Richard Penniman, the golden-voiced gem from Georgia who's better known as Little Richard,
infused his performances with a flare previously unseen in the music industry.
He was a trailblazer and a trendsetter, and the only thing crazier than Little Richard's
impact on music is his life story.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed babies view their poop as presents they can give
At first blush that sounds like complete nonsense, but Little Richard's childhood begs to differ.
By his own admission, he used to give his excrement to people.
"Would you like it gift wrapped?"
In Charles White's The Life and Times of Little Richard, the artist admitted to having, quote,
"a bowel movement in a box" and handing it to an elderly friend of his as a birthday
Unaware of the horrors within, she took the box home so she could open it in front of
Why Richard did such things is unclear, but his family considered him a definite abnormality.
Little Richard got away with a lot as a child.
According to him, that wasn't based on favoritism but on his physical abnormalities.
In The Life and Times of Little Richard, the musician told biographer Charles White:
"I had this great big head and a little body, and I had one big eye and one little eye."
But his most defining bodily anomaly was his "little leg."
No, that's not a euphemism, as Richard's right leg was 3 inches shorter than his left, which
drastically impacted his gait.
His steps had an inconsistent cadence, and his hips swayed in a pronounced fashion.
Since some kids are soulless insult machines, young Richard became the consistent recipient
of relentless bullying, which bred a competitive streak in him and drove him to try to outdo
everyone in every endeavor he could.
And as one of 12 siblings, he always had someone to compete with.
Little Richard's little leg also introduced him to music.
Richard's mother believed that sending him to church would heal his affliction.
His leg never lengthened, but his lungs got lots of exercise, because it was at church
that Richard learned he had a hell of a voice.
Home is supposed to be a haven, a place where sticks and stones won't touch your bones and
words won't try to hurt you.
Sadly, in Little Richard's case, home was filled with a far crueler version of the bullying
he endured outside, and he was pretty constantly berated and degraded by his father, Bud Penniman.
"It would just…
It would just, like, I never could do nothing good."
Like the kids outside, Bud deemed Richard too feminine.
The issue wasn't his son's walk, but the budding rock star's long hair and propensity to put
His charmingly glamorous antics infuriated Bud, who was a church deacon and a firm believer
in gender norms.
He not only insulted his son but rabidly attacked him.
Bud viciously beat Richard, and when pulverizing his son didn't work, Bud banished him from
the house altogether.
Richard was just 13 years old at the time and ultimately found acceptance with a couple
named Ann and Johnny Johnson.
It was a complete reversal of fortune.
According to Rolling Stone, the Johnsons owned the Tick Tock Club, where Little Richard cut
his teeth as a performer.
After years of being unaccepted, he finally had a chance to show the world he was exceptional.
In an alternate reality Bud Penniman might have learned to fully accept his son.
According to The Life and Times of Little Richard, Bud used to bash Richard's choice
to be a musician, but he later had a change of heart and listened to his son's songs with
By then, Richard was 19 and coming into his own as a performer.
"My daddy had never been behind me in my career until then, and he was just starting to come
He was going to buy me a car… to help me in my traveling."
But Bud never got to give his son that car.
In a GQ interview, Richard explained that his best friend, Frank, had only been out
of jail for a week when a confrontation with Richard's father ended in death.
It happened outside a bar.
Frank Tanner had been tossing firecrackers into a coal stove at the Tip In Inn, which
Perturbed by the juvenile hijinks, Bud eventually kicked Frank out of his establishment.
Things escalated rapidly from there.
Frank made a huge fuss outside, so Bud grabbed a gun and went to confront him.
It's not clear exactly what happened, but Bud died.
In one fell swoop, Richard lost the man who had helped give him life but also made that
life a nightmare.
But the scars his father left remained.
Bud had rejected Richard, and Richard would also reject himself years later.
In 1955 Little Richard released his first and most famous hit, "Tutti Frutti".
The tune's upbeat sound, gibberish lyrics, and energetic wooing made it perfect for people
who like feeling happily confused.
However, the song wasn't always the "rutti"-centric sound salad that everyone knows and loves.
In fact, there was no "rutti" in the original version, and it probably wasn't Daisy who
almost drove Richard crazy.
In what is certainly disappointing news to many pre-teens, "Tutti Frutti" wasn't an ode
But the tune was about that area of the anatomy, and as the Library of Congress elaborated,
the line "Tutti frutti, aw rutti" used to be "Tutti frutti, good booty."
Rolling Stone further observed that the "lip-smacking celebration of 'good booty'" contained a ton
of innuendos that were ultimately sanitized for marketability.
But what about the tune's famous "A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-boom"?
Was that also something lewd like the rest of the changed lyrics?
Little Richard has provided two different backstories.
The utterance is either meant to reflect a drum beat, or it was something Richard angrily
exclaimed during his days as a dishwasher.
Whatever the case, it sounds awesome and put the perfect cherry atop a tasty euphemism
Music fans weren't the only people who loved "Tutti Frutti."
It was also a boon for Pat Boone, who quickly recorded his own rendition.
This would become a recurring theme in Little Richard's career, as other artists would duplicate
In the case of Tutti Frutti, Boone initially achieved greater success with his version
of the song, despite it sounding less-than-awesome.
Boone had a habit of ripping off Richard, who believed Boone benefited from racial prejudice.
In 1984 he explained to the Washington Post:
"When Tutti Frutti came out, Elvis was immediately put on me, dancing and singing my songs on
According to him, that resentment translated into blatant disrespect.
When performing in Las Vegas, for example, he received worse accommodations than white
musicians and got financially shafted.
He didn't simmer in silence, however.
He demanded fairer treatment, but in the end he believed that racism robbed him of his
During a 1999 interview with the Washington Post, Richard touted himself as "the architect
of rock and roll," before lamenting:
"If it's a white guy, they say he's the King of Rock 'n' Roll, but if it's a black guy,
they add 'self-proclaimed'; they say he's the 'self-proclaimed King of Rock 'n' Roll.'"
Little Richard soared to incredible heights during his career, and he also got incredibly
As the artist detailed during a Jet interview, he did drugs religiously.
He had a soft spot for marijuana and PCP, but cocaine was his hands-down favorite.
Richard called himself "one of the biggest cocaine addicts," once telling People that
"blood and flesh would come out" whenever he blew his nose.
At one point he was doing $1,000 of coke a day.
He was also a hardcore voyeur and often asked girlfriends to get with other men while he
One of those mates was allegedly a girl named Audrey Robinson, who was 16 when they met.
The story's not just pretty uncomfortable, but it's also disputed by Audrey herself.
Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix have both earned spots on the Mount Rushmore of rock
musicians, and in 1965, Hendrix earned a spot as a guitarist in Little Richard's band.
That sounds like a recipe for greatness, but Hendrix described an awful experience driven
by Little Richard's Rushmore-sized ego.
Not only did Richard issue $50 fines for not calling him "King", he refused to let anyone,
even the supremely talented Jimi Hendrix, outshine him onstage.
That rule applied to attire, hair, and even facial expressions.
He once fined a musician for smiling mid-performance, and fined Hendrix for refusing to cut his
hair and at one point fired him for wearing a nice shirt.
He rehired Hendrix a day later, however, after Hendrix sold the shirt.
When he wasn't hassling Hendrix over his wardrobe, Richard was allegedly trying to get the guitarist's
clothes off altogether.
Rosa Lee Brooks, who was romantically involved with Hendrix, recalled,
"When I first met Jimi, he was under so much stress from being chased by Little Richard."
Richard's ravenous coke habit and lusty appetites were firmly at odds with his conservative
He grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist household in the deeply religious Deep South during
According to Rolling Stone, both of his uncles and one of his grandfathers were preachers,
his father was a deacon.
The tension between the conservative religious beliefs pressed upon Richard and his wild
lifestyle weighed heavily on him.
His two incompatible selves were at odds, and he swung back and forth wildly between
religion and the world of rock and roll.
As Billboard detailed, during the mid- to late 1950s, Richard rolled out hits and raked
But with fame also came encounters with other men, which he deemed "unnatural."
So he renounced rock and roll and attended college to study theology.
He still couldn't suppress his attraction to men, however, and an attempt to launch
a gospel career also failed.
Richard went back to rock.
In 1975, a family tragedy prompted him to become a preacher.
He had promised to lend money to one of his brothers but delayed the favor in lieu of
His brother died, and Richard never got to see him one last time.
Racked with guilt, he again disavowed his rock star lifestyle.
"I started thinking, I started just thinking about Jesus.
I started thinking about the world's gonna end soon.
All the trouble of the world."
In 1995, he tried to reconcile his faith and identity, telling Penthouse,
"I've been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate."
No matter how far or fast you run, you will never escape yourself.
Little Richard grappled with that reality seemingly a million times during his start-and-stop
According to the Washington Post, Richard's rock and roll itch returned in 1986, the year
Roberta Flack inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and people started buying
up his biography.
But according to Richard, his decision had a much deeper motive.
It wasn't about clinging to fading vestiges of fame or having one last cash grab.
It was a fundamental statement about who he was.
As Richard put it,
"Rock and roll is something I created.
It's all I know how to do; I don't know how to do anything else.
I'm not a minister, and I'm not what you call a gospel singer, even though I've made some
I'm just an old country rock and roll singer from Macon, Georgia."
According to Rolling Stone, that old rock and roll singer also pulled a few new tricks
out of his bag during the 1990s with several film appearances and some surprisingly catchy
covers of children's songs.
In fact, even as Richard continues to disavow his old self, he still wears fabulous suits
and sparkly shoes.
Some habits die hard, and rock and roll never dies.
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