Rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its true originals last week, when Richard Penniman, the incomparable Little Richard, shuffled off this mortal coil. He was one of the few remaining entertainment figures of any medium or musical genre who was recognizable to multiple generations, across race and gender lines (indeed, he helped blur the latter), and just the mention of his name could light up a room. Parke Puterbaugh, longtime Rolling Stone editor and writer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reflects on Little Richard’s legacy and his own encounter with the man himself. 

“He was the first punk. He was the first everything.” — John Waters

Rock ‘n’ roll has lost one of its earliest, most original and vital voices. On May 9th, Little Richard died of bone cancer in Nashville at 87.

Over the past week, tributes have been flooding in from all over, from rockers of all vintages. Even rappers and the likes of actress Reece Witherspoon have been piling on the accolades. It is a measure of Little Richard’s significance to American culture and its greatest product, rock and roll, that his death has attracted so much attention.

To my thinking, there were seven principal rock ‘n’ roll architects: Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Each contributed something valuable, but Little Richard was a seismic personality who possessed all the essential ingredients: the voice (raw and raspy), the scream (the id unleashed), the look (rock’s wild-eyed maniac) and the sound (rhythm & blues with a throbbing, uptempo beat). Put it all together in a charismatic package and you had, in Little Richard, an electrifying performer capable of sending audience into uncontrollable frenzies.

Born Richard Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932, Little Richard blew the lid off the 1950s with a voice that could strip paint and a piano-pounding style, with one leg straddling the keyboard, that was a soundtrack for anarchy. His greatest songs—“Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rip It Up” among them—were, as biographer Charles White pronounced, “the holy writs of rock and roll.”


“One night I heard this screamin’ and hollerin’, and they were screamin’ and hollerin’ for him,” Little Richard recalled. “I thought they were screaming for me! But he was back there playin’ the guitar with his mouth.”


His music allowed white kids growing up in an era of uptight conformity to make contact with an emotional core within them. “Tutti Frutti” aroused something visceral that made them feel excitement and aliveness, perhaps for the first time in their constrained lives.

Speaking for many, Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “Little Richard hit me and my generation like a bolt of lightning.”

The Clash’s Joe Strummer, a devoted fan, memorably said, “He made his way out of the bus station in Macon [which he mispronounced MAY-con], Georgia and into the history books. His records were great. They still sound great. They’ll always be great.”

Little Richard’s achievement was larger than music. He helped young Americans breach their country’s longstanding racial divide by bringing white and black kids together around the shared excitement generated by his high-energy music and oversized personality.

In a lengthy interview I conducted with him in 1990 [see: “My Day In L.A. With Little Richard,” below], Richard recalled what he claimed to be a typical scene at his shows, especially throughout the South. Back in the day, black and white audience members were segregated, by law and custom. But Little Richard’s riotous rock ‘n’ roll music couldn’t keep them apart for long.

“’Tutti-Frutti’ really started the races being together,” he said. “Because when I was a boy, the white people would sit upstairs. They called it ‘white spectators,’ and the blacks was downstairs. And the white kids would jump over the balcony and come down where I was and dance with the blacks. We started that merging all across the country.”

More hits followed, and Little Richard toured the country and the world with his sensational backup band, the Upsetters. Art Rupe and Bumps Blackwell—the  owner and producer, respectively, of Specialty Records, Little Richard’s label—insisted that he record with the excellent New Orleans session musicians who also backed Fats Domino and many others at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio. But on the road, Little Richard tore the house down with the Upsetters. They were the greatest live band of the Fifties, by all accounts, including Little Richard’s: “Until this day, I haven’t seen another band surpass them.”

“Yes, It’s Me (And I’m in Love Again)” – Little Richard, from a rare recording session with the Upsetters:

Little Richard became so popular so quickly that he was included in some of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll movies, including 1956’s Don’t Knock the Rock. In it he appeared alongside such fellow “Kings of Rock and Roll” as Bill Haley & the Comets and the Treniers. The forgettable flick’s bathetic plot line was: “A disc jockey tries to prove to teenagers’ parents that rock ‘n’ roll is harmless and won’t turn their kids into juvenile delinquents.” Of course, this was precisely the opposite of what rock ‘n’ rollers were really attempting to do.

“Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti” – Little Richard, from the film Don’t Knock the Rock (1956):

On a personal level, Little Richard had grown up in the church and always professed deep faith in God. At the same time, he was preaching the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll, which many adults and authority figures perversely claimed to be “devil’s music.” The collision between sacred and secular, God and the devil, created an unbridgeable conflict within Little Richard. He was Saturday night and Sunday morning in one person. No rock and roller, not even Elvis, exhibited such a clear-cut dichotomy between the unbridled Dionysian spirit of rock ‘n’ roll at its most primal and a conflicted Christian who didn’t mean to give offense.

A signed photo from Charles Connor, drummer for the Upsetters to Parke Puterbaugh after the Little Richard interview ran. James Brown once described Little Richard and the Upsetters, with Connor on drums, as “the first to put funk into the rhythm.”

As a result, Little Richard twice in his career walked away from the “devil’s music” that made him a star. The first time came as a shocking blow to rock ‘n’ roll in the decade of its birth. On October 12, 1957, barely two years after he recorded “Tutti Frutti” in New Orleans, Little Richard told an Australian crowd he was abandoning rock ‘n’ roll for the Rock of Ages.

“It you want to live with the Lord,” he told the stunned audience, “you can’t rock and roll too. God doesn’t like it.”

Seeing flames shooting from the engine of the plane he’d flown in on, he took it as a premonition and prayed for his life. He was further jarred by a bad dream. As he recounted to me, “The dream kind of disturbed me, the thoughts kind of shook my mind. The dream was prepare for eternal life. That was it.”


He was Saturday night and Sunday morning in one person. No rock and roller, not even Elvis, exhibited such a clear-cut dichotomy between the unbridled Dionysian spirit of rock ‘n’ roll at its most primal and a conflicted Christian who didn’t mean to give offense.


Though Little Richard was at the height of his popularity, he couldn’t be dissuaded. He even threw four diamond rings valued at $8,000 (in 1950s’ dollars) into Sydney’s Hunter River as proof of his renunciation of fame and its glittery, godless façade. Back in the States, he cut a final eight-song session to fulfill his obligation to Specialty and then enrolled at Oakwood Bible College in Huntsville, Alabama, where he became an ordained minister. His next album was God Is Real, released in 1959.

Of course, there was an inevitable return to rock ‘n’ roll. In 1962, Little Richard shared a bill with the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany and toured Europe with them. This was “before they ever recorded, before anyone ever heard of a record company,” according to Little Richard. I asked if he saw the potential for the axis-shifting musical phenomenon the Beatles became.

“I saw it in Paul,” he responded. “Paul was the one that was so crazy about me. He and George. I felt they were good songwriters, and they were singing [breaks into ‘Love Me Do’]. I believed they had it. They were gifted.”

McCartney would appropriate some of Little Richard’s vocal tics and manic energy in his more overtly rocking songs with the Beatles, especially “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I’m Down.” Shortly after Little Richard’s death, McCartney tweeted, “Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager. I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows’.”


“I saw it in Paul,” he responded. “Paul was the one that was so crazy about me. He and George. I felt they were good songwriters, and they were singing [breaks into ‘Love Me Do’]. I believed they had it. They were gifted.”


In 1964, Little Richard returned to Specialty Records to cut five sides, including “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” a spirited piece of jumping jive worthy of his 1950s work for the label.

Little Richard-“Bama Lama Bama Loo”-performing on American Bandstand, 1964:

After the Beatles, the next budding rock legend who’d cross Little Richard’s path was Jimi Hendrix. After leaving the Army in 1962, Hendrix became a journeyman musician who cut his teeth as a guitarist for hire. He worked with such established soul, blues and R&B acts as the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, and B.B. King.

Hendrix became Little Richard’s tour guitarist and appeared on two albums he made for the Vee-Jay label from mid-1964 to mid-1965: Little Richard Is Back (And There’s a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!) and Little Richard’s Greatest Hits, an album of 1950s’ remakes. You can easily imagine where some of Hendrix’s more outlandish style, visually and musically, came from.

When I started to quote Hendrix to Little Richard, he interrupted and finished it: “Hendrix once made the statement, ‘I want to do with my guitar–‘”

“’–what Little Richard does with his voice,’” he said. “That was his aim. He wanted his guitar to sound like my voice. He was a very great guitarist.”

When Hendrix’s showmanship came to the fore during Little Richard’s act, the vainglorious frontman quickly shut him down.

“One night I heard this screamin’ and hollerin’, and they were screamin’ and hollerin’ for him,” Little Richard recalled. “I thought they were screaming for me! But he was back there playin’ the guitar with his mouth.”

“He didn’t do it anymore, because we made sure the lights didn’t come on in that area no more,” he chuckled. “We fixed that! We made sure that was a black spot.”

“It Ain’t Whatcha Do” (1965)-Little Richard, backed by Jimi Hendrix on guitar:

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Little Richard hung in there over the ensuing decades. After the 1960s’ purple haze dissipated, a rock ‘n’ roll revival thrust the surviving architects back into the spotlight. Little Richard signed with Reprise Records and cut three solid albums for the label: The Rill Thing (1970), The King of Rock and Roll (1971) and The Second Coming (1972). The middle album made Billboard’s Top 200, and “Freedom Blues” from The Rill Thing was a minor hit (#28 R&B, #47 pop).

Meanwhile, Little Richard became a regular, animated presence on the talk-show circuit, behaving in a scenery-chewing manner and punctuating his frantic monologues with frequent cries of “Shut up!” and first-person testimonials to his greatness.


When Hendrix’s showmanship came to the fore during Little Richard’s act, the vainglorious frontman quickly shut him down.


As the decade wore on, his flamboyant appearance made him seem like an obvious influence on sexually ambiguous rock ‘n’ rollers of the glam-rock era. Thinking back to the 1950s, what other male rock ‘n’ roller was wearing makeup and projecting an is-he-straight-or-gay androgyny? It is hard to imagine David Bowie’s wardrobe of shape-shifting characters, Mick Jagger’s prettified rock frontman or Lou Reed’s walk on the wild side without Little Richard as precedent. As John Waters told Rolling Stone, “He was always a great figure of sexual confusion.”

Although he would never again upend the culture like he did in the 1950s, Little Richard remained a constant presence in American life until his death. He became an icon, an institution, an almost endearing presence. You’d see him on commercials and in movies. He appeared on Sesame Street. He made an album for kids.

Hell, he even had one more hit single left in him when “Great Gosh A’Mighty (It’s a Matter of Time)” – taken from the soundtrack of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, in which he appeared – went to #42 in 1986.

But it was his string of indelible 1950s’ hits that have become a permanent part of the rock and roll firmament and cemented his legend. “Tutti Frutti” placed number one on Mojo magazine’s list of 100 Records That Changed the World. Rolling Stone undervalued it at #43 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. “Tutti Frutti,” along with “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille,” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Little Richard himself received the Grammy’s Lifetime Achieve Award in 1993.

Shamefully, however, Little Richard never won an actual Grammy Award, an oversight he noted when he appeared as a presenter at the 30th annual awards ceremony in 1988 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. He and David Johansen (New York Dolls, Buster Poindexter) were presenting the award for Best New Artist.


It is hard to imagine David Bowie’s wardrobe of shape-shifting characters, Mick Jagger’s prettified rock frontman or Lou Reed’s walk on the wild side without Little Richard as precedent.


Once again, as he had in the 1950s, Little Richard brought the house down. Before the envelope was ripped open, he started riffing at the microphone about having been overlooked and underappreciated by the music industry.

“I have never received nothing,” he exclaimed. “Y’all ain’t never gave me no Grammy and I been singing for years. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll and they never gave me nothing. And I am the originator!”

He was right, you know.

Little Richard at his concert performance in the Hamburg Star Club, singing in the 1960s by Sven Simon//picture-alliance/dpa/AP

MY DAY IN L.A. WITH LITTLE RICHARD

It might just be my favorite interview ever.

In 1990, I flew from New York to Los Angeles to talk to Little Richard. It was for an issue of Rolling Stone devoted to the Fifties. My assignment was to do a lengthy Q&A with Little Richard, so I needed more than the usual hour on the phone or at a table in a dreary record company conference room. Arrangements were made with that in mind.

The morning of the interview, a limo pulled into the parking lot of my hotel at the appointed time. I exited the lobby of The Mondrian on a cool Hollywood morning, climbed into the vehicle’s roomy rear compartment and introduced myself to Little Richard. He beamed a gracious hello, and I took in his appearance. He was impeccably turned out in a dark suit. He wore cologne. I was dressed like a rock journalist, which is to say nothing too impressive. Better than T-shirt and jeans, but not by much. Little Richard, by contrast, was resplendent.

I’d set up the encounter through his manager and publicist, Gloria Boyce, who was also in the vehicle. We were not headed to any particular locale to do the interview. The interview was, in fact, conducted in the limo. That was how Little Richard wanted it, and who was I to argue.

So, for roughly four hours, plus a lengthy break for lunch, I interviewed the rock ‘n’ roll legend in a limo that negotiated the freeways of L.A. with no destination in mind. It was a mobile conversation. This was fitting, in a way, since Little Richard got his deal with the label that would make him a star based on his desire for a fine set of wheels.

Lloyd Price had become a Fifties star with his breakout hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” When he performed in Macon, Georgia, a young and hungry Little Richard went out of his way to seek him out.

“He had this black and gold Cadillac, and I wanted a car like that,” Little Richard recalled. “I said, ‘How did you get famous?’ He told me about Specialty and gave me the address. I did a tape to try out for them to hear my voice. A year later, they got in touch with me.”

The rest, as they say, is history. And so is this interview. I am writing this having just realized that the interview occurred exactly 30 years ago to the day, on May 11, 2020.

I’d done my homework and still have the dozen legal-sized yellow sheets I’d filled with carefully written questions, quotes and subjects for discussion. But even if I’d showed up totally unprepared, I have no doubt I would’ve left with something useful. Little Richard was a talker. It didn’t take much to get him going. And he had this quality, an otherworldly charisma that lit up a room (or limo). He wasn’t wildly demonstrative in our automotive setting; in person he was little like the frenetic rocker onstage. It was more like he quietly projected, as writer Darius Jones put it in a feature on Little Richard for Vibe magazine, “mania rooted in the Divine… the heaven-sent madness of genius.”

Another thing that struck me was that he seemed really masculine, not much at all like the foppish gay persona he projected onstage and on TV. He was taller than I expected, solidly built and in good shape. I had the thought he could’ve been a linebacker for an NFL team.

As miles of freeway passed under the wheels of the limo, we covered a lot of ground in Little Richard’s life and career. Periodically he’d break into song when talking about his peers and influences and those influenced by him. He sang favorite numbers by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Strange Things Happening Every Day”) and Ruth Brown (“Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”). He sang “Love Me Do,” by the Beatles and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” by Great White (but actually written and first recorded by Little Richard enthusiast Ian Hunter).

He would get animated when telling a story and once seemed to go into a trance when I asked, “Were you ever concerned you’d taken an audience too far? Did it ever get to a point where it felt dangerous?”

“I have seen ‘em go a long way,” he said, staring at some bygone scene in his mind. “I have seen people worked into frenzies, yeah. I’ve seen ‘em foaming at the mouth. I’ve seen ‘em fall out. I’ve seen people screamin’, cryin’, can’t stop. I’ve seen girls who wanted to touch me, just screamin’, lookin’ at me, screamin’ and fallin’ out.”

When I asked about going to Bible school and selling Bibles in Nashville, he abruptly interrupted his answer about his religious conversion to greet a couple of strangers on the sidewalk: “Let me let this window down and say hello to these people.” I’m not sure they knew who he was.


Another thing that struck me was that he seemed really masculine, not much at all like the foppish gay persona he projected onstage and on TV. He was taller than I expected, solidly built and in good shape. I had the thought he could’ve been a linebacker for an NFL team.


Lunch was a hoot. He took me to Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, a favorite soul food restaurant in Marina Del Rey. He was wisecracking the whole time and making comments about people in the restaurant and those musicians and celebrities whose pictures lined the walls. He studied one unidentified 8×10 near our table and said, “Who is that?”

I told him it was Frankie Beverly of the group Maze.

“What do they sound like? What kind of music do they make?”

“Most people refer to it as silky soul,” I answered.

“Ah, say no more, I know exactly what you mean,” said Little Richard.

He paused.

“He kinda looks like Santa Claus!” he exclaimed, laughing.

While we were eating, a black female singer who went by the name Afrodyete came to our table to introduce herself. She gave both of us signed pictures of herself. Her parting words to Little Richard were, “Stay chocolate!”

When she was out of range, he whispered, “Stay chocolate? Suppose I feel like being pineapple tonight?”

The humor was as rich as the fried chicken, collard greens and fruit cobbler.

A signed photo from “Afrodyete” to Parke Puterbaugh

Late in the day the limo dropped me back off at The Mondrian. Little Richard was gracious till the end, and I sincerely thanked him for an unforgettable experience.

When I entered the hotel, a commercial shoot – an ad for some kind of high-end kids’ clothing catalog, I surmised – was just wrapping up. I passed within feet of a large, live tiger that had been part of the shoot and was headed in the other direction with its handler. The child models, who were about 12 years old, were better dressed than I’ve ever been on any day of my life. They were discussing stock investments.

For a moment I felt like screaming. Little Richard would’ve understood.

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