Little Richard: A true original

Awop-bop-aloo-mop, awop-bam-boom.

Millions of us Americans who grew up in the 1950s know immediately what that is, and can probably chant it with the proper accentuation and relative pitch. 

It’s the opening to “Tutti Frutti,” the 1955 maiden voyage song of Little Richard, the most frenetic artist of the new rock ‘n’ roll music style that invaded the consciousness of American teenagers in the mid-20th century.

Little Richard — born Richard Wayne Penniman in December 1932 — died last weekend at the age of 87. He had performed for more than 60 years, mostly in rock stylings but also in gospel, soul, and rhythm & blues formats.

He was nearly the last of the superstars remaining from the ’50s rock era constellation. Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry all preceded him in death. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, now 84, remains. All were Southerners except Berry, who as a St. Louis native was nearly so.

A group of ’50s crooners, of Italian extraction, hailed from the Philadelphia area, and the Motown scene in Detroit was a ’60s phenomenon. But basic rock ‘n’ roll was born in the South from a wedding of gospel and blues. 

And Little Richard was its midwife.

He appeared at the Iowa State Fair Rock ‘n’ Roll Reunion in 1999, which I attended with great anticipation. But he was by then a shadow of his former self, and his voice had lost much of its quality. I was disappointed. But he was still Little Richard.

Born in Macon, Ga., the third of 12 children, his childhood was uninspiring. He was small and spindly, and one leg was slightly shorter than the other, afflicting him with a gimpy limp that generated teasing and bullying from the other kids. 

He was also somewhat effeminate, a manner that eventually created estrangement between him and his strictly religious father, who kicked him out of the house when Richard was 13. He promptly went on the road with a medicine show, where he learned stage performance, often presenting himself in drag.

He eventually returned to Macon, and the early ’50s found him washing dishes in a cafe at the Macon bus stop. By then he had absorbed rhythm ‘n’ blues stylings that mixed with his gospel music upbringing, and he threw in the steady eighth-note rhythm of boogie woogie (eight beats to a four-count measure).

He dabbled in some commercial recording sessions with then-popular standard stylings that went nowhere, and relied on his dishwashing income for his living. But one of his records caught the ear of a promoter, who invited him to New Orleans for a session.

He and the promoter, after a recording event, went to a Bourbon Street dive for relaxation, and during a break Little Richard sat down at the piano and banged out “Tutti Frutti” just for fun. 

“Tutti Frutti” as my generation heard it on Top 40 radio, was not what Little Richard played in the New Orleans bar. Much of his early introduction to music, besides gospel, was in “dirty blues” style, with suggestive or outright obscene lyrics, and Little Richard’s original version drew upon that tradition.

The promoter suggested he clean it up and record it immediately with a backup band. Three takes later it went out on the circuit, and the rest is history.

“Tutti Frutti” was followed quickly by “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up,” all in 1956, “Jenny Jenny,” “Lucille” and “Keep A-Knockin’” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958. There were others as well, over the following decades, but none with the instant appeal of the 1950s collection.

I was a high school freshman in 1955 and graduated in 1959. My classmates and I cut our popular music teeth on rock ‘n’ roll, and for me at least, Little Richard was the ultimate artist of the venue.

His ’50s songs all employed the 12-chord blues progression (1-4-1-1, 4-4-1-1, 5-4-1-1). If I tried to play one of them in the key of C, the “1” chord was a C chord, the “4” an F chord, and the “5” a G chord. 

I could play the blues, at a civilized tempo, picking out the melody in the right hand and doing the chord structure in the left hand. 

But I couldn’t play like Little Richard. Most of the time he did it standing up, and he banged away with all 10 fingers at the same time in breakneck tempos. Sometimes he put one foot up on the top of the piano, like Jerry Lee Lewis. 

What’s more, he had a backup band of three or four saxophones, one or two drummers, and a couple guitars. And he was a tenor, with a piercing falsetto with which he punctuated his songs at appropriate intervals. 

The simplicity of the chord structure, and the hard-driving eight-beat rhythm of his style, was appropriated by other rock artists for decades afterward. 

Little Richard performed his mesmerizing music before integrated audiences, one of the first musicians to do so on a mass scale. He insisted that his concerts be open to all races, raising resistance in the segregated South that was eventually overcome. 

In addition he was openly “omnisexual,” as he described himself. Taken altogether, he embodied much of what adults, parents especially, found frightening about rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-20th century.

But for teenagers in rural Iowa, Little Richard conjured excitement and breathless freedom from the boundaries of existence as we knew them. 

He’ll be missed, but his breakthrough musical contribution lives on in gratitude from many of us 75-plusers.

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