King of Rock and Roll by David Alston
Original version published in New Bayview in 1992.
Very few people can actually hold claim to being a living legend, but Little Richard can. He's known to millions as the King of Rock n Roll - a fact that he has spent a lifetime proving over and over again.
When Richard first started recording in 1951 for RCA, black artists mainly recorded jazz and blues, but Richard's style was too wild for that sound. A native of Macon, Georgia, he had to leave home in order to express himself and play the kind of music he enjoyed.
Richard's road to fame was not an overnight sensation. Richard had to work long and hard playing clubs in the South, signing with Peacock records in 1953, and then Specialty in 1955, when all hell broke loose. When Little Richard's first Specialty release, "Tutti Frutti," came out in '55, black artists records were not being played on mainstream radio. But this didnt stop the record from selling 2 million copies - or white kids from buying it. It must be understood that records didn't start going gold (for selling a million copies) until the 50s when Rock n Roll came on the scene.
Richard was one of the first Black artists to be featured in the white media. Long before Michael and Prince, Richard was playing outdoor stadiums and was one of the first to do so. In the 50s Little Richard was a god, with tour books, T-shirts, posters, magazines, baseball cards and records. Everybody wanted to be him. Even new artists like Elvis Presley started recording his songs.
Rock and Roll music was called nigger music in the 50s and Richard's sound was totally different from that of most of his peers. Most artists had "combos" - meaning stand up bass, drums and a guitar player. Richard had 2 electric guitars, electric bass, 3 saxophones and himself pumping hard on piano. Richard electrified the sound - much of what you see today on MTV, Richard started. Leaping over pianos, spitting fire, hair combed so high he'd put Kid n Play to shame. Most people didn't know which was more outrageous: his voice, that could blow out any speaker system, or all that makeup, which made him the sexiest man in show business, according to Rolling Stone.
Now the white press pushes Elvis as the king, but if Elvis is the king why did he perform Little Richard tunes on 16 of his 21 TV shows he starred in during the 50s? How can a white man be the king of "nigger music"? It's like saying, "We don't like this, but if we have to listen to stuff we want a white boy giving it to us." Now maybe you can understand why rappers don't like Vanilla Ice!
Little Richard's music brought the races together in ways no doctor, lawyer or politician could, to the point where he was locked up for performing in front of mixed audiences. Richard has always maintained that he's very proud to be Black and that he plays for people, not color.
In 1956 one of the biggest hits of the day was "Long Tall Sally" by Little Richard. The record became such a huge hit it went straight to #1 and was re-recorded by not only Elvis and Bill Haley, but also country singers like Marty Robbins. When you read that Little Richard was the most influential artist in Rock n' Roll and in American music -- period --- it's not an understatement.
During the 50s, Richard became so famous he was one of the first artists, black or white, since Louis Armstrong to have double-sided hits. When a DJ got a Little Richard record, he didn't know which side to play for the simple fact that both sides were great. Keep in mind that unlike most artists of the day, Richard wrote and recorded most of his own material, and was one of the few black artists allowed to produce his own sessions.
By 1956, Richard had put at least half a dozen records in the top ten. It got to the point where Hollywood could no longer ignore his style of music and tried to cash in on it by having him star in the film "The Girl Can't Help It" with Jayne Mansfield. Once he got there the studio liked him so much that he not only appeared in the movie but also sang the title song an two others, " Ready Teddy" and "She's Got It." This movie made Richard a superstar and brought the real Rock n' Roll to the masses.
Richard was booked to play at Wrigley Fields in September of '56, to meet the demand for live appearances. It was the only place in Chicago that could hold all the people who wanted to see him. It's a good thing they did 'cause when Little Richard and his eight-piece band The Upsetters came to town, they came to jam -- and things would never be the same. After that, Richard was asked to be in another movie, "Don't Knock the Rock," which also starred Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. Richard, with one foot atop the piano, playing with his hands behind his back, completely stole the movie.
Some say the 50s belong to Elvis, but I'm here to tell you the truth -- and the truth is that the hardest working man in show business was none other than Little Richard. No one else could keep up the pace; every record he release became a hit. After "Keep a Knockin'" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" went Top Ten on the pop charts, there seemed to be no stopping him. He was even asked to appear in yet another film, "Mister Rock and Roll," in which he performs his classic hit "Lucille."
Little Richard's sound had soul that no other artist had at that time. He would always push himself to give his fans the best shows and records that anyone could deliver. When other acts were on the same bill as Richard, they would ask to go on first, because they knew they couldn't go on after him. Richard was a wild man on stage; most singers just stood by the mic and sang. With Richard tearing off his clothes, throwing them to the audience, and jumping and dancing all over the place, there was no telling what was going to happen. Anyone who wonders what his show were like should just check out Prince's Purple Rain tour -- Prince copies my man to the T. In short, Little Richard was and will always be the King of Rock n' Roll. For those of you who want proof, just check out the new Warner Bros. home video "Keep On Rockin" which features his dynamic performance at the 1970 Toronto Peace Festival.
Photo courtesy: David Alston/Mahogany Archives