Home > Editorials, Uncategorized and Misc. > Little Richard: A Study of Ego (and being fabulous) in American music.

Little Richard: A Study of Ego (and being fabulous) in American music.

He has been called the King of Rock and Roll, the most borrowed from man in music today, or in his own words,

“A lot of people call me the architect of rock and roll, I don’t call myself that but I believe that it’s true.”

And just for the record, he calls himself that too.

He is known for his flamboyant dress, over the top mannerisms, and his captivating stage presence, but most of all for his signature Woo! and snappy demeanor when he feels as if he’s not receiving the attention he deserves. (Shut up!)

I am only talking about the man, the myth, the legend the “beautiful Little Richard from all the way down in Macon, Georgia.”

One of the fathers of modern music today.

His personality and constant claims of music industry thievery has been fodder for plenty of parodies for shows like Saturday Night Live, but nonetheless, they hold merit. He’s claimed to have inspired artists such as The Beatles, Prince, Hendrix and many more.

A few ways he has inspired rock legends:

The 1960’s were a time where musicians were expected to be very tame, Richard changed that by jumping on top of the piano and running around the stage–ensuring the audience knew that he was one of a kind.

Similar antics have been done by Mick Jagger who toured with Little Richard in the 1960’s where Richard allegedly taught him a thing or two about stage presence.

Musically he has pioneered piano based rock that dominated the 60’s and 70’s. His trademark piano playing has been duplicated by many–and his signature “woo!” can be heard from The Beatles, who were huge Little Richard fans, in their song I Saw Her Standing There.


Richard also has gone through various style changes.

Most notably this has been seen mimicked by Prince and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix actually got his start as a backing guitarist for Richard in the 1960’s. Jimi and Richard were actually close friends. Jimi once famously quipped, “I want to do with my guitar, what Little Richard can do with his voice.”

You can see Richard speak about Jimi here in a great interview that also wonderfully shows Richards personality.

Another artist that resembles Richard in dress is Prince. Prince’s whole persona seems to be an ode to Little Richard and his flamboyance, Richard has also publically stated his love and respect for Prince on numerous occasions.

little-richard-hendrix.jpg jimi_hendrix-994.jpg prince.jpg

However, I think there is something even more borrowed –or at least carried on –from Little Richard other than piano bangin’ and fashionable get ups and that’s his personality–his bravado and his character.

Other than being the father of rock and roll, and father of flamboyant stage presence–could Little Richard also be the father of ego and of (as much as I hate the word), swagger?

Unfortunately it wasn’t until recently that I was able to give Little Richard the respect he rightfully deserves. My youngest memory of Little Richard was him playing Little Denise’s Uncle Richard on Full House, and singing a rock driven “Rubber Ducky” on Sesame Street.

Although, I grew up listening to Soul and early Rock and Roll music, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it until I was a college student. I was doing a presentation on Kanye West and the creative/legal sides of sampling in hip hop and I decided to listen to some of the artists in which Kanye sampled, one namely being Ray Charles.

While listening to a Ray Charles station on my Last.Fm it played a few Little Richard songs. Songs such as Keep A Knockin’ and Lucille. Songs that combined soul, gospel and R&B, songs that created a style which would later evolve into Rock music today.

However, what entertained me the most with Little Richard was his over the top attitude.

He starts every concert by parading around the stage and then stands on his piano–waving and blowing kisses, in the same style that a King would greet his loyal subjects, all while possessing a smile that says “I love you all and you are very very welcome that I am here to grace you with my presence.”

He then usually gives a very sassy remark such as reminding the audience how pretty he is or how he is the innovator of popular music today.

Such bravado was interesting to me because it seemed so familiar, it seemed to mimic the artist I was originally researching, Kanye West.

Like Richard, Kanye is known for his larger than life ego to the point where it is often questioned if he is really that full of himself, or if it’s just a marketing ploy for him to stay in the spotlight.

Actually, Kanye West stealing Taylor Swifts Video Music Award is quite similar to Little Richard jokingly stealing a grammy in 1988, seen here–another great clip that shows Richards hilarious personality.

Now, I am not claiming that Kanye is the innovator of Hip Hop, but I am saying that the two share the same quality of ego and bravado.

However, it goes even further than Kanye West, plenty of musicians make a name for themselves by writing songs claiming how great they are. There are hundreds of hip hop songs alone where the artist is claiming that they are superior in some form of the other, whether it be richer, better looking or more talented.

So, is this because the artists genuinely believes that they are innovators at what they do?

Or is this just a way to stay in the publics eye? To stay relevant?

Naturally, I can not speak for each artists and try to figure out if their sentiments are true or false, however, I can give you my perspective on the “ego” of Little Richard and his reasoning behind it. I believe that since he may have been one of the first with such a huge persona–looking into it can give us a glimpse of artists today and why they may choose to have such a bold character while in the spotlight.

Little Richard was born as Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5th 1932 in Macon, Georgia. He was the third of twelve children in a large and deeply religious household where singing was an integral part of their lives. His siblings started a touring singing group that toured the south to perform at various gospel show cases.

At this point in his music career was when Penniman started to develop some of the characteristics we know him for today. His style of singing came from gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, and his style of dress for the time–primarily the make up–came from jump blues (up tempo blues with horns) shouter Billy Wright.

In 1951, Penniman began recording Jump Blues for RCA records, but with no success. After a few years as a struggling artist he tried his stab at R&B with a group called The Upsetters, but again with only limited success.

Come 1955 his work as a traveling R&B musician started to pay off as he caught the eye of Specialty Records A&R man Robert Blackwell. Blackwell pictured Penniman as a rival to Ray Charles–during the time it was becoming common for A&R reps to seek out gospel singers and give them songs with a bluesy beat. However, yet again, limited success.

One night during recording–after a take that didn’t satisfy Blackwell they decided to take a break.

Penniman was frustrated and started pounding out a boogie woogie beat and screaming a very early recital of Tutti Frutti, a song that he had written and had been performing for some time at “less than reputable” clubs. Blackwell right away noticed that the song was the sound that they need, complete with Richards soon to be signature “woo!”.

However, he was aware of the “homosexual content” and “minstrel humor” of the the lyrics so he had to tweak them to make them commercially acceptable, for instance, changing “Tutti Frutti, Good Booty” to “Tutti Frutti, Aw Rudy” as well as tweaking the accapella intro of “A Wop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop God Damn”, to “A Wop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom”.

Yes that’s right, Tutti Frutti was actually a dirty/humorous song that he performed for laughs at gay clubs and underground circuits, but it instantly started rock n roll music and how we know it today.

Tutti Frutti climbed to the top of The Billboard charts, and in years to follow sixteen more reached the charts, all characterized by a driving piano, boogie woogie bass line and a variety of rhythmic drum beats.

However, Richard also faced hardship. During this era there was a lot of segregation not only in public areas but even in the charts!

There was a separate billboard chart for whites and for blacks. White people were frowned upon for buying black artists music or attending black artists concerts. Likewise, when a “black song” was becoming popular, a white artist would try to cover it so they could capitalize on the fame.

And to follow suit, Pat Boone, an american musician quickly began to cover Richards hits. Boone had a reputation for covering black artists songs in hopes that they would be more successful coming from a white man.

And the kicker was, Boone owned the distribution company that Richards song came from. Therefore, there wasn’t much Richard could do but watch songs that he had written become covered and more mass produced than his versions.

To counteract this, Richard decided to make his songs as fast and rhythmic as possible so there was no way Boone or anyone else could successfully cover them. He added his flair and used a style that was near impossible to duplicate. He called upon his gospel and blues background and decided not to be confined with whats being heard on the radio and made sure that he stood out with his pateneted “woo” and wild on stage antics.

Richard become a nation wide success with hits such as Lucille and Tutti Frutti, and although Boones CD’s sold more copies, Richard climbed the billboard charts and it was believed that teenagers were buying a copy of Boones album so they could hide Richards album in the sleeve–so their parents wouldn’t see them promoting a black artist.

Richard also broke many segregation taboos at a time where there was segregations in all public places, including concert halls.

There were typically black and white sections at concerts, however, at the end of nearly every concert whites and blacks were at the front of the stage enjoying the concert together. Even in the strictly segregated south, exceptions had to be made for when Little Richard came to perform.

The performances were popular for a reason–in the tame 60’s Penniman changed all of that with his sequened suits, capes and chaotic stage presence. Concert goers would go wild and attempt to rush the stage to get a piece of Richards clothing or a souvenir from the stage, on most occasions concerts would be shut down and restarted numerous times. Richards concerts led to various figures to speak out against Richards music as it was corrupting youth and was anti-segregation.

For the next decade Penniman continued to break racial and musical norms and is now known as one of the most influential men in music today.

So, what made him able to break segregation laws, racial norms and well..Pat Boone?

It was this persona “Little Richard” that Penniman created. He knew if he wanted to survive in the industry he had to be larger than life–he had to be bigger and better than any other musicians out there. Other artists were very run of the mill, and there was very much so an industry standard in how artists behaved–but Richard knew to survive he had to put on a show rather than a concert. He also had to be a show in himself.. He had to constantly act and behave like a superstar to break through racial barriers.

So in part, his ego is a bit self deserved–you’d want to talk about it too if you helped create racial harmony in popular music, and pioneered rock music and fashion–but a bit of his ego was to keep his name on peoples mouths.

The more people talked about his wild concerts, flamboyant fashion and hard hitting music, the more likely he was to be a mainstay in the industry and not just another failed black musician who was easily defeated by the white mans music industry.

If we fast forward to today it’s certainly comparable.

Sure, today we don’t have as much racism in the industry–but the music market is just as competitive. Trends and music news are constantly changing and that makes it hard for artists to stay relevant.

So artists today may have to follow suit as well–they have to make themselves known. That may be through outlandish public statements, intense performances or anything to remain on peoples minds.

So when you see an outrageous twitter post, or a crazed publicity stunt–think about the man that started it all –Little Richard but also think of the reasoning in which they are doing it.

To stay alive and to stay relevant in an ever evolving music industry.

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  1. 06/12/2011 at 3:28 am

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