Little Richard influenced everyone from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain
Richard Wayne Penniman, known to the greater world as Little Richard, died this morning at his home in Tennessee. He was 87. With a bevy of hit singles, Richard sealed his history as a rock 'n' roll icon just as the nascent genre was starting to take shape.
Little Richard's singles are crucial to the history of rock 'n' roll. Beginning in 1956 with "Tutti Frutti," he would go on to record "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up" and "Slippin' And Slidin'" all within a span of a year. All of the songs entered the Top 10 chart placing alongside entries by other genre-defining artists as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He never achieved greater sales after that initial run.
Not that it mattered, anyway. Little Richard was a blueprint for the rock star archetype. His wild piano-pounding abandon developed from playing in churches in Georgia. The vocal combination of melodic strain and falsetto whooping he patented has influenced practically every generation to come after him. Now add the flamboyant coiffure and makeup he wore onstage. Clearly, he was the original glam-rocker.
Of course, that era wasn't the safest time for people of color to raise their freak flags. Little Richard's popularity transcended color barriers at a pivotal moment in history. His hit record days were finished by 1959. Instead, the sphere of influence got wider.
If some armchair historian were going to build the official "Thanks For Everything, Little Richard" playlist, the choices would be clear. The Beatles' John Lennon blew his voice out making his band's first record in a 12-hour marathon. Richard's melodic strain paved that path first. Kurt Cobain and anybody else who screams in pitch is copping Little Richard. Elton John completely worships his hammering piano style. David Bowie frequently acknowledged his influence. Richard was obviously crucial to Bruce Springsteen's development. Led Zeppelin cribbed the intro to his "Keep A Knockin'" for their legendary "Rock & Roll." How would Prince have fared without the androgyny vibe Richard paraded decades prior? No wonder Little Richard was in the first group (1986) of inductees in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
The rock 'n' roll lesson Little Richard teaches us is simple. History is made by those who dare. When it seems that rock 'n' roll gets too safe for its own good, somebody comes by to crash the party. And that's why Little Richard's is a life worth celebrating.