By Goodwin, Clayton
New African , No. 446
I can testify personally as to Little Richard's impact. In my childhood, I lived in a part of rural Kent in England, in which there were no people of African (or Asian) heritage. I was aware of the existence of Africans, West Indians and Afro-Americans through my interest in sport, but many of my contemporaries hardly knew that black people existed. That all changed from the moment Little Richard's voice was heard blaring out from (clandestine) transistor radios and record-players, after which it was impossible to keep the charts segregated.
Awop-Bop-a-Loo-Mop Alop-Bam-Boom Tutti Frutti, Aw-Rootie (5 times) Awop-Bop-a-Loo-Mop Alop-Bam-Boom
These are hardly the conventional words of revolution. Yet nothing--not even the oratory of Dr Martin Luther King, the sounds of Louis Armstrong and generations of talented musicians, or the exploits of several score sportsmen/women across the board of boxing and track/field--brought that conventional world of comfortable middle-class white American (and very soon the whole world) into such explosive collision with its African heritage population as occurred when Little Richard's Tutti Frutti was released on an unsuspecting public 50 years ago.
The record was released in October 1955 and roared through the charts the following month. The world of popular music--or of anything--has not been quite the same since. Over the next three years Richard stunned the industry with a sequence of knockout hits, such as Long Tall Sally, Rip it up, The girl can't help it, Lucille, Keep-a Knockin, Good Golly Miss Molly ... but here I am getting ahead of the story.
By the mid-1950s, the "Western World" had recovered somewhat from the trauma of the Second World War. It wanted nothing more than to be left alone--as was the perception of President Eisenhower who seemed to spend as much time on the golf course as he did at the cabinet-table. Entertainment, too, was aimed at lulling the public into a sense of sugary, semi-comatose security. Crooners sang of the "moon" and "June". The newly-instituted music charts reflected that tendency--and in depth.
Admittedly, the black population had styles which would be fused in received conception into Rhythm and Blues (with its own heroes such as Fats Domino and the tragic Johnny Ace) and the poor whites of the Southern States of the USA had their Country and Western--but neither imposed on the perceived national consciousness.
Nobody, however, could prevent Richard Wayne Penniman from imposing himself on whatever he wanted. He was born on 5 December 1935 and grew up at Macon, Georgia, in the Deep South of the Bible-belt. Although he sang in a church choir from an early age, he also "hung out" on the wild side of the demi-monde of both female prostitutes and homosexuals. This complementing and conflicting mixing of the influence of gospel music and profane extravagance contributed towards the conflict which generated his excessive energy. Although he won a talent contest in Atlanta which brought him a recording contract, Richard initially achieved little--apart from coming under the influence of Esquerita, a singer of outrageous mien but little vocal success.
The young man, who soon had to go back to washing dishes in his home town, copied the pomaded hairstyle and flashy clothes (and stage appearance) which he saw in Esquerita and Bill Wright, a local blues singer from New Orleans. Yet even a recording session set up after he had sent a demonstration disc to Speciality Records on the recommendation of Lloyd Price, an established performer, did not seem to be working out too well. During a break in the session, Richard and Bumps Blackwell, who was in charge of the recording, went to the Dew Drop Inn. There was an old upright piano, and Richard, who had toned down his lyrics and pace while in the studio, could not resist amusing and shocking those present with the lewd, loud and upbeat numbers which made his "live" act so exciting. …