Contributed Photo Little Richard
His moniker is Little Richard, but his personality is bigger than life.
"I am the originator," he proclaimed by phone earlier this week, sounding like a combination of Billy Graham and James Brown. "I am the emancipator. I am the architect of rock 'n' roll. I am the beginning of it. I started it."
He is woven throughout the history of rock.
"The Beatles were not famous (before they knew me)," he said. "Nobody knew them but their momma and their daddy and their dog."
The band, he said, had never recorded when he met them. "I was their inspiration. Not only were the Beatles inspired, Mick Jagger lived with me, sleeping on my floor. Jimi Hendrix was my guitar player at the age of 19 years old."
He was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga. One of 12 children, the boy who would eventually be known as Little Richard learned gospel music in Pentecostal churches. His grandfather, two uncles and a cousin were all ministers.
So how did he go from singing gospel at the Pentecostal church in Macon to "Good Golly Miss Molly"?
"I just go. How do you go and open a door when somebody knocks?" he said. "It's all connected somehow, some way."
His first hit came in 1956 when "Tutti Frutti" crossed from the R&B charts to the pop charts, rising to No. 17. Other hits included a handful of songs named for different women: "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Lucille" and "Jenny Jenny."
"I think (women) are the most beautiful things in the world," Little Richard said of his muses. "I wouldn't want to be in the world if there weren't no women in it. It'd be a cruel world."
His distinctive sound came with a distinctive look: brightly colored suits, a pompadour, pancake makeup and loads of mascara.
In a 1970 Rolling Stone article, writer David Dalton referenced a speech Little Richard reportedly made during a 1969 concert in New York's Central Park. "I want you to know I am the bronze Liberace," he's quoted as saying.
But the self-proclaimed architect doesn't want to be thought of as following in anyone's footsteps now.
"Liberace didn't dress like this before I came out," he said. "When I (played) with Liberace, he had on a black tuxedo and a bow tie. When he saw me, he screamed like a white woman. I was dressed like that before Liberace. I am an original. I don't copy. I am me."
In 1958, he enrolled in Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) in Huntsville, Ala., a predominantly black Seventh-day Adventist school. Recorded history has stated that he left the music business after deciding rock 'n' roll was "the devil's work," but he'll only say he stopped to go to school.
"I've always been religious, but I've always felt that God would give any of us a chance. Although I sing rock 'n' roll, God still loves me," he said. "I'm a rock 'n' roll singer, but I'm still a Christian. I don't think there's harm in me singing a song if I want to."
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...