R.I.P. Little Richard

Saturday, May 9, 2020
Little Richard

R.I.P. Little Richard


Today we mourn the passing of a member of the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the most flamboyant rockers of all time, and the man who brought the phrase “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom” into the popular lexicon: Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, who died in Nashville after suffering from bone cancer.


Richard – who was 87 at the time of his death – was born in Macon, Georgia to Leva Mae Penniman, the third of 12 children. His  father, Charles “Bud” Penniman, was a church deacon and brick mason who also owned a nightclub called the Tip In Inn and sold moonshine on the side. Richard started singing while attending New Hope Baptist Church in Macon,  but he claimed that he was once stopped from singing there because of the volume of his “screaming and hollering.”


After getting a job selling drinks to concertgoers at the Macon City Auditorium, Richard was overheard singing by Sister Rosetta Tharpe before her performance and invited to open her show, and when she subsequently paid him for his trouble... Well, sir, that’s when he decided to become a professional performer. As for his legendarily flamboyant piano playing, Richard always claimed that it was Ike Turner’s playing on “Rocket 88” that led to him deciding on his instrument of choice, but whatever led him down that path, it was a decision that paid off handsomely for him.


If you’re looking for a fuller version of Little Richard’s career, you may want to check out other obits, because we really want to focus in on his material within the Rhino catalog, but just for the record, it’s not purely a self-serving decision: the singles that Richard recorded for Atlantic in the ‘60s, the albums he recorded for Reprise in the ‘70s, and the LP he laid down for Warner Brothers in the ‘80s are all underrated gems that deserves to be dusted off and reappraised by the public at large.


  • “Crying in the Chapel” (1962) / “Travelin’ Shoes” (1963): Although his stint was short, Richard recorded a pair of singles for Atlantic Records during the early ‘60s, delivering one in ’62 (“Crying in the Chapel” b/w “Hole in the Wall”) and the other in ’63 (“Travelin’ Shoes”  b/w “It Is No Secret”). The fact that the former only bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 and the latter didn’t chart at all undoubtedly explains the short stint, but all four songs are available digitally as a EP with the beautiful title of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LITTLE RICHARD. God bless us, everyone...


  • THE RILL THING (1970): Considered a comeback album at the time, since it was the first LP he’d released in three years, this album found Richard exploring country rock, and it provided him with a minor hit – “Freedom Blues,” which hit #47 – and contained a fab cover of “I Saw Her Standing There.”


  • THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL (1971): Arguably the standout of Richard’s ‘70s output, this album was heavy on covers, but hearing him belt out songs by Three Dog Night (“Joy to the World”), the Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”), Martha and the Vandellas (“Dancing in the Street”), The Temptations (“The Way You Do the Things You Do”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), and Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Born on the Bayou”) is damned near impossible to resist.


  • THE SECOND COMING (1972): Recorded at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, this album – which included some of the top session guys of the ‘50s and the ‘70s, including Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar – featured the single “Mockingbird Sally” and a long but impressive instrumental called “Sanctified, Satisfied Toe-Tapper” but failed to provide Richard with any hits,


  • LIFETIME FRIEND (1986): Although he hadn’t released a non-secular album in more than a decade, ’86 proved to be a comeback year for Richard, who scored a role in a major Hollywood motion picture – he played Otis Goodnight in Down & Out in Beverly Hills – and then released this LP. “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” which had been released as a single from the film’s soundtrack before becoming this album’s opening track, climbed to #42 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became his biggest hit since “Baby Face” hit #41 in 1958. Regrettably, the album itself didn’t chart, but Richard’s his usual enthusiastic self from start to finish.


  •  KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: THE COMPLETE REPRISE RECORDINGS (2005): As you’d expect, this contains the three ‘70s albums we mentioned above, but it also contains SOUTHERN CHILD, the album that was supposed to be his fourth and final album for Reprise but was instead shelved. Per the liner notes, the material was recorded at the same time and place as the aforementioned SECOND COMING, and – per reminiscences from Richard himself – the label had even gone so far as to take the photo for the album cover: “It was me milking a cow that they brought into the backyard of my home.” Oddly, even when the album finally saw release as part of this Rhino Handmade set, no one could readily explain why it had been shelved in the first place, but it must’ve been a sudden decision: Richard appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in ’72 and not only played one of its songs (“Burning Up with Love”) but mentioned it by name as his “new” album.


Yes, we know you’re probably going to run straight for “Lucille,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Tutti Frutti” to help drown your sorrows, but at some point while you’re in the midst of mourning through music, give our Little Richard playlist a spin and get yourself a musical education while basking in some great performances by one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stars of all time.


Oh, and you’ll also note that we threw in a couple of bonus tracks from songs that featured Richard but weren’t actually part of his own albums: there’s “Miss Ann,” one his own classics that he covered with Delaney & Bonnie for their 1970 album TO BONNIE FROM DELANEY, and then there’s a trio of tunes from Quincy Jones’s score for the 1972 film $ (yes, that’s right: the title was just a dollar sign), one of which featured Richard teaming up with Roberta Flack, who – to bring this whole thing full circle – inducted Richard into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

R.I.P., Little Richard. Great gosh a’mighty, how you’ll be missed...