More recent generations might know the flamboyant "Little" Richard Penniman from his numerous media appearances, soundtrack and children's record cameos, the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills and (Heaven forbid) those adorable Taco Bell commercials. But once upon a time, somewhere in the mid 50s, he was one of the original rock greats, merging the energy of gospel with New Orleans R&B, while pounding the ivories like there was no tomorrow.
He claims to be "the architect of rock and roll," and history would seem to bear out Little Richard's boast. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically-charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" defined the early rock dynamic. Onstage, he'd deliver wild rock epistles while costumed in sequined vests, mascara, lipstick, and a pompadour that shook with every thundering beat. His road band, the Upsetters, has been credited by James Brown and others with first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.
Penniman was born into poverty in Macon, Georgia, absorbing all the music - blues, country, gospel, vaudeville - that was part of the fabric of life in the black community. He learned to play piano from an equally flamboyant character named Esquerita (who also recorded rock and roll early on for Capitol Records). Little Richard first recorded in a bluesy vein in 1951, but it was his time at Specialty Records beginning in 1955 that made his mark as the rock and roll architect.
Working at Cosimo Matassa's now-legendary J&M Studio in New Orleans with producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell and some of the Crescent City's finest musicians, Little Richard laid down a stunning succession of rock and roll sides over the next several years, including "Rip It Up," "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Lucille," "Jenny Jenny" and "Keep a Knockin'," in addition to the songs previously mentioned. He also appeared in rock and roll-themed movies such as Don't Knock the Rock and The Girl Can't Help It, the latter starring Jayne Mansfield and featuring a hit song from the title of the film, recorded by Mr. Penniman. Both movies were released in 1956.
After a religious conversion, Little Richard abruptly abandoned rock and roll to enroll in Bible college in 1957, becoming a minister, but he was lured back by the British Invasion in 1964, regaining his popularity as a concert performer. He signed with Reprise Records in 1970, and under the expertise of producer Richard Perry, managed minor U.S. hits "Freedom Blues" and "Greenwood, Mississippi." The rest of the 70s was spent jumping from label to label, recording in supergroup-type projects and playing oldies shows.
In 1976, he rejoined the church once more, and for the next decade preached throughout America. In 1986, Richard was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Renewed interest spurred WEA Records to sign him and release Lifetime Friend, which included the chart record "Operator".
Since the mid-80s he has become a frequent visitor on chat shows, an in-demand guest on other artist's records, a familiar face in videos by acts ranging from Hank Williams Jr. to Living Colour to Cinderella, and is regularly featured in various TV commercials.