Honoring A True Pioneer: Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock & Roll
by Janel Sanders
On May 9, 2020, we lost one of Rock & Roll’s most influential, cheerful, and outgoing pioneers, Richard “Little Richard” Penniman to bone cancer. Penniman shined a light on a different style that had everyone dancing a swing all over the speakeasys. We had never heard anyone bang on the keys as powerful as Little Richard. We Were Funky honors a great legend to music and founding father of Rock & Roll.
Little Richard started his career in the mid-1950s with his dynamic, flamboyant rock & roll style. Pianos had never felt the banging of keys until Little Richard touched them. In 1956, “Tutti Frutti” was the breakout to Penniman’s career. He dropped a series of hits that next year including “Rip It Up” and “Lucille” in 1957.
Penniman pulled from the heavy influence of gospel in his life to create the music that would change the industry sound. He was known for his vocal shouting and sexually charged lyrics. Swing clubs weren’t swinging if the sounds of Little Richard’s screams and loud keys weren’t blasting over the jukebox.
Several rock & roll artists such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others drew their inspiration from listening to and watching Little Richard play. Most of them often did covers of his work claiming that Little Richard’s sound was the reason their music changed.
Penniman’s performances often lead to integrated audience reactions during the time where “whites” and “blacks” were segregated and had designated areas. His music was so dynamic that the lines drawn between the two did not stop them from getting down.
His tours led to enabling audiences to come together and dance. Even the South, where strong Jim Crow laws were enforced, began tearing down dividers just to get to the dance floor in front of his performances. His popularity and game changing music helped to break the myth that black performers could not successfully perform for “white-only” audiences and venues.
“Tutti Frutti” was the start of integrated audiences. Penniman’s high energy performance involved dancing while playing at his piano, lifting his leg, climbing on top of his piano, running around, etc. With energy this high how could he not break barriers?
Little Richard had many obstacles, of course, during the time period with the restrictions that were in placed on music, but we are not here to talk about that. We are here to celebrate the life he lived and the music he brought to us all.
He promoted positive change and acceptance during his run in the music industry. His sexuality was a main topic of his life with his use of makeup and dress, but he used his life to show freedom and true self-acceptance.
He once told The Guardian in an interview, “I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who started to be so bold telling the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent one.”
He continued on about what would happen if he were caught doing things that men were not doing by mentioning, “If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought.” He lived his most authentic life and that was felt through his music.
Penniman received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 for the affect he had on music throughout the years. His last record was cut in 2010 in tribute to gospel singer Dottie Rambo. Little Richard continued to do shows here and there, but due to his hip replacement surgery in 2009, he wasn’t able to perform like he used to and would perform from sitting behind the piano.
That, however, did not stop the crowds from continuing to praise and encourage him. Today, we remember Richard “Little Richard” Penniman for gifting us with outrageous concepts of music and the freedom to live life authentically.
We Were Funky thanks you for the awesome display of showmanship you brought to the world.