Songs Everybody Should Know
“Tutti Fruiti”, Little Richard, 1955
Who inspired James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Elton John, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, even Elvis himself? Who put the funk in the rhythm?
If there was a black Elvis, Little Richard was him. Probably as important to the birth of rock and roll was Richard Wayne Penniman, or ‘Little Richard’ as he called himself.
Richard was one of 12 poor kids and was exposed to gospel at an early age. On the road performing already when he was in his early teens, Little Richard did not record till 1951. Touring with ‘Sugarfoot Sam’s minstrel show’, Richard was exposed to all kinds of music and was learning his craft in terms of how to perform.
In 1951 he won a talent show in Atlanta which helped him land a contract with RCA-Victor. They could not figure out how to can and sell his wild sprit, and no commercial success was to be his at this point.
His aspirations were further crushed when his father was murdered in 1952. He took a job as a dishwasher in a Greyhound station to help out his family.
At night he was performing at a place called the “Tick Tock Club”, where he met the flamboyant Billy Wright. Richard was now emulating a ‘jump blues’ style of his friend who was known as the ‘Prince of the Blues’, and who liked the sound of horns while he played his boogie-woogie. More importantly Richard dug the high pompadour hairdo, the eyeliner and the funky clothes Billy wore on stage. Combined with the ‘pump treble’ boogie-woogie piano style he learned from one “Esqueirita”, he was ready Freddy! But he would still have to wait.
After his RCA-Victor contract fizzled out and then another kick at the cat with Peacock records out of Houston, Richard was at wits end and ready to call it quits. He was back in Georgia banging on the pots and pans washing dishes again.
Still working on bits and pieces of material he was creating, his friend Lloyd Price suggested he send a demo to Specialty Records. They sent him a letter back rejecting his song. He kept sending it to them.
Finally they asked him to attend a recording session in New Orleans.
A very nervous Little Richard played tentatively and stiffly. Producer Bumps Blackwell liked the material well enough but needed to loosen him up a bit. He took Richard around the corner for a few drinks The plan worked faster than Bumps had expected and within a short while Richard was up at the piano at the Dew Drop Inn, pounding out a new 12-bar boogie-woogie song. Bumps laughed at some of the dirty song lyrics as “Tutti Frutti” was really born.
Rude and steeped in slang, Bumps worked with Richard to clean up ‘Tutti Frutti’ so that they could record it. Bumps called in a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBastrie to work her magic. The gleaming rock and roll song was now ready for Richard’s manic, full-out high-pitched delivery. And he did!
“Tutti Frutti” went to number one only weeks before the Carl Perkins “Blue Suede Shoes” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”. This was a monumental time to be alive and listening to the radio!
The presentation of “Tutti Futti” with its glitz and glamour and outrageousness was equally important to the song itself. Over the next three years Little Richard charted with over 16 singles including “Rip It Up”, “Lucille”, my favourite “Jenny Jenny”, “Keep A’Knockiin’”, and “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, and many more.
In my opinion, Pat Boone pretty much slaughtered every “rock’ song he ever sang. The fact was, the only way to get these songs out to the white population was to make sure they were squeaky clean, and were performed by a white artist. At first the black artists were resentful as it appeared they were being taken advantage of, but soon figured out what was really happening – the kids were discovering the original and buying them as well, or even instead of. Little Richard later admitted that Pat Boone was very instrumental in him getting the well-deserved exposure he received.
Rock and roll crossed the cultural barrier forever.