Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman, December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia, United States) is an LAmerican singer, songwriter, and pianist, and an early pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, influencing generations of R&B and rock artists. Many of his fans have proclaimed Richard as The Real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (in reference to the deceased Elvis Presley, who’s known by the moniker “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”). He has also been called the King of Rockin ‘n’ Rollin, Rhythm & Blues Soulin’. His original injection of funk into the rock and roll beat in the mid-1950’s also had a profound influence on the development of that genre of music.

One of twelve children, Little Richard grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family, but he mostly attended the New Hope Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia (Turner, Hungry for Heaven, p. 19). He also attended Holiness/Pentacostal churches of the U.S. South, where he learned Gospel music. He learned to play the piano and tried to sing gospel music, but he was rejected from some churches for screaming the hymns. His father Charles “Bud” Penniman was a preacher who sold moonshine on the side. In the winter of 1952 his father was murdered and he returned to Macon to perform the blues at the Tick Tock Club in the evening while washing dishes at the cafeteria of a Greyhound bus station during the day. His early recording career in the 1950s was a mix of boogie-woogie music and rhythm and blues, heavily steeped in gospel music, but with a heavily accentuated back-beat, funky rhythm, raspy-shouted vocals, and breathlessly delivered lyrics that marked a decidedly new kind of music that would become known as Rock ‘n’ Roll. Little Richard has been credited by James Brown, who called Little Richard his idol, with “first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat”, by Smokey Robinson as “the start of that driving, funky, never let up rock ‘n’ roll”, and Ray Charles, in 1989, as “the man that started a kind of music that set the pace for a lot of what’s happening today.”

Early years

Like his fellow Georgian Ray Charles, Richard Penniman was inspired by black gospel music greats of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Nearly all of his dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel artists, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom he referred to as his “favorite singer” when he was a child (she invited him to sing a song with her onstage in 1944, after she heard him sing her hit “Strange Things Happening Everyday”), Marion Williams (from whom he got the “whoooo” in his vocal), Mahalia Jackson, and Brother Joe May. He was also influenced by late 1940’s jump blues shouter Billy Wright.

Penniman’s hard-driving piano rhythms came from two places. The late pompadoured piano player Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr.) who showed Penniman how to go high on treble without compromising bass. Penniman met Esquerita when he traveled through Macon with a preacher named Sister Rosa. Penniman credits his technical force to East St. Louis, Ill., gospel singer Brother Joe May, who was called “the Thunderbolt of the Middle West”. Penniman explained, “I used to get in a room and try to make my piano sound just like him. He had so much energy.” May generated energy by moving from a subtle whisper to a thunderous tenor and back in a four-bar phrase.