Rainbow Rant: Little Richard invented rock 'n' roll

Joy Ellison
In this July 22, 2001 file photo, Little Richard performs at the 93rd birthday and 88th year in show business gala celebration for Milton Berle, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/John Hayes)

Here’s what you need to know about “Little Richard” Penniman, who died on May 9 at age 87: He was the self-described king and queen of rock ’n’ roll, and the original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” were an explosive, hilarious tribute to the glories of butt sex. 

Tutti Frutti, good booty

If it don’t fit, don’t force it

You can grease it, make it easy

A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom, indeed. 

“I’d been singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ for years, but it never struck me as a song you’d record,” Little Richard said. “I didn’t go to New Orleans to record no ‘Tutti Frutti.’ Sure, it used to crack the crowds up when I sang it in the clubs. … But I never thought it would be a hit, even with the lyrics cleaned up.”

Nothing about his career was expected, because Little Richard created something truly new.

“I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor [of rock ’n’ roll],”he told Rolling Stone. “If there was somebody else, I didn’t know them, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day. So I say I’m the architect.”

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But even the inventor of rock ’n’ roll had musical parents, and Little Richard’s were two other queer icons. He learned gospel piano fromEsquerita, another flamboyant, gender-bending black gay man who loved big sunglasses and bigger hair. And Little Richard performed onstage for the first time when he opened forSister Rosetta Tharpe. He spoke of both musicians with fondness, calling Tharpe his greatest influence. Little Richard wasn’t miserly when it came to crediting the black musical visionaries who came before him, citing Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Marion Williams, Ruth Brown and Muddy Waters, among others.

But Little Richard wanted his rightful due, including credit for his creation and the money he was owed. 

White singer Pat Boone,who later launched a second career as a homophobic jerk, made his name covering Little Richard songs, but Little Richard claimed he never saw a dime in royalties. 

“I been knocking for years and they won't let me come in,”he said. “I keep coming back, trying it again. Haven't got nothing. While I was slipping and sliding, they was keeping and hiding — putting my money in unknown banks.”

Here’s what else you need to understand about Little Richard: You can see and hear him all over the performances of the queer musicians who followed. 

Elton John cribbed his forceful piano technique from Little Richard, along with his sparkly get-up and onstage acrobatics. Jackie Shane and Janelle Monáe learned how to set their pompadours from him. Mick Jagger studied his preen. David Bowie claimed, “If it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t have gone into music.”

Little Richard influenced straight musicians, too. You can hear him when Stevie Wonder bangs out “Uptight.” Prince took inspiration from his legendary screams — and swiped his eyeliner. Jimi Hendrix was in his band. Bob Dylan called him “the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.” 

Here’s what you should learn from Little Richard: When musicians come out as queer, they’re not just revealing an important part of their lives. They’re claiming their place in a fierce and fearsome legacy. They are daring you to compare them to some of the greatest acts in musical history, even to the man who started it all. 

Here’s what we can never forget: A gay black man named Richard Penniman invented rock ’n’ roll.