Tributes have poured in from around the world since Little Richard’s death on Saturday, May 9. His influence crossed decades and borders, and he was beloved as one of Georgia’s own, always proudly proclaiming his love for his hometown of Macon.
Not known for understatement, the man born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 – the third of 12 children – staked his own claim as the “architect of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Scholars and fans of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, or other rhythm and blues acts at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll might argue with that title, but Little Richard did burst onto the scene like a meteor wearing a pompadour and thin moustahe.
He broke barriers with his music, style and ostentatious personality. His songs and performances carried the fire and brimstone growls of the Southern holiness church, a stomping boogie-woogie piano style, and a whiff of the transgressive carnality of the drag scene, along with ground-breaking gender fluidity onstage.
Dr. Stephen Valdez, associate professor at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at University of Georgia, says that’s exactly what made it so exciting for teenagers of the time – and so alarming for their parents.
“Little Richard was a very, very real threat – as was Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and the rest of them – especially in the South,” he explained. “He had a lot going against him. I mean, this is Leave It to Beaver time, you know. And here is Little Richard, a poor African American from Macon, Georgia. I don't think Little Richard's sexual preferences are going to be, you know, advertised back then. So he, I'm sure, had a harder time trying to keep it hidden than to try to make something of himself as being this gay performer.”
Throughout his career, Little Richard tried to distance himself from the swishy theatrics of his early years, and disavowed homosexuality and the “Devil’s music.” By Richard’s own account, he had a mid-air conversion in 1958. He and his band were on a flight to Australia that hit a long stretch of turbulence that violently shook the plane.
“The story goes that Richard got down on his knees and started praying that, ‘Oh, God, if you get us out of this, I promise I will stop doing this nasty rock ‘n’ roll and I will turn to the church. I will become a preacher and all this. But please get us out of there,’” Valdez said.
The plane landed safely and, true to his word, Little Richard entered an Alabama seminary and became a Seventh Day Adventist preacher with his own church.
After making a few gospel records, he was itching to get back to rock ‘n’ roll and, in 1963, toured Europe with a young band called The Rolling Stone as his opening act – and a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in his band.
For a more personal reflection, On Second Thought turned to another Macon music legend and long-time friend of Little Richard: music manager and publisher Alan Walden. He and his brother Phil helped launch and manage the careers of Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave, Al Green and many others.
Phil Walden was also co-founder of Capricorn Records, the label that recorded The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others.
“Richard was an unbelievable human being,” Walden said. “I mean, he was such a friend to the Walden family. He was the one who influenced us the most to go into music.”
Phil Walden said as much himself. In GPB’s 2018 documentary The Macon Sound, there is a clip of him explaining, “When I first heard Little Richard say, ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom,’ I knew I did not want to sell insurance, I didn’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. I wanted to be in rock ‘n’ roll.”
Alan Walden shared memories of, when he was a young man, sneaking out to see rock ‘n’ roll concerts, and the first time he ever saw Little Richard in person – as he was getting out of a car.
“Richard stepped out of the cab in a flaming red suit – I mean blood red, bright as could be,” Walden remembered. “He had this parasol, which was red as well.”
That’s when his friend shouted out, “Tutti Frutti!”
“And Richard turned around and shook his behind and struck a pose and said, ‘Good booty!’” Walden said. “And that was etched into my mind for life.”
Walden also reflected on the legendary performer’s significance to the development of this whole new genre of music.
The Walden brothers opened the first integrated business in Macon – which garnered both trouble from racists, as well as respect from the musicians themselves. The impact of their work is apparent in Macon’s musical legacy, a town which fostered musicians like James Brown, Otis Redding, and Percy Sledge. And, of course, Little Richard, whose love for his hometown was apparent.
“One thing you always notice about Richard: if he was on a TV show, he's going to tell the world he was from Macon, Georgia,” Walden pointed out.
As the world pays tribute to the man and the musician, Georgians can proudly say that Little Richard was, at the root of it all, a “Southern Child.” And his influence as an originator and innovator of American popular music will not soon be forgotten.
“He established a whole new style of rock ‘n’ roll,” Walden said. “I mean, he put life into rock ‘n’ roll.”
On how musicians in the 1950s were able to sneak sexual references into their music
Valdez: Like most of the rhythm and blues writers, early rock ‘n’ roll writers, of the 50s, they're going to be using a lot of code within the lyrics. And in fact, “Tutti Frutti” is a great example because “Tutti Frutti, good booty” was the original first line, or something; I read that somewhere.
On a personal interaction with Little Richard and Otis Redding
Walden: But Richard came to see Otis [Redding] at the Apollo Theater. And he signed Otis a $50 bill, "To Otis, with love." And Otis brought it back home and asked me, he said, "Man, what would you do with this?" I said, "I'd frame it, and put it on my wall." And he said, "Alan, I think I'm going to spend this damn money." And he went out and spent that $50 bill. At the time, I wasn’t making enough money to be able to buy it from him.
On what is special about Macon to have established such a strong place in music history
Walden: I’ll tell you, it’s the water. They drink the water. That's what everybody wants to say. I don't know what it is. But Macon has always been an attraction to talented people – creative people, I should say. Phil had a great ear for talent. I did, too. We both knew when somebody could sing. A lot of people [would] hear somebody [and] called me up, like “I heard this singer the other night, so you got to come see him. He sounds just like so-and-so.” And I said, “I don't look for singers that sound like someone. I look for someone who’s original and got their own style.”
On the legacy of Little Richard
Walden: He established a whole new style of rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, he put life into rock ‘n’ roll. He was getting away with getting his songs played where prior to those they probably would have been censored. This man knew how to rock and roll better than anybody out there at that time.
Get in touch with us.