Interview: Little Richard

ImagesMy conversation with Little Richard in today’s Wall Street Journal (go here or pick up a copy) was a mind-opener. This is the guy who started rock ‘n’ roll as we know it, for goodness sake. With his first hit Tutti Frutti in 1955, Little Richard single-handedly unleashed a new form of music that to this day continues to influence musicians worldwide. Virtually every major rock and rap act since 1955 owes a debt to Little Richard—and all have said as much in interviews and memoirs.

AttachmentThough r&b’s origins date back to the late 1930s, and rock ‘n’ roll’s backbeat starts to emerge in the late 1940s, Little Richard changed everything in 1955.

Tutti Frutti, recorded 55 years ago in September, introduced a new form of rock that had urgency, sexual energy and stagecraft. Within months, the sizzling form was embraced by a generation of young listeners who by then owned radios and bought 45-rpms. By 1956, Bill Haley was already dated.

Even Elvis Presley’s career path was altered by Tutti Frutti’s electric appeal. In 1956, the year of his meteoric rise, Elvis recorded Little_richard-beatles four of Little Richard’s records to break out and cross over. But Little Richard’s influence didn’t end in the 1950s. As I note in my Wall Street Journal article today, Little Richard taught Paul McCartney his signature "Wooo," was first to hire Jimi Hendrix, gave a young Tina Turner charisma lessons, and out Janis-ed a screaming Janis Joplin at the Atlantic City Pop Festival two weeks before Woodstock in August 1969.

For me, interviewing Little Richard was a thrill. It’s a jolt to interview historic music figures—whether they play jazz, !little-richard-penniman pop, r&b, reggae, disco or rock. (My interview with Billy Joel can be found in the right-hand column of this blog under "JazzWax Interviews.") There’s a certain intimacy and excitement that comes from a one-on-one conversation with any artist, especially one who has changed the course of music.

But not every question I posed to Little Richard, 77, could fit into my Wall Street Journal Cultural Conversation:

JazzWax: Did you listen to jazz growing up in Macon, GA?
Little Richard: Oh, yes. Charlie Parker, Tab Smith, Cootie Georgia+white-front Williams, Hot Lips Page, Duke Ellington—all of them. I sang all those standard ballads coming up as a gospel singer. I especially liked the jazz vocalists. I listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Georgia White. Do you know her? She was big in the late 1930s. I used to sing all their songs.

JW: Did you separate music as jazz and r&b in the late 1940s?
LR: Growing up, there was no such thing as jazz in my neighborhood. Everything was everything, and music was either good or bad. [Sings] What can I say dear after I say I’m sorry [laughs]. See what I mean? That sounds good no matter who sings it [laughs].

JW: Gospel was a big influence?
LR: Oh yes. I first sang with gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium. She could make that Images-4 guitar of hers talk and walk. I was just a kid and used to go to the theater with a bucket and ice and sell drinks. I’d get lost in the music. I was singing on my own when Sister Rosetta heard me. She asked me to come up on stage with her to sing Five Loaves and Two Fishes. When I heard the audience go wild when we were finished, I knew what I wanted to do.

JW: Your first record in 1951 was for RCA.
LR: I was sort of a gospel-ballad singer then. Actually it was for RCA’s Camden label. RCA was for white artists. Camden was for black folks.

JW: Is r&b closer to gospel than jazz?
LR: R&B comes from the emotional feel of Andrea-3 gospel. R&B’s energy came from the church so the physical excitement of the music was there. The theatrical part of r&b came from the many different acts that toured the black clubs in the South at the time and added their own little eccentric things to stand out. The boogie-woogie came from the blues.

JW: You knew how to play piano early on but not boogie-woogie, is that correct?
LR: Yes, Mrs. Clemmons had taught me to play piano when I was young in Macon. 430730316_50d60aa3e3_m Then later I met Esquerita [pictured], an r&b singer whose real name was S.Q. Reeder. He also played piano. He had come to Macon with Sister Rosetta. I watched him play and loved what he did on the piano. I told him I wanted to play like that. He took my hands and showed me how to do what he did.

JW: How did you come up with Tutti Frutti?
LR: I used to go up on stage in clubs to sing boogie-woogie blues but I’d forget the words. So I made up dirty Images-6 ones to fill out the songs [laughs]. I was doing then what the rap groups do today. When I recorded Tutti Frutti for Specialty, we cleaned up the words [laughs]. We had to. No radio station was going to put those original words on the air.

JW: Tutti Frutti was covered by several artists soon after your single began climbing the charts, including versions by Elvis and Pat Boone, who also had a hit with it.
LR: Yes. It was obvious to me that I had to do something different on the next single. Otherwise, white Pat_boone singers were going to keep copying my songs and standing out more, since their record companies had more money to promote them than mine did.

JW: What did you do with Long Tall Sally, your follow-up single?
LR: I sang it as fast as I could because I knew Pat Boone wouldn’t be able to knock off what I did [laughs]. I ran for my life with that song and made it hard to copy.

JW: You taught Paul McCartney your signature falsetto "Wooo" in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, before the Beatles were the Beatles.
LR: Oh yes. Paul’s my buddy. He’s a real gentleman. He’s Beatles-long-tall-sally beautiful. The Beatles were barely known then. They opened for me at the Star-Club [laughs]. I had gotten the inspiration for that ‘Wooo’ from gospel singer Marion Williams.

JW: What about Elvis?
LR: Elvis was a good friend. One of the sweetest gentlemen. A good singer, especially with gospel.

JW: Which jazz musicians told you they enjoyed your music?
LR: Tab Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae—all of them. Peggy Lee used to come to hear me.

JW: So, did Little Richard kill jazz?
LR: Kill jazz? Oh no, no, no. I don’t believe rock ‘n’ roll could kill Images-7 jazz. Nothing can kill jazz. Jazz is an original. Jazz is beautiful music. I don’t believe that. Jazz is still here. Real rock ‘n’ roll musicians love jazz. A real musician loves all types of music.

JazzWax note: Paul McCartney can be heard employing Little Richard’s falsetto "Wooo" on the Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Wanna Be Your Man and Long Tall Sally.

JazzWax clips: To hear where Little Richard picked up his "Wooo," here’s Marion Williams singing Packin’ Up…

Here’s Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti (with his famous "Wooo"), from the film Don’t Knock the Rock (1956)…

Here’s Little Richard singing Lucille from Mister Rock and Roll (1957). Dig the energy and groove on this thing…

Here he is singing Lucille in what looks to be his 1962 U.K. tour…

And finally, here’s Little Richard in the trailer for The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), a title song Bobby Troup wrote and Little Richard sang. Dig how his new brand of rock and roll shatters every other act in the film, which includes a few jazz artists…