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Little Richard is a flamboyant American singer and pianist whose hit songs in the mid 1950s were defining moments in the development of rock ‘n’ roll.
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Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard helped define the early rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s with his driving, flamboyant sound. With his croons, wails and screams, he turned songs like “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” into huge hits and influenced such bands as the Beatles.
"God gives us the ability, but rock ‘n’ roll was created by men."
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard was the third of 12 children. His father, Bud, was a stern man who made his living selling moonshine and didn’t do much to hide his disdain for his son’s early signs of homosexuality. At the age of 13 Richard was ordered to move out of the family home. Richard’s relationship with his father was never repaired. When Richard was 19, his father was shot dead outside a local bar.
The childhood that Richard did manage to have was largely shaped by the church. Two of his uncles as well as his grandfather were preachers, and Richard was involved with the church as much as anyone in his family, singing gospel and eventually learning to play the piano.
Upon moving out of his family’s home, Richard was taken in by a white family who owned a club in Macon, where Richard eventually began performing and honing his talent.
In 1951 Richard caught his first major break when a performance at an Atlanta radio station yielded a record contract with RCA. But with a repertoire of mainly mild blues numbers that masked the searing vocals and piano that would come to define his rock music, Richard’s career failed to take off as he hoped it would.
In 1955 Richard hooked up with Specialty Records producer Art Rupe, who’d been hunting around for a piano-pounding front man to lead a group of musicians in New Orleans. In September, Richard stepped into the recording studio and pumped out “Tutti-Frutti,” an instant Billboard hit that reached No. 17. Richard’s success didn’t stop there. Over the next year and a half, he churned out several more rock hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Send Me Some Lovin’.” With his blood-pumping piano playing and suggestive lyrics, Little Richard, along with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, established rock as a real musical form and inspired others, most notably the Beatles, to make a go of it. In addition to his records, Little Richard appeared in several early rock films, such as Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1957) and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll (1957).
But as his success soared, Little Richard, fueled by his earlier connections to the church, saw his doubts about rock deepen. In 1957 he abruptly and publicly quit performing rock and committed himself to the ministry and recording gospel songs. He recorded his debut religious album, God Is Real, in 1959.
In 1964, following the Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard plunged back into rock music.
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When musicians land big fame, there typically comes a moment of reinvention in which the "rock star" identity is born. This new persona often requires a new name, a way to differentiate between the private and public versions of themselves. Musical monikers take different forms, from the simple, last-name changes aimed at boosting celebrity appeal—like Steven Tyler—to the glamorized version of a childhood nickname—like Jay-Z. Musicians' nicknames and aliases tend to take on an identity all their own over time, often becoming as full of personality as the artists they represent.
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