Little Richard: Biography and Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Ever heard of rock and roll star Richard Wayne Penniman? No? How about Little Richard? This energetic performer revolutionized pop music in the 1950s. In this lesson, learn about one of the pioneers of American Rock and Roll.

Early Years

Little Richard, nee Richard Wayne Penniman (1932 - ), was born in Georgia, one of twelve children in a strict family. He was exposed to music early in life through his family's strong connections to church, where he heard gospel and hymns. He also learned to play piano and sang with his family in gospel music contests. But he was an energetic child with unruly and extravagant mannerisms and gay friends. It didn't sit well within his family -- tension between he and his father grew as he got older, and he left home while still in his teens.

He came up with the name Little Richard while performing in a traveling show and it stuck. He gravitated toward Atlanta, where in 1951 with the help of a local DJ, he managed to get a record contract with RCA. But the material he was singing, slow blues-style music, didn't result in much success. Nor did it match his appearance, because by this time he'd adopted a signature look of eyeliner, wild and colorful clothing, and high teased hair.

Beginnings of Rock

In 1955, Little Richard took a different path. Connected with Specialty Records, which sent him to do a recording session in New Orleans, he was fooling around at a piano between takes, letting his full personality show through. A producer told him to repeat that performance in a recording. He screamed, hooted, pounded out a song, accompanied by his rabid piano playing. Backed by screaming sax and drums, 'Tutti Frutti' became a big hit, and reached No. 17 on the Billboard charts.

A String of Hits

Little Richard became one of the first true rock and roll performers. In the 1950s, the emergence of rock and roll as a musical style came from artists like Little Richard, who pushed music beyond blues and mixed it with gospel, jazz and other influences into a more driving sound. He quickly captured the attention of the pop music world; what followed in 1956 and 1957 was a string of hits, including 'Long Tall Sally,' 'Good Golly Miss Molly,' 'Jenny, Jenny' and 'The Girl Can't Help It.' Little Richard's presence as a performer was captivating. Driving piano, rapid tempos and teasingly risqué lyrics. His dress, behavior and singing, including squeals, trills and shouts, was completely new to audiences. With outrageous persona and manic energy, he seemed to possess the stage when he played.

Little Richard in 1957. This image is from a bubble gum card!
Little Richard in 1957

But then in 1957, at the height of his fame and while on tour in Australia, he suddenly quite rock and roll, stunning fans and the music industry. He'd had a change of heart, was disillusioned by his lifestyle excesses and felt the call of religion. He entered the seminary for a brief period of time and for a while disappeared completely. In the early 1960s, his only recordings were of gospel tunes.

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