The Book of the Week is “The Life and Times of Little Richard, The Quasar of Rock” by Charles White, published in 1984. This story included quotes from people who knew the subject, and quotes from the subject himself. WARNING: As is well known, Little Richard was a rock star; this volume described graphic sex scenes.
Born in Macon, Georgia, Richard Penniman was the third child of thirteen born to a teenage mother in December 1932. He was a problem child and class clown, having a crying need for constant attention. Fortunately, he was supervised and disciplined by a tight-knit African-American community that encouraged his talent, so although he was always getting into trouble, he avoided doing serious harm to people or damaging property, or becoming a career-criminal. Throughout his life, he vacillated between singing religious music, and singing music he perceived as banned by his religion.
At a young age, Richard began singing gospel music with a group of other kids organized by an adult from the local church. His mother was raised as a Baptist; his father, a Methodist. He himself preferred to attend a Pentecostal church. In high school, he learned to play the saxophone in a marching band. In the 1950’s he saw traveling musicians at the local concert hall, and even got to meet a few of the greats of that era, such as Cab Calloway.
At fourteen years old, Richard left home to become a singer in the floor-show of a literal traveling snake-oil-salesman. He soon transferred his talents to singing and developing his own style of attention-grabbing choreography, with a band that played the standards, that traveled all over the state of Georgia. Over the next few years, he performed with a series of bands, met lots of people in the community, and attended numerous shows of the period– minstrel, vaudeville and night-club.
In October 1951, Richard got his first recording-contract with RCA. He was to deal with various music companies in the years to come. At that time, he was singing rhythm and blues, and wore a pompadour. He sang other people’s songs. He soon switched to rock and roll.
Later, Richard’s signature song got lots of laughs from night-club audiences for its initial obscene lyrics– “Tutti Frutti, good booty – if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy…” Of course, the song had to be rewritten to be played on the radio. Richard resented the fact that Pat Boone (a white singer) sang a cover version that was made number one in the radio countdown. Richard’s own concert audiences were about 90% white.
In the 1950’s, the back room of a furniture store served as a recording studio. The space was large enough to accommodate a full orchestra and grand piano. But someone had to make adjustments for the acoustics of the room via careful placement of microphones and locating the drummer outside the door.
After a while, Richard realized he had been repeatedly cheated of reasonable compensation, given his talent and how hard he worked. In the mid-1950’s, pursuant to his contract, he made half a cent for each record sold.
The powers-that-be obviously knew how to maximize profits– the early rhythm and blues holding-companies had music-publishing companies, which owned the record companies. One way Richard and his concert-entourage wised up, was to demand half their pay when they signed a contract, and collect their remaining pay just before they went onstage. Or else they wouldn’t go onstage.
Richard eventually accumulated sufficient wealth to buy a house for his mother and siblings in the Sugar Hill district of West Los Angeles, next door to Joe Louis. Other famous singers such as Elvis, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly began covering Richard’s songs. When Richard gave concerts with his band, the Upsetters, he wore crazy clothes, makeup and had long hair. The band members got their hair done at a beauty salon. At one performance in El Paso, Texas, Richard was arrested for having that long hair.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Richard’s life, including what transpired when: Richard found God again, stopped his drug addiction, alcoholism and promiscuity, had to deal with racial issues, and much more.