They say the devil appeared one night at a crossroads in Mississippi. Meeting him there was an ambitious young blues musician named Robert Johnson, who showed up with his rusty ‘n’ trusty guitar in hand. The devil took the guitar, looked at it for quite some time, tuned it, then proceeded to play a few (hot) licks before handing it back to Johnson. At that point, Johnson’s soul had been exchanged for a mastering of the instrument and the know-how to kick down the door of the music world and burst forth with a new form of the blues. This blues begat rock ‘n’ roll, and for a short while in the 1950s, the devil was riding high and corrupting the morals of our youth with this new music style. This was before God sent down a holy angel warrior named Pat Boone to combat the devil and his many demons rocking around the clock. Popular lore says the devil takes many forms, and before his many ins ‘n’ outs with the Good Book, oldies revues and talk show appearances, the devil’s name was Little Richard.
The devil goes by many names, and it was Richard Wayne Penniman before anything else. Penniman was born during the hellish Great Depression in Macon, Georgia. He was christened “Lil’ Richard” by friends and family due to his small stature. His family, devout Baptists, brought up Richard and his many brothers and sisters singing and praising the Lord on the Gospel circuit, an activity young Richard enjoyed immensely. Another activity he heartily enjoyed was dressing up in his sister’s clothes and makeup and prancing about the house, actions that led to him getting a boot on his ass out of the house at age 13.
He supported himself by going on the road with traveling minstrel shows, doing everything from singin’ n’ shoutin’ to hawking oils and tonics. This was years before he began unleashing the beast with his wildman shriek. Years of toiling on the road with numerous bands, working numerous mind-numbing day-jobs and dealing with shady label-men were soon taking their toll.
Things started to gel when Richard dropped the Penniman and accepted his boyhood nickname. Little Richard was born. The devil works in mysterious ways, and before he inhabited this young, eager blues-shouter, two things happened: Richard’s father was shot and killed during a fracas outside of one of his son’s gigs, and Richard met another young, eager and rather flamboyant black musician named Esquerita. After his father’s death, Richard took a hiatus from the music scene and spent time washing dishes for Greyhound. A short while and a few blisters later, Richard met Esquerita.
One look at Esquerita, real name Steven Quincy Reeder, tells you all you need to know about the early rough ‘n’ tumble days pre-rock ‘n’ roll. The man had style, style so great Little Richard couldn’t help himself but to...flat out steal it. Makeup, mile-high pompadour, and a killer piano style to boot. In fact, Richard learned how to pound the keys from Reeder. Author James Sullivan said “…it was only when an unproven Richard had stretched out his Esquerita muscle…that he found his own voice…” In true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, the debate still continues about whom exactly influenced whom, but nonetheless, it’s impossible to look at the sadly forgotten Esquerita and not think about Richard.
Little Richard got the buzz back, threw down his dish towel, and set upon finding a new band to back him and his hellacious piano playing. Soon the Upsetters formed and began playing small juke joints in the South. Record label honchos were listening, and one of them, Bumps Blackwell from Specialty Records in Los Angeles, heard a demo he liked. Blackwell and the band met up in the birthplace of the blues, New Orleans, and went to work on recording a proper album. Blackwell was perplexed. Here was this shockingly dressed, oddly coiffed boogie-woogie piano player with a ho-hum voice. The potential Blackwell heard on the demo wasn’t happening.
Cue the devil.
New Orleans is a devil kind of town. He has many haunts there. On this hot ‘n’ humid day in September 1955, the devil was sipping a café au lait at a nondescript cafe when Blackwell, Richard and the boys in the band stopped in for a lunchbreak. This particular cafe had a piano in it’s tiny corner. Richard eyed the piano. The devil eyed Richard. The devil put down his drink and walked over with Richard to the piano bench. They sat down together, admiring the worn black ‘n’ white keys. Richard closed his eyes, smiled, leaned his head back and the devil flew into him.
Blackwell was stunned. This is what he wanted. Little Richard (the devil) was pounding out a very x-rated version of “Tutti Frutti”. They immediately went back to the studio and recorded a cleaned up but still shocking version of the song.
It was a hit.
The song, with it’s rollicking beat and lyrical stew full of sexual metaphors, gained widespread momentum with the restless teenagers waiting for something like this. Pants and blouses bursted country-wide when “Tutti Frutti” hit the airwaves. A slew of Top 10 hits followed. “Long Tall Sally”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Lucille”, “Slippin ‘N’ Slidin”, “The Girl Can’t Help It” were the soundtracks to many a belt-buckle fumbling in the backseats of cars parked at Drive-Ins for the better part of two years. His outrageous persona shocked the June and Ward Cleavers of the era. They saw him as he truly was: the devil hisself. Richard was a trickster that played up the threat white America perceived from the black man. And the gay man. This is when God sent Pat Boone to work. Boone recorded vanilla versions of Richard’s tunes, cleaning up all that innuendo and playing with a little less oomph. And the shit sold, pissing off Richard to no end. Every time Boone de-balled a Richard song, Richard came back with triple and quadruple innuendos in his new material. Until 1957.
1957 was the year the devil flew out of Little Richard. At the height of his popularity, during a tour of Australia, Richard denounced rock ‘n’ roll and took up the Lord. Upset with the excessive lifestyle he’d been living and record label royalty woes, he simply walked away and entered the seminary. This was the first of many times he’d walk away from the music biz. A pattern emerged throughout the rest of his career: record, tour, abandon. These days, Richard is still oddly dressed and wildly coiffed, but he’s little more than a wax figure shrieking like your crazy uncle. Or Aunt, maybe. The devil takes them young.