Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) combined the passionate spirit of gospel, the bawdiness of the blues and the swing of New Orleans jazz to create something altogether fresh: rock & roll.
When the young artist was signed by Specialty Records’ Art Rupe in the mid-‘50s, he gained a new platform to showcase his bold sound and flamboyant persona, captured in all their glory on his legendary 1957 debut, Here’s Little Richard.
The album, which primarily gathered the artist’s early Specialty singles from 1955-1957, could easily serve as a best-of compilation. In fact, seven of the songs on Here’s Little Richard were Top 10 hits on the Billboard R&B chart, while two tracks peaked in the Pop Top 10 (“Long Tall Sally” and “Jenny Jenny”). The album also included such favorites as “Reddy Teddy,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up” and Little Richard’s most iconic song, “Tutti Frutti.” Originally released in October 1955, the effervescent single helped usher in an exciting new genre of music.
While the artist would go on to release more than a dozen studio albums after Here’s Little Richard, his debut remained his crowning achievement, as well as his highest-charting full-length (peaking at No.13 on the Billboard 200). Richard would revisit those foundational 12 tracks throughout his career.
Over the decades, Here’s Little Richard has been widely acknowledged for its importance in pop music history. In 2012, Rolling Stone ranked the title at No. 50 in its roundup of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” while TIME included Here’s Little Richard in their “All-Time 100 Albums” list. In 2007, Mojo ranked “Tutti Frutti” at No. 1 in their “100 Records That Changed the World” list, and in 2010, the Library of Congress inducted the song into its National Recording Registry, proclaiming that the song “announced a new era in music.”
You’ll have a greater appreciation for just how fearless and persevering Little Richard was after reading this essay, which marvels at how joyously Little Richard faced the lifelong uphill battle of being a flamboyant black musician in white America.
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A tribute to Little Richard’s enormous musical and cultural legacy which argues–quite convincingly–that he is one of the greatest American innovators of the 20th century, in any medium.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Slippin’ and Slidin’” - This track had an interesting evolution—almost like a game of musical telephone. In 1955, R&B singer-songwriter Al Collins wrote a song called “I Got the Blues for You.” A year later, New Orleans blues pianist Eddie Bo reworked the song and recorded it as “I’m Wise.” Little Richard then created his own rendition of the tune, “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” which would become the definitive version. Richard revisited the song several times throughout his career, recording it a decade later with Vee-Jay and, later, Modern. A host of other artists would cover Little Richard’s version, including John Lennon, Johnny Winter and Otis Redding.
“Ready Teddy” - Though “Ready Teddy” was a Top 10 R&B hit for Richard, the song would be made even more famous by one of his biggest fans, Elvis Presley, who sang the upbeat tune in front of 60 million television viewers on his record-breaking debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It also graced the silver screen twice—in the 1958 Jayne Mansfield comedy The Girl Can’t Help It (Richard’s recording of the title song was a hit in the US and UK) as well as in Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic, La Dolce Vita, where it was performed by Italian rocker Adriano Celentano.
“Rip It Up” - This song was a No.1 R&B hit for Little Richard and a Top 20 single (peaking at No.17 on the Billboard Pop chart in the summer of 1956). However, the significance of these charting hits was often muted for Little Richard and other black musicians at the time, because of a common record industry practice in the ‘50s, which called for “safer” white artists to cover popular R&B singles. This was often the case with Little Richard’s songs and became a point of contention for the artist. In the case of “Rip It Up”, contemporaries Bill Haley and the Comets covered the tune (hitting No.25 on the Pop chart) and later performed the song in the 1956 film Don’t Knock the Rock. Richard did have the opportunity to make a cameo in the musical, though, and his over-the-top showmanship stole the show, as he performed “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- Little Richard was among the first artists to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and Buddy Holly. His other honors include a GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award (1993) and inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2003), the NAACP Image Awards’ Hall of Fame (2002) and the Blues Hall of Fame (2015).
- Before the Beatles became stars in their own right, they were opening for Little Richard in Hamburg and Liverpool. They were huge fans of his, and would go on to cover many of his songs over the years, including “Long Tall Sally”, “Ooh! My Soul” and “Lucille.”. Two of the band members covered Richard’s songs in their solo careers, too: John Lennon recorded “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and a medley of “Rip It Up”/“Ready Teddy” on his 1975 covers album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, while Paul McCartney recorded “Lucille” for a live album in 1988.
- Richard is considered to be one of the first crossover African American artists to break racial barriers in the ‘50s, when segregation permeated every aspect of American society —including the airwaves. Remarkably, the artist’s music, and his concerts, drew fans of all colors.
- In the late ‘50s, Little Richard briefly retreated from rock stardom and shifted his focus to spreading the gospel. For several years, Richard traveled around the country as a preacher with his “Little Richard Evangelistic Team.” In the early ‘60s, before his return to secular music, he also released two gospel albums: Pray Along with Little Richard and the Quincy Jones-produced King of the Gospel Singers.
- Here’s Little Richard and its vibrant namesake influenced many of the world’s biggest rock, pop and R&B acts. Richard’s songs have been covered onstage and in the studio by countless artists, including contemporaries Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, and later disciples like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Deep Purple, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, the Animals, Fleetwood Mac and the Zombies.
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