Little Richard did not invent rock & roll. Some musicologists say the first rock & roll tune ever recorded happened in Memphis in 1951 when young Ike Turner and his band recorded Rocket 88, an ode to an Oldsmobile car, a song they had developed on the way to the studio. Analysts say that recording possessed a sound and a fury that was something new.
Yet other musicologists argue that the first rock & roll tune was written by Roy Brown and recorded and made famous by Wynonie Harris in 1948. Brown and Harris were two popular rhythm and blues and jump blues artists.
No, Little Richard was not the inventor of this music; however, he was undoubtedly the most important pioneer of the form.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard blazed a path for this music.
He arrived on the scene just in time to accentuate the work of Alan Freed, who coined the term rock & roll (referring to dancing, not so much the music).
Starting in Cleveland in 1951, Freed opened the door to the white acceptance of black music, avoiding white cover versions in favor of the original versions of up-tempo R&B music on his radio program and at his famous dances. Whites were not quite ready for the more sexual soul music that Ray Charles and others were developing at that time.
Some of Little Richard’s recorded songs were cleaned up versions of the raunchy songs he had been singing in some black night clubs. Consequently, they were more acceptable to general audiences, especially whites.
Little Richard would often brag about how changing these lyrics made him less threatening to whites than some other male R&B singers. The idea of changing the words was not his but that of musicians in New Orleans who figured out a way to have Richard’s more informal raunchy style be the basis of his recorded songs.
Little Richard started recording in Georgia in 1951, but he did not make a splash until he went with Specialty Records in 1955, whose owner sent him to New Orleans to record. There in Cosimoto Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans, music history was made.
This little studio, started by Cosimoto in the 1940s in the back of his parents’ grocery store, is recognized as a birthplace of rock and roll, although the music was called rhythm and blues at the time. Seminal titles included “Good Rocking Tonight” by Roy Brown in 1947, “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino in 1949, and “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard in 1955.
I had the opportunity to talk to Cosimoto and a couple of his stellar studio musicians from that period. They described this flamboyant over-the-top looking guy coming into the studio and working them very hard.
Some observers consider the recording sessions Little Richard did for Specialty Records between 1955 and 1957 among the most important in the history of pop music. Richard made his mark during this period recording “Tutti Frutti” “Long Tall Sally,” The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Jenny, Jenny.”
Then at the height of his fame and popularity, Little Richard, experiencing a crisis of faith, quit rock & roll and entered Oakwood College, a Seventh Day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama, to study for the ministry. He became a traveling singing evangelist, recording gospel music.
After five years away from rock & roll, he was lured back by the pressure to come and tour Europe, where he was a major star. Toward the end of the tour, manager Brian Epstein finagled to get his unknown young group, The Beatles, as an opening act. Epstein offered 50 percent of the Beatles to Richard. But Richard said no, “because I never thought they would make it.”
The next year, 1963, Little Richard was back in Europe, this time with a young Jimi Hendrix as his drummer, and some young unknowns, The Rolling Stones, as a warm-up act. In 1984 Keith Richards proclaimed that “The most exciting moment of my life was appearing on the same stage as Little Richard.”
The key characteristic of rock and roll was a more active rhythm, with Chuck Berry pioneering the beat and texture of the music during the mid-1950s.
Over two years, 1955-1957, Little Richard and Chuck Berry became what many call the architects of rock and roll.