Little Richard, who died May 9, 2020 at the age of 87, was a musical genius and a phenomenal stage performer. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, GA in 1932, Little Richard’s break came in 1947 when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, heard him singing one of her tunes and invited him to open up her show. The rest, as they say, is history, but it’s important to understand that Little Richard was far more than the caricatures that have often come to define him.

Although several official rock/rock and roll histories identify Little Richard as a seminal figure in the genre, the focus centers primarily on his flamboyant stage persona and unconventional performance style. Ironically, Little Richard deliberately constructed this persona to counter white racial fear of a Black male star. After recording “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” and “Teddy Ready,” Little Richard recalls in his authorized biography:

[W]e were breaking through the racial barrier. The white kids had to hide my records cos they daren’t let their parents know they had them in the house. We decided that my image should be crazy and way out so that the adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England and in the next as the Pope.

Narrowly reducing Little Richard’s significance to his persona and style de-emphasizes his musical innovations as the “architect of rock and roll.”

NMAAM Honors Little Richard

In 2015, NMAAM honored the great Little Richard as one of our Rhapsody & Rhythm Awards recipients. NMAAM president and CEO, Henry Beecher Hicks, III, had this to say about the passing of this trail-blazing artist.“The King of Rock and Roll has gone home. Little Richard was a brilliant man and artist. He was an icon and an innovator who lived, sang and spoke his own truth. His professional accomplishments were legendary as a singer, songwriter and performer. His significance and contributions to American music are undeniable. He was most certainly an inspiration for the creation of the NMAAM in his adopted hometown of Nashville and his legacy will live on within our walls. He was a hero to many on our staff and while we mourn his passing with his family, we will also celebrate his life and his music for generations to come.”

Posted by National Museum of African American Music on Saturday, May 9, 2020

Little Richard became known for his energetic gospel-derived vocal style and trademark falsetto vocal interjections sung over his percussive piano triplet rhythmic figures. His most notable musical innovation, which has received little attention, is his signature rhythmic pattern that he called the “choo-choo beat.” Charles Conner, Little Richard’s original drummer, discusses its origin in an interview I conducted with him in 1990:

In rhythm and blues, you had a shuffle with a back-beat, but Little Richard wanted something different. He wanted something with more energy, but he didn’t know how to describe the notes. So Richard brought me down to the train station in Macon, Georgia in 1954 and he said: “Charles, listen to the choo-choo train style.” I said, “You probably want eighth notes or sixteenth notes.” We went back to his house couple of days later…and we came up with that beat. Now, nobody had ever played that beat before.

This signature choo-choo pattern, appropriated by other musicians—both Black and white–became widely known as the rock and roll beat. It distinguishes Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1955), “Long Tall Sally” (1956) and “Lucille” (1957) from his earlier rhythm and blues recordings, revealing his creative genius—the ability to generate a rhythmic motif from a source that few would consider musically significant. Recognizing his originality as both a musician and performer, Little Richard’s producer and co-songwriter, Bumps Blackwell, described him as “a supreme star. A once-in-a-millennium talent.”

In contrast to Little Richard’s history of musical innovation as a songwriter-performer, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone and other white artists simply covered his recordings and/or imitated his vocal style. Presley, the so-called “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” recorded cover versions of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on his first album Elvis Presley (1956) and “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” on his second title, Elvis (1956). Unlike Little Richard, who wrote and co-wrote his songs, Elvis did not write his songs. The legacy of Little Richard, the true “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” lives on in his recordings, in those of his imitators, YouTube live performances, and in the many Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll films in which he appeared.

–Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D., Lead Senior Scholar and Consultant, National Museum of African American Music