When Little Richard passed away over the weekend from bone cancer at 87, the world not only lost a founding father of the music we call “rock & roll” but one of its most exuberant practitioners. With his outsized persona, colorful look (complete with famous pompadour, makeup, and glass-bead shirts) and fearless stage performances, he influenced everyone from Elton John and the Beatles to Prince and James Brown. In his high school yearbook, Bob Dylan wrote that he wanted “to join ‘Little Richard.’” Buddy Holly called him “the wildest act in rock and roll.” Upon learning of his friend’s death, Mick Jagger wrote: “He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s.”
Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932) was an innovator in the true sense of the word, combining R&B, the blues, and gospel into a new art form that emphasized flamboyance and swagger. “Banging boogie-woogie time with his right hand and singing miles beyond anyone’s idea of a ‘register,’ he is a human thrill ride,” writes David Remnick in The New Yorker. “There is more voltage in one of those three-minute performances than there is in a municipal power station.”
All you have to do to understand the magnetism of Little Richard is watch a live clip. This is one of my favorite LR performances. Playing for Muhammad Ali on the occasion of the boxer’s 50th birthday, Little Richard is irrepressible. As brief as it is, it’s everything a rock & roll performance should be: loud, boisterous, joyful. No pretensions. Nothing complicated. Just raucous fun. The way it’s supposed to be. Check out Ali’s face at 1:44. It’s all the evidence you need.
That’s the power of rock & roll. A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!