By: Cindy Annis – Sept. 2016
Well, we hope you enjoyed Bill Haley and His Comets, last month. Let’s go with a little harder rock and see about Little Richard. This guy was born in Macon, Georgia with the name Richard Wayne Penniman. He was born on December 5, 1932. He was the 3rd in a line of 12 children born to Leva Mae (Stewart) and Charles (Bud) Penniman. Even though his dad was a church deacon, he sold moonshine at his night club, The Tip In Inn. His mom was a Baptist church goer and religion was very important in the family. Little Richard was originally called lil’Richard because as a child he was rather runty and had a defect from birth where one leg was longer than the other. This defect caused him to move around with a somewhat feminine gate. All 14 of them were very religious and some even became ministers in church. Richard liked the Pentecostal churches the most as he got more out of their music than any other services. He had a loud voice for singing, so much so, that the church service was stopped more than once to ask him to stop singing. He was nicknamed the “War Hawk” because of his loud singing.
Richard went to Hudson High School in Macon where he didn’t fair all that well, but he showed great ability in music. He was such a natural on the saxophone, he was put right into the marching band. While in high school he got a job selling Coca-Cola to stars such as Cab Calloway and Sister Rosetta Tharpe that were performing at the Macon City Auditorium. Before the start of one concert, Tharpe heard Richard casually singing a couple of her songs and wanted him to come on stage and sing with her at the start of her show. Her promoter said nothing doing, but when the curtain opened, Richard was singing and the crowd loved him. Tharpe paid him for his performance and this was the start of something great. Richard had just fallen in love with performing, and he would never look back. He began performing with and for just about any group that would come through town. This gave Richard quite the reputation. Because of school and reputation around town and the “rumors” of what went on with the groups he would perform with, his father kicked him out and he went off and joined Dr. Hudson’s Medicine show. He performed a very risqué number called “Caldonia.” This would be the first “secular R&B number he would learn. R&B was considered the devil’s music by his family. He would soon join his first musical group called Buster Brown’s Orchestra. This is the group that started calling him Little Richard as a stage name. He also performed with numerous other groups wearing heavy make-up and wearing very flamboyant clothes giving him a new reputation as a drag performer.
Richard’s very first single was called “Every Hour,” and was recorded under RCA. The song was a hit and so this re-established his relationship with his father, who let Richard perform the song at his night club, regularly. Also around 1951, Richard started learning to play boogie woogie on the piano from teenage musician Esquerita. Around February of 1952, Little Richard left RCA Victor as his records weren’t going anywhere. His father was killed outside his night club the same month. There were all kinds of rumors as to why he was killed, from owing loan shark’s money, to Little Richard having him killed. We won’t go there in this column, though.
Little Richard had a stint with poverty and he went through many small groups and managers. While he was hoping many small recordings would make it, but didn’t, he was taking a break at “The Dew Drop In” where he would sing this little racy number he used to do years earlier. He improvised an a cappella version of Tutti Frutti . The song was changed up a little by songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie and it was recorded in September of 1955. Released just a couple months later, the song hit it big! Tutti Frutti climbed to #2 on Billboard’s R&B Charts. It also hit Billboards Top 100 Rock & Roll Charts at #17. His very next song would hit #1 on the charts. Long Tall Sally was just what he needed.
These two hits were just the beginning of a very long list of hits Little Richard has. Little Richard also had a wife. He met Earnestine Campbell at a religious rally in 1957, and by 1959, they were married. In 1962, they had adopted a one-year-old boy. By 1963, the couple had divorced citing career and publicity of Little Richard was more than Earnestine could handle. He does, however, still have a good relationship with his son, Danny Jones. Danny sometimes works for him at different levels.
Of course with the kind of early career Little Richard had, there were all kinds of talk about him being gay, having drinking and drug problems, but the talk about trying to get out of all that was also there. He wanted to find religion, again. He went to school for Theology, and he was a preacher. Needless to say, he had a crazy up and down life. There were plenty of accolades to go along with this life. Of course, in 1956 he earned the Cashbox Triple Crown for Long Tall Sally. He got into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. He got into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and I could go on for chapters and chapters of the awards he received and the humanitarian work and generosity of Richard, but I think we will quit it right here. Hope that works for you.
Tune into Cindy’s Vinyl Vault every Sunday at 10pm, Monday at 11pm, and Wednesday at 9pm for the best music from the 50s through the 70s ever placed on vinyl. And remember folks, “it’s not how old it is, but how great it sounds!”