If anyone could be said to be possessed with the spirit of rock & roll, it’s surely the flamboyant force of nature known as Little Richard — which may explain his repeated attempts at self-exorcism, abandoning secular music every decade or so to return to the church.
When Richard screams, “Ooh! My Soul,” he’s not kidding around.
After a childhood in Georgia spent singing gospel every Sunday, Richard Penniman turned to R&B in the early 50s. He eventually found his own style in rock & roll by sacrificing groove in favor of a non-stop blast of energy, filled with shouts, woos, and barely intelligible lyrics sung with raw, wild abandon and breakneck speed. If Elvis was a locomotive, Little Richard was a jet plane.
Amazingly, his entire reputation rests on about two dozen songs he recorded between 1955 and 1957, an incredible 18 of which were hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 or R&B charts. In late 1957, he saw a fiery ball shoot across the sky and thought it was a sign from God—turned out he was actually witnessing the launching of Sputnik—telling him to repent his evil rock & roll lifestyle and join the ministry. So he did.
Upon returning to the scene in the early 60s, Little Richard still thrilled audiences in concert, but—his momentum lost—he never again reached the Top 40. In the years to come, however, he would prove a huge influence on James Brown, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, and countless others who heard in his raspy vocals the Word Of Rock. And the Word was good.
So — Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom! Here’s the least you need to know:
Here’s Little Richard (1957) & Little Richard (1958) His first 2 albums contain everything you need to know. Because they are fairly short records, you can sometimes find them combined. Also, you can basically get the same tracks—with a few additions—on a greatest hits collection like The Very Best Of Little Richard [Specialty 2008], easily the finest compilation of his early years.
Just as essential as Elvis and Chuck Berry in order to understand the origin story of the music that followed. No one expresses the inarticulate joy of rock & roll like Little Richard. Check: Tutti Frutti & Good Golly Miss Molly