!
“Tutti Frutti, aw Rudy!
“Got a gal named Sue,
“She knows just what to do!”
Reduced to mere words, that lyric doesn’t look like much. You have to hear it to believe it, but if any song epitomizes the sentiment, “I don’t need to know what it means to know I love it,” it’s “Tutti Frutti,” the first single cut by Little Richard, the song that made his name, and arguably the song that more than any other drew more people to warm themselves at the fires of rock and roll. And in the six decades since it was recorded, it’s lost not one iota of its power.
It certainly inspired its share of musicians, from the Beatles to Lou Reed, from the Stones to David Bowie and Patti Smith and Prince—especially Prince. All of them freely acknowledged that it completely changed their lives in the two minutes and 25 seconds time it took the song to work its magic.
Little Richard died on Saturday, aged 87, from bone cancer after struggling for “many years,” his agent, Dick Alen, told People.
Even if you aren’t a musician, you can’t help envying the transformative power of that music—to grab a listener and not let go, to infuse a room with boundless energy, to rearrange reality, as all great art must, such that the world is never the same after you’ve heard that song. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Then came “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Lucille,” and with each release the realization grew that good as these songs were, what made them great was the man playing and singing them.
More than anyone, Richard Charles Penniman utterly obliterated the always thin membrane between religious ecstasy and the transformative power of rock. It’s utterly unsurprising that for most of his life he went back and forth between the worlds of religion and pop, between gospel shouting and musical orgasm.
In a similar manner, and well before his time, he erased the boundaries between the sexes, daring to appear on stage in make up and to move and behave androgynously. Was he straight, gay, something in between, or something altogether different?
The original version of “Tutti Frutti”—the version Little Richard played for his record producer in New Orleans during a session break when they had stopped for lunch—was a spirited ode to sodomy that might have given Prince pause. Hearing that performance, the producer knew two things: he had a hit, and he needed new lyrics (it was at that point that songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie was brought in to provide a cleaner version, and given the scrub she gave the words, it’s no wonder she always claimed that Little Richard wrote none of the song.)
Not long after Little Richard’s version of “Tutti Frutti” appeared in 1955, Pat Boone had an even bigger hit with an even more G-rated version. No one explains that abomination better than Little Richard himself did in an interview with Richard Harrington of The Washington Post: “They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way ... I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out... They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer 'cause they liked my version better, but the families didn't want me because of the image that I was projecting.”
Time, thank goodness, does occasionally vindicate the great. Today no one remembers that cover, while Little Richard’s version lives in our heads like it was recorded yesterday. But, while comparing Little Richard to Pat Boone is a no-brainer in terms of who wins, bigger talents fared no better. Even Elvis, who recorded a more than credible version for his first RCA album, turns in a performance that isn’t a patch on the original.
Little Richard’s version has a rawness that’s kept just barely in check. It’s an explosion of sound, but it’s a controlled explosion. It’s that sense of something about to wheel out of control at every moment that makes the song so alive and it does for a fact almost drive you crazy.
Maybe it’s not fair to judge a talent as huge as Little Richard’s on the basis of one song. He did, after all, record a lot, including half a dozen songs as good as anything in the history of rock and roll.
And he could cover anything—absolutely anything—and make it wholly his own.
Even so, career survey seems completely beside the point, because “Tutti Frutti” really does tell the whole story of who Little Richard was and the kind of ruckus he was capable of raising (even the Library of Congress concurs, having added the song to its National Recording Registry in 2010 with the observation that the "unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music").
That sense of total, nothing-held-back commitment that Little Richard brought to everything he did is all there in that first recording. He would do it over and over, on one great song after another, for decades, but great as he always was, the rest was just a matter of repeating himself. The news was already out, and it’s stayed news ever since.