Transcript, dawg!

Hello and welcome to yet another thrilling episode of Deep Tracks in Rock History where we explore the entire story of rock from its earliest roots to its latest developments. I am your nebulous host, Doug “He’s-Getting-Off-Topic-Again” McCulloch, and I will be your guide through this wild ride known as the rock, and the roll.

Last episode I had said that we would be covering Bill Haley next, but I’ve recently come across a new resource for my Bill Haley content which I’m excited to integrate into what I’ve got so far, plus it might yield some possible guests for interviews, so I am holding off on Bill Haley for now and instead in this episode we will, at long last, dive into Little Richard.

That’s right! We are going to swim in the swift and swirling waters of the life of one of rock’s most interesting figures. The title of today’s episode comes from a quote in which he said, “Elvis may be the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but I am the queen.” That captures so much of who Little Richard was right there. And a great description that captures so much of Little Richard’s music is a Jim Morrison quote about Richard’s song “Rip It Up” that is featured at the opening of Mark Ribowsky’s book, “The Big Life of Little Richard.” The quote, which is quintessentially Morrisonian, says, “The music was new black polished chrome and it came over the summer like liquid night.”

It’s here I’ll give the full disclosure that I’ll be drawing heavily from Ribowsky’s book—a book that I’ve cited a couple of times previously but will today become my primary source. That being said, I hope this episode doesn’t become an inadvertent replacement for the book because I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you’re not a fan of Little Richard, Ribowsky’s prose is both smart and approachable, and the way he spins the tale of Little Richard’s life-story is handled superbly. In fact, I am even structuring the narrative of my Little Richard episodes along the same lines as Ribowsky’s book. I’ll include the Amazon link for the book in the show notes for this episode for anyone who’s interested in diving deeper.

But okay, let’s dive into this episode. Little Richard was born on December 5th, 1932, in Macon Georgia. The name his parents had picked for him was “Ricardo Wayne Penniman,” but the nurse misheard them and, on his birth certificate, had written “Richard Wayne Pennimen.” I love the way Ribowsky put it in the opening line of chapter one: “Little Richard began his life blessed by fate, which took the form of a clerical error.”

Apparently, when Richard’s parents—Charles and Leva Mae—saw the name “Richard” instead of “Ricardo,” they liked it better, so it remained.

The city in which Richard grew up was a unique mishmash of opportunity and obstacle for black Americans in the early 20th century. Macon, Georgia had become a place where many freed slaves had settled after Emancipation and, as a result, was the home for a large amount of sharecroppers. And some of you may or may not remember, we covered sharecropping in some depth in episode 1.7, part 1, “Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves.”

Anyway, eventually the city’s downtown area became a place in which, as Ribowsky put it, “enterprising black men stoked a teeming hub of nightclubs and speakeasies that became a vibrant musical scene, one that would incubate some of the greatest talent of the century.” And considering that Macon, Georgia would also gift us with Otis Redding and James Brown, Ribowsky ain’t wrong.

Little Richard’s parents were fascinating people. His mom would be his biggest fan throughout his entire life. His dad, however, would present a much more complicated relationship for Richard.

Charles Penniman—who everyone called “Bud”—had married Leva Mae at the tender age of 14 according to some sources—including Ribowsky—although according to the genealogy website WikiTree, they were married “about” 1929, which would have made them 19 and 17, respectively. My personal inclination is to believe Ribowsky over a website with the word “wiki” in its title. Plus, I did some digging and confirmed that the age of consent in Georgia in the 1920s was, in fact, 14. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the families kept the marriage quiet until they were older and a second, more acceptable, marriage date became the story that they went with and that could be the reason for the two different dates. Who knows. Ribowsky is well-researched, so, like I said, I am inclined to believe him.

But moving on with the story. Bud was known for having a bit of a temper and, having been raised by a minister father, became a preacher who was known for giving fiery sermons. In addition to his religious work, however, Bud also supported his family by working long hours as a stone mason and—this is my favorite part—“bootlegging booze for Prohibition-era moonshiners around town, rationalizing that he wasn’t committing a sin because he didn’t brew the stuff himself.”

Even after alcohol was once again legalized in 1933—one year after Richard’s birth—Bud continued selling moonshine to merchants who didn’t want to pay taxes. And I’ll add, that story right there of his father—a bootlegging preacher—encapsulates perfectly so much of the same sort of duality that would be a core component of Little Richard’s life.

Bud was eventually able to save up enough money to open his own nightclub, which he called the Tip In Inn. It did well enough that he was able to afford things like electric lamps—most people in that region at that time still had gas lamps—and even pay for a nanny to help Leva Mae with their twelve kids! You heard correctly: 12. They had seven boys and five girls. Bud may not have lived every sermon he preached but he was certainly living the one about “multiply and replenish the earth.”

Richard was a unique specimen even as a kid—in personality and physicality. As Richard described himself, “I had this great big head and little body, and I had one big eye and one little eye.” That description alone makes him sound like one of the zombies from Plants vs. Zombies. But on top of that, his right leg was shorter than his left, which gave him a shuffling sort of walk that many regarded as effeminate. So, it should come as no surprise that he was the target of bullying at school. He was called everything from more sedate slurs like “crippled” and “deformed,” to harsher ones like “faggot, sissy, freak, punk.” As he put it: “They called me everything.”

Here's where Little Richard I think gets the most interesting, though. I’ll quote from Ribowsky: “He didn’t seem to go out of his way to dispute the slurs. Indeed, he played up his feminine affectations, even creeping into Leva Mae’s room and painting his face with her makeup and dousing himself with her rosewater perfume. He would imitate her speech, in a girlish, high-pitched voice.”

It seems like “Little Richard” didn’t develop as an act during his later years, but rather he was created whole and complete from day one. Richard was “Little Richard” even when he was little.

His parents had different reactions to his flamboyancy. His mom took it in stride and just accepted it as part of who her son was, sometimes shaking her head about it, while Bud struggled with it and often wondered aloud, “What’s wrong with that boy?” This sentiment would come to a head when Bud would kick Richard out of the house at age 13.

So, to say that their relationship as father and son was strained would be the understatement of the century. Bud never came to grips with the fundamental thing that Richard himself would discuss openly years later when he said, “I knew I was different from the other boys” and that he had “unnatural urges” for boys like him. In fact, it would be later in life that Little Richard would open up about a lot of things from his younger years that his parents didn’t know about. He not only knew he was gay from a very young age, but also acted on it from a fairly young age. Quoting from Ribowsky again: “[Little Richard] mentioned a particular ritual in Macon, of young blacks on the corner picked up by white men in cars and spirited into the woods for sex, hoping to be given some money. Within the borders of a culture where lynchings were all too common and ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ signs hung on restaurant doors, some black men submitted to this behavior as a means of survival. Richard was one of them.” Especially for a young black kid living mostly on the streets.

The stakes were high for someone like Richard. It wasn’t unheard of for gay men to be beaten up simply because of their orientation; and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for black men to be beaten for…well, you name it. Sometimes I read American history and it seems like a sneeze was enough to get a black man lynched. But to be both gay and black, Little Richard embodied a very dangerous “two for one special.”

The funny thing is, he seemed to prefer it that way. I love the way Ribowsky put it, so I’ll borrow from him again: “[Richard] seemed curiously amenable to living on dare, bravado, and tightrope danger. Often goaded into a fight by other kids, he would wind up with his pretty face bloodied. At those times, his big brother Charles would intervene.” Then he quotes Charles: “If I found out they had messed with Richard…I would go looking for them.”

So, despite having a father who was ashamed of him, Little Richard could always count on his siblings to have his back—which is a good thing considering the fact that, as we just read, he lived life loud and proud, even to the point of personal risk.

He was also loud and proud in a literal sense. Stories of his childhood abound with accounts of him “hollerin’ and beating on tin cans.” This would lead to no shortage of people doing some hollering themselves, yelling at him to be quiet, which would end up with him chuckling in response as he wandered off to make noise elsewhere.

In conjunction with his noise, however, was a love of music. He loved singing so much, in fact, that it even affected his school studies. At one point, when he first considered dropping out of school to pursue a career singing at the nightclubs downtown, he put it off because he knew how his dad would react and that was enough to keep him going for a while longer. As Little Richard put, Bud would have “knocked my head off with a switch.”

Despite that, however, Richard did eventually drop out while attending Hudson High School. But that wouldn’t be until after he’d been kicked out of the house. And that’s also getting ahead of our story.

I need to point out, though, that it was more than just fear that underpinned Richard’s relationship with his dad. Like most sons, he also desired his father’s approval and respect, even as he often did and said things that seemed to contradict that desire. For example, Little Richard, from a young age, often spoke of becoming a preacher, just like his daddy. He spent a massive amount of his time bouncing around from one church to another. His mom belonged to a different congregation than his dad, plus he had three uncles who were ministers at other churches—and Little Richard frequented them all. But he was absorbing something more than just religion—he was singing in those churches, singing in their choirs, absorbing their music and the performances and the performance styles.

Thus, gospel music would provide his earliest musical inspirations. One of those gospel music inspirations was Brother Joe May.

Brother Joe May was a singing evangelist who was often billed as “the Thunderbolt of the Middle West.” He sold millions of gospel records over the course of his career. Richard saw him perform at the Macon City Auditorium and, as Ribowsky put it, “saw his own future.”

That was a clip of one of May’s early hits, released in 1949, called “Search Me Lord.”

Later, Richard would likewise gravitate to the music of the budding rhythm & blues scene. In this vein were artists like Louis Jordan.

Louis Jordan had a song called “Caldonia” that is, according to Little Richard, the first non-church song he ever sang—and which you heard playing in the background. Ribowsky points out that “it was no accident that Little Richard’s song titles were women’s names—a common trait in Jordan works.”

There’s a more important musical influence that I want to talk about here, though, that fits not only the R&B vein, but also incorporates gospel and even country. This is a person who many argue is the real inventor of rock and roll—an argument that I kinda don’t dispute. This artist was Little Richard’s absolute favorite singer, and I will add that she’s one of my all-time favorites as well.

This artist’s name is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

We’re going to pause on Little Richard’s story for a moment and talk about Rosetta Tharpe.

Something I’ve highlighted a number of times in this podcast is how many of these blues artists we’ve looked at got their start performing church music and would take many of those sounds from the old African spirituals and gospel music and use that to create new secular forms of music—like the blues, jazz, and so forth. However, as pointed out by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the PBS documentary, “The Black Church,” what you started to see in the in the 1930s was a new breed of gospel artists who did this same thing, but in reverse. Essentially, this new strain of gospel artists began taking those secular sounds that had originated in gospel music, and started weaving them back into gospel music, to make a new, sacred-secular sound. Further quoting from that documentary I just mentioned: “This tug-of-war between the sacred and the secular would drive the evolution of black music to this day.”

In the documentary, Gates goes on to explain what I’ve also mentioned before: that there were many who believed the chords and other elements of blues and jazz—i.e., secular music—had “no place in God’s house,” and were very resistant to this “cross pollination.”

However…enter: Rosetta Tharpe.

She grew up in the Church of God in Christ Family and in the 1930s, quoting now from Paul Harvey from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs: “realize[d] that she [could] convey these kinds of messages in the nightclubs just as much she [could] in church services. …so, she [began] a professional musical career appearing in secular venues, still doing religious music, but also playing what we would think of as rock ‘n’ roll guitar.”

Harvey then goes on to explain: “Rosetta Tharpe’s church respond[ed] by condemning her. Because if you’re a member of the Church of God in Christ you’re not supposed to be at a nightclub, simple as that.”

I like what gospel recording artist BeBe Winans said about that, however, when he pointed out that artists like Rosetta Tharpe felt that they were actually carrying out God’s will, because God said, “take my word to the highways and to the hedges,” which for them meant, take God’s music everywhere.

This is where I’ll switch sources quote Wikipedia. The site’s entry for Tharpe is well-written and well-informed (at least, as far as I did any extended digging through it) and I thought these three paragraphs near the beginning of the entry did a great job of summarizing her importance and influence as an artist:

“She was the first great recording star of gospel music, and was among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm and blues and rock and roll audiences, later being referred to as ‘the original soul sister’ and ‘the Godmother of rock and roll’. She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eric Clapton.

“Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, opening the way to the rise of electric blues. Her guitar-playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s. Her European tour with Muddy Waters in 1964, with a stop in Manchester on May 7, is cited by British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.

Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her music of ‘light’ in the ‘darkness’ of nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the mainstream and helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel…”

In short, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably the most important early rock pioneer you’ve never heard of. Oh, and I need to give a shout out to my good friend Sally Giles for referring me to that PBS documentary. Once again, it’s called “The Black Church,” and I accessed it through my Amazon Prime Video subscription, but you can also access it directly through I only used a snippet of it for this episode, but the entire thing is really well done and super interesting.

But now, getting back to Little Richard: he was so enamored with Rosetta Tharpe that he got a job at the auditorium so that he could hang out by the stage door. It was there that he intercepted her, burst out singing one of her hits, “Strange Things,” which impressed her enough that he ended up on stage that night singing with her. In fact, jumping up on stage to sing with the acts would become a regular thing for Richard who, at this time, was still just a musically precocious seventeen-year-old kid.

One notable instance of him doing this took place in 1949 with “a performer known as Doctor Nobilio, the so-called ‘Macon town prophet,’ who was decked out in a red-and-yellow cape and turban, waving a magic wand and carrying a gruesome doll he said was a devil baby with claws for feet and horns on its head.” I tried finding images of this guy online and couldn’t find any, so, if anyone listening to this episode knows of where I can find a picture of Dr. Nobilio, the Macon Town Prophet, I would LOVE to get a copy. He just sounds…fascinating.

Incidentally, it would be a gig he would get with another “doctor” that would be Richard’s first ticket out of Georgia. He briefly toured with Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show and still at this time only knew a few non-gospel songs but, as Ribowsky put it, “he could scream louder than anyone else” and “that scream earned him other road gigs, during which, unable to pay even for a room in a fleabag hotel, he would plop down in a field and sleep there.”

However, this gives me an opportunity to highlight one of the things that would keep Richard going all his life: his faith. Little Richard once said, “I used to get beaten up for nothing, slapped in my face with sticks. The police used to stop me and make me wash my face. I always tried to not let it bother me. We would stay in no hotels and go to no toilets. I went to the bathroom behind a tree. I slept in my car. I knew there was a better way and that the King of Kings would show it to me. I was God’s child. I knew God would open that door.”

That door would open when the front man for a band called B. Brown and His Orchestra got super drunk and couldn’t do a gig, so Richard stood in and ended up touring with them. It was also from this experience that he would get his own stage name: “It was on those treks that B. Brown had him go by the stage name ‘Little Richard,’ even painting the appellation as the band’s featured performer on the side of the Bingo Long-like station wagon they traveled in.”

And, as Ribowsky so eloquently put it, “It stuck. Man, would it stick.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering, that reference to the type of car they travelled in, the “Bingo Long-like station wagon,” comes from a 1976 film entitled “The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” starring Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor. The car in the movie is a 1938 Packard Twelve, for you “car guys” out there.

But okay, getting back to Richard, who is now known officially as “Little Richard.” He was starting to make a name for himself as a decent performer and entertaining front man. What’s funny is, like, half the songs he sang he didn’t even know all the words to. A lot of them he would just sing what he knew and then fake the rest. But people weren’t watching him for the lyrics—they were watching him for him. Little Richard had a stage presence like no one else.

He eventually decided, however, that he also needed a prop on stage. A lot of the great front men and women he admired, played an instrument in addition to singing. He had learned saxophone when he was younger, but there’s a reason why most front people play a non-wind instrument—you can’t really sing while blowing into a saxophone, or a trumpet, or…well, okay, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson with his flute playing is something of an exception, but you get my point! Richard decided that saxophone was more for backup musicians and he needed to play something that would keep him front and center. So he decided on the piano.

So, “he hired a local piano player, Luke Gonder, to show him the basics, while developing moves such as lifting his foot to the keyboard and sliding his hand under it to play.”

Little Richard was bringing the guitar theatrics of Charlie Patton and T-Bone Walker to the piano.

Little Richard’s rising star would nevertheless remain dim in Bud’s sky, never entering the orbit of the artists featured at the Tip In Inn. And yes, I think I got a little lost in the symbolism in that sentence back there. My point is: the music heard in Bud’s nightclub was “strictly mainstream pop and blues, the soothing sounds of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong….” Ribowsky goes on to point out, “Whenever his son would sing at a competing club, Bud thought of him as part of the new crowd of euphoric blues busters, wearing the same sort of flashy suits, shaking and rattling, boasting of carnal pursuits—the very essence of the devil’s music. That his boy was a teenage wunderkind did not impress him. Already feeling shamed by his son’s irreverence, Bud boiled over.”

An account from Little Richard regarding his relationship with his father captures so much of the tension between them. Speaking of his dad, Little Richard said, “He didn’t like me because I was gay. He’d say, ‘My father had seven sons and I wanted seven sons. You’ve spoiled it, you’re only half a son.’ And then he’d hit me. But I couldn’t help it. That was the way I was.”

As I mentioned before, Little Richard had been living more or less on the streets since age 13. However, in addition to extended family members who occasionally took pity on him, there was “Miss” Ann Howard and her husband Johnny, a couple who owned and ran a night club in downtown Macon called Miss Ann’s Tic Toc Lounge. The Tic Toc Lounge was known as a welcome place for any clientele: black, white, straight, gay—and, in fact, Ribowsky points out that it would eventually become Macon’s first openly gay bar.

This would become another place where Richard would cut his teeth as a performer. The Howards more or less adopted Richard, helping him to go school, even buying him a new car at one point. He would sing their praises to his dying day, even attributing a lot of his success to their support.

What was ironic, though, was that this new home for Richard—the Tic Toc Lounge—was practically next door to Bud’s club, the Tip In Inn. This is where I try to put myself in Richard’s shoes. Think about it: coming home from school, heading towards the place that has given you refuge, but passing by a daily reminder of why you needed that refuge to begin with. What a head trip that would be.

In addition to getting some time on stage at the Tic Toc Lounge, Richard also washed dishes and, just, sort of hung around. He got to know the regulars, and they him. It was from these interactions that he would start formulating the ideas for his first songs.

For example, I’ll share Richard’s account of the genesis of the song “Long Tall Sally,” as it appears in Ribowsky’s book: “[T]here was a lady who used to drink quite a bit, she always like pretend she had a cold when she came to our house…and she was tall and ugly, man, that was an ugly woman. She was so ugly that people used to turn their heads, she didn’t have but two teeth and they were on each side of her tongue, and she was cockeyed. So we used to say, ‘Long Tall Sally, she’s built for speed,’ and her old man they called John. …but [John] was really married to Mary, which was a big, fat lady, who used to sit on the porch and eat watermelon all the time…. All the black people got paid off on Friday, and you’d know when Friday came, because of whiskey and fights and joyful times, too, and she and he started a good fight. So when he’d see her coming, he’d duck back in this little alley.”

Ribowsky also has a great account for the formulation of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” which “came from watching his Aunt Lula unwittingly get high on weed, the result of a practical joke by the family.” Then Ribowsky quotes Richard: “‘They used to slip grass in her pipe [and] put tobacco on top,’ he said. ‘She’d puff away. She didn’t know what was happenin’, she just be laughin’… she was a little lady, she didn’t have teeth; she’d swing almost over the rim. That’s where I got the idea for ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly,’ somethin’ she used to say when she got high swinging up there. Everything I sang was really something that happened.”

All of this was happening during his mid- to late-teens. It was a whirlwind time for Richard. And the ironic thing in all of this, as Ribowsky put it: “Bud would actually grow closer to his son once he wasn’t under his thumb anymore. The two of them would begin an uneasy reconciliation process, with Bud making what for him was a major concession coming to see him sing.”

The next phase of Richard’s career, however, would see him leaning into all the things that had created the largest strain between he and his dad. He briefly toured with a minstrel show called “Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam,” that catered to gay audiences, dressing in drag initially because one of the showgirls went missing, but then it became a permanent role for him in the show. They called him “Princess Lavonne.”

He eventually broke off from Sugarfoot Sam, but he had found a home and steady audience in the gay underground, going on to perform with acts like the King Brothers Circus, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, and the L.J. Heath Show. Despite his difficulty walking in high heels, Richard found himself once again having to dress in drag for many of these shows as well, but regardless of this not being exactly the career he was looking for, it was still a way out of Macon.

He eventually linked up with a travelling band called the Broadway Follies, in which one of the other performers was the R&B singer Chuck Willis, who was also still paying his dues. Chuck Willis, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, would become big in the late 1950s with the song “C.C. Rider,” which, when performed on Dick Clark’s show, American Bandstand, was the first song to feature the Stroll. And yes, that was “stroll” with a capital “S.”

If you don’t know what the stroll was, or what American Bandstand was, or even who Dick Clark was, don’t worry: we’ll be talking about all of that in a future episode.

It was while touring with the Broadway Follies that Little Richard was able to meet a jump blues performer named Billy Wright. This would be a crucial and influential meet-up for Richard on a number of levels. Quoting Ribowsky’s description of Billy Wright: “Calling himself the ‘Prince of the Blues,’ he wore slathered-on makeup, loud suits, hair piled atop his head, and a pencil mustache. He didn’t sing the blues as much as squeal them.” If you didn’t know better, you would almost swear he was describing Little Richard, wouldn’t you? But continuing on with Riboswsky’s blurb about Wright: “In the late ‘40s, having become the house act at Atlanta’s Royal Peacock Club, Wright recorded some of his first hit songs right there at the venue for the Savoy label, his first release, ‘Blues for My Baby,’ reaching number 3 on the R&B chart. According to Richard, Wright’s mixture of showbiz flair with gospel and blues wailing and weeping was an epiphany.”

It wasn’t much of a leap for Richard to begin imitating Wright, and this in turn quickly ingratiated him with Wright, which then led to other opportunities. It was through his connection with Billy Wright that Richard was able to get air time with the radio DJ, Zenas Sears, at WGST, which was a blues station in Atlanta. And again, I can’t stress enough how crucial it was at this time to get in good with radio DJs. Remember, they were the gatekeepers and the tastemakers of popular music during the 1950s.

Thus, it was through Zenas Sears that Richard was offered a contract with RCA Victor. The year was 1951 and he was just two months shy of turning 19.

In October of that year, he entered the recording studio for his first ever recording session. Richard would sing and play the piano, but he would be backed by Billy Wright’s band. They recorded four songs in this session. Two of them were written by a British blues composer named Leonard Feather: “Get Rich Quick”—which really blurs the line between jump blues and early rock—and “Taxi Blues.” The other two were Little Richard originals: “Every Hour” and “Why Did You Leave Me.” If you listen to these recordings from this first session, it doesn’t sound like Little Richard at all. There’s none of the pizzazz that we associate with Little Richard. And this is, of course, because in the studio he was missing the number one thing that gave him the energy on stage that he was known for: an audience.

As we’ll see, this will be a problem for some time with his early stuff, in which he struggles to recapture the energy of his live performances in his recorded stuff.

From those first four songs, RCA decided to use “Taxi Blues” as their potential radio hit and that was what Zenas Sears plugged on the radio. Unfortunately, it never gained any traction. However, the Little Richard original that was released on the B-side—“Every Hour”—eventually got some air time at a station in Nashville where Little Richard heard it and screamed, “That’s my record!” Eventually, “Every Hour” started to pop up in jukeboxes throughout Georgia but, as Ribowsky put it, there was one in particular that meant more to Little Richard than any others: the jukebox at the Tip In Inn.

Finally, Bud was proudly bragging about his son and would even pop nickels in himself to keep the song playing. As Richard himself put it: “My daddy was proud of me for the first time in his life.”

That means something. I need to stop for a moment and just really emphasize this moment. I’ve been lucky enough to have a dad who’s always supported me and express pride in the things I’ve done, and in turn, I’ve tried to do the same for my own kids. Keenin, Reese, wherever you two beautiful turds are right now, I’m frikkin’ proud of you!

With that being said, any dads listening to this episode, just pause it for a moment and tell your kids you love them and you’re proud of them. As Will Wight put it in his kung-fu fantasy novel, “Dreadgod,” “Manners [are] free.” And I’ll add to that, so is praise.

Praise your kids, you guys. No one was ever hurt with a little extra love—“spare the rod” be damned.

Okay, that was kind of a long tangent. Let’s get back on track.

This jukebox moment would blossom into much more for Richard than just his dad’s long-sought approval. It was at this time that Richard was also invited back to live at home with his family. His dad even became a sort of informal advisor to Richard. The success from his RCA recording session wasn’t what Richard wanted, of course, but it was enough to propel him onward. He was back on the road, but this time he wasn’t wearing a dress and he wasn’t some adjunct to another headliner: now he was the headliner. The name “Little Richard” was becoming more well-known and his live performances were becoming the stuff of legend.

This would also mark a growing rift between the live, on-stage version of Little Richard, and the more sedate recorded version that was being half-heartedly touted by RCA Victor on the radio. As Ribowsky put it: “The wilder, louder blues bubbling along the chitlin’ circuit were Richard’s metier, but RCA had no stomach for it, keeping him in the safe corner of conventional blues and R&B.” In January of 1952—just three months after that first recording session—RCA set up a second session. However, they were expecting more of the same Little Richard that they saw in that first session, which was not at all how Richard himself wanted to be seen. Despite his father’s excitement for this aspect of his success, Little Richard entered the studio for the second time with heavy reluctance and loads of self-doubt.

This is where I have to once again quote Ribowsky because I love the way he described this second session: “Those mixed emotions and inner discontent arrived with Richard at the WGST studio on January 12th, 1952. And the songs he recorded that day are discomfiting, the titles seeming like they could have sprung from a session with a shrink—‘I Brought It All On Myself,’ ‘Please Have Mercy On Me,’ ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Happening,’ and ‘Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Mother.” That last song was another Little Richard original, while the others came from other songwriters.

Once again, RCA had some decent material that would do well enough in the forgettable, mid-level miasma of top 100 radio hits, but it wasn’t something that would stand out to anyone, and certainly would never cross over from the R&B charts to the mainstream.

Most artists would be satisfied with this sort of tepid success, though. Most artists are okay with being absorbed into the soup of current listening tastes. But for Little Richard, it felt inauthentic and, quite frankly, boring.

Nevertheless, from this second session, RCA released Richard’s second record, with “Get Rich Quick”—from his first session—on the A-side and “Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Mother” on the B-side.

Then, a year after that second recording session, on February 12th, 1952, Richard would face yet another major life trial. Bud Penniman was 41 years old. He was mixing and mingling with his clientele at the Tip In Inn when a ruckus in the kitchen caught his attention. He went back there to check it out.

A local trouble-maker named Frank Tanner was back there tossing firecrackers into the oven. (Yeah, Frank was basically the village idiot). Bud of course ordered him out of the club. However, once he was outside, Tanner was joined by a bunch of his goon friends and were harassing people coming in and out of the club, which prompted a second confrontation between him and Bud. This time, Bud’s infamous temper flared and he reached into his waistband for his pistol that he kept there. Tanner drew his own gun, pulled the trigger, and shot Bud in the chest. Bud fell to the concrete there in front of his club and bled out…very likely with Little Richard’s music wafting out from the club’s jukebox—the last thing Bud would hear before dying.

The police were called and Tanner was arrested. He would claim he acted in self-defense and would be released later that night. Richard himself was out on the road and wouldn’t find out about his dad’s death until the next morning. Quoting Ribowsky’s account of this moment: “Entering the house, he saw his father’s blood-drenched raincoat lying on the ground on the porch. Inside, Leva Mae, pregnant with her next child, was sobbing uncontrollably.”

This is where the official account of Bud’s death, and the family’s account, begin to part ways. Bud had always been in business with dangerous and sketchy people—the type of people who, if owed money, would collect on that debt in currency other than money. The Penniman family suspected that some of these people wore uniforms. Thus, Little Richard would claim on more than one occasion, later in life, that someone had had his father killed—or, at the very least, crooked police officers allowed it to happen and allowed Bud’s killer to go free.

Whether there was any direct corruption involved, the judicial system at that time—especially in the South—wasn’t exactly known for spending a lot of time and resources on black neighborhoods or meeting justice for crimes against African Americans—especially for black club owners who were known to dabble in trafficking in moonshine.

Frank Tanner was supposed to be indicted for manslaughter in June of 1955, but then the case was dismissed by the district attorney in October of that same year. The crazy thing is, though, is in the early ‘60s, after Little Richard had officially become a big deal, he was back home visiting his family in Macon when Frank Tanner showed up at their doorstep asking for forgiveness. Little Richard said of their reaction: “And we did.”

But returning to 1952, the Tip In Inn was closed and when Richard’s brother, Charles, enlisted in the Marines and was sent to fight in the Korean War, Richard became the family’s breadwinner.

Over the next year or so, RCA released the rest of Little Richard’s recordings he’d made with them, all of them with unenthusiastic response, and even Zenas Sears had lost interest in plugging this would-be up-and-comer. It seemed that Little Richard’s star was already falling, all while he was still grieving the violent loss of his father.

1953 found Richard working as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus terminal. RCA Victor had chosen not to renew its contract with him. This should have been his lowest point, but it’s from this time working at that terminal that Little Richard says he came up with what, as I have pointed out before, would become probably the most famous intro to any rock song ever—possibly any pop song ever.

“I was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station at the time,” Richard said. “I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots to me to wash,’ and I said, ‘Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the kitchen…”—just like, he points out, he had written “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in the kitchen.

His setbacks didn’t slow Little Richard down at all. He was still promoting himself to anyone who would give him the time of day. He eventually was able to get a new manager: Clint Brantley.

Brantley had been very successful in launching and managing the careers of a number of black singers in the South, being known to at times be generous, “advancing performers for their performances as well as expense money, though exacting repayment with fat interest under threat of physical harm.” Brantley, who was himself black, referred to his singers as his “little niggers.”

He was a means to an end for Richard.

One of the first things that Brantley told Richard to do was to get himself a band. This proved easier than Richard may have expected when, during a gig at the New Era nightclub in Nashville, he was heard by a group called the Tempo Toppers who were actively looking for a new singer and offered him the job.

This helped elevate his fame even more. The Toppers enjoyed the success of the guy who was quickly becoming the most sought-after front men in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Almost every show was sold-out.

The Toppers eventually did a show at the Matinee Club in Houston and this would become the next big step for Richard’s career. In attendance at that show was Don Robey—the owner of the Duke-Peacock R&B label. Don Robey would become the best thing to happen to Little Richard…and the worst thing. He would become hated by Little Richard more than perhaps any other person on earth.

I’ll use Ribowsky’s description of Robey here: “Much like Clint Brantley, [Don Robey’s] business was promoting black talent but uncomfortably for Richard, however, Robey was an all-too familiar character, a near twin of Brantley, a light-skinned black man who seemed highly scornful of ‘lesser’ and darker black men than himself, freely meddling in their recordings with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.”

Here's how Richard himself described Robey: “He was a black guy who looked like a white guy, and he was very stern. He wore great big diamond rings on his hand and he was always chewing this big cigar, cussin’ at me. … He was so possessive. He would control the very breath that you breathed. I resented him for being so mean.”

But, like Brantley, he was a means to an end. He took over as Richard’s manager—the deal between him and Brantley in fact was done directly between the two men without them even saying anything to Richard until after the fact—and he soon had Richard back in the recording studio.

This session, despite attempting to play up Richard’s energetic edge a bit more, was nevertheless still a flop. The songs to come out of it didn’t go anywhere and Richard was just as deflated as he’d been with those RCA Victor sessions.

This would add to what was already an increasing tension between Robey and Richard. The two of them argued often. One time in particular, Richard called Robey out for being a crook (he was known in town as “the Black Caesar” and always had a posse of armed henchmen around him) and this particular exchange pushed Robey far enough that, as Richard describes it, “He jumped on me, knocked me down, and kicked me in the stomach. It gave me a hernia that was painful for years. I had to have an operation. He was known for beating people up, though. He would beat everybody up but Big Mama Thornton. He was scared of her.”

That’s right, you heard that correctly. One of the other artists managed by Don Robey was Big Mama Thornton, and she was also the only one who put him on his heels. So, if you’ve ever wondered who the boogey man is afraid of…it’s Big Mama Thornton.

We’ll be revisiting Big Mama Thornton when we talk about Elvis Presley, and again when we talk about the songwriter duo Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, so I’m not going to go into her story right here and now.

And in fact, we’re also not going to go into more of Little Richard’s story right now either because we’ve hit the rough, arbitrary time-limit that I’ve given myself for my episodes. Nevertheless, next time, in Part Two of this thrilling account of Little Richard’s life, we will continue on to see his meteoric rise as one of rock’s founding fathers. Don’t miss it.

Show Notes

  • Okay, I know I've been saying this for, like, four episodes now, but truly, honestly, show notes are coming soon!