One of Rock and Roll's flashiest performers, Little Richard has often proclaimed, "I am the innovator! I am the originator! I am the architect of Rock and Roll!" Such grandiose statements aren't too far off the mark. The flamboyant piano-pounder's wild, uninhibited mid-to-late-'50s singles are landmarks of the early Rock and Roll era, spotlighting his exuberant vocals and crystallizing his fusion of swinging New Orleans R&B and ecstatic Gospel fervor.
Richard Penniman grew up in a poor, religious family in Macon, Ga. He sang Gospel as a child, and began performing secular R&B with various groups in the late '40s, while drawing influence from such performers as Roy Brown, Billy Wright and Esquerita, all popular entertainers on the “chitlin’ circuit” of venues where black performers played for black audiences. He made his first recordings for the Camden and Peacock labels in the early 50s, performing in a solid but derivative Jump Blues style, but by 1953 he was washing dishes in a Macon bus station.
Early Rock and Roll star Lloyd Price helped Richard to get a deal with his label, Specialty, which sent him to record in New Orleans with producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell. Richard achieved his breakthrough with "Tutti Frutti," a frenzied, cleaned-up version of an obscene ditty that he'd learned years before. "Tutti Frutti" instantly established Little Richard as one of the first African-American performers to appeal to a racially integrated fan base, reaching No. 2 on Billboard's R&B chart and crossing over to the Pop chart in both the U.S. and the U.K. More frantic hits — "Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and "Slidin'," "Jenny, Jenny," "Keep a Knockin'," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "The Girl Can't Help It" — followed, benefiting from the talents of such top New Orleans players as drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin "Red" Tyler.
Richard was still at the height of his popularity in late 1957, when he abruptly quit Rock and Roll during an Australian tour, enrolling in an Alabama Bible college after returning home. He made some Gospel recordings and toured as an evangelist, but returned to Rock and Roll in 1962, successfully touring Britain and Europe with such young acolytes as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as his opening acts. He continued to cut worthy new music for a series of labels; some of his 60s recordings include a then-unknown Jimi Hendrix, who began a brief stint in Richard's band the Upsetters in late 1964.
Richard's performing career received a major jolt with the Rock and Roll revival of the early 70s, and he became an in-demand performer on the revival and festival circuits. Following a temporary return to the ministry in the late 70s, Richard remained a familiar, ever-quotable pop-culture presence, winning attention in 1985 for his authorized biography, The Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard, and the following year for his role in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which also gave him a minor comeback hit with "Great Gosh A-Mighty." He maintained a busy live schedule in the '80s, '90s and '00s, before announcing his retirement from performing in 2013.