His audiences, including the one at his Baton Rouge show in 1957, could be as wild as the music he made with his band, the Upsetters.
During "Little" Richard Penniman's burst of stardom in the 1950s, that appearance at McKinley High School sparked a riot, and the police were called.
“Oh, yeah,” he said before a January 1998 concert at Casino Rouge (now Hollywood Casino). “They was really something else. But they wasn’t violent. They just wanted to have a good time. They would just jump on the stage and jump out of the balcony down on the main floor. Stuff like that.”
Penniman grasped the power of his music and the impact it made on audiences all around the world.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “We knocked them to their knees. They hollered 'please.'”
Penniman — the singer, pianist and blazing personality who died at 87 last week — spoke candidly with The Advocate about his ups and downs in advance of the Casino Rouge show. And with absolute conviction, he claimed a defining role in American music: “I’m the originator, I’m the emancipator, the architect of rock ’n’ roll.”
From Macon, Georgia, Penniman was washing dishes in his hometown’s Greyhound bus station when he traveled to New Orleans for his first sessions at the J&M Recording Studio. For the sessions on Sept. 13 and 14, 1955, Bumps Blackwell, producer with Specialty Records in Los Angeles, booked the city’s top musicians. Penniman’s studio band included saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin “Red” Tyler, drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Huey Smith, bassist Frank Fields and guitarist Justin Adams.
“Tutti Frutti,” originally “Good Booty,” proved Penniman’s and the New Orleans sessions’ breakthrough hit. Penniman hadn’t thought the song fit for public consumption, but, at Blackwell’s request, New Orleans songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie cleaned up the bawdy lyrics.
Penniman’s subsequent visits to New Orleans yielded a streak of rock ’n’ roll classics: “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin' and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Lucille,” “Send Me Some Lovin'” “Keep a Knockin’,’’ “Jenny, Jenny” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
“We didn’t realize that we were creating something different,” Penniman said of the groundbreaking music he recorded in the Big Easy. “Because they hadn’t heard anyone play piano in the style that I was playing. They were used to recording Fats Domino and Guitar Slim and other people. And we thank God that we had something different. That’s the reason we’re the architect of rock ’n’ roll.”
The music that came to be called rock ’n’ roll, the singer said in 1998, “is truly rhythm and blues — rhythm and blues up-tempo. We had always said that rhythm and blues had a baby and somebody named it rock ’n’ roll.”
Penniman’s piano-playing peer, Domino, said much the same in 1957.
“Well, what they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”
In March 1956, a few months after “Tutti Frutti” became a national pop and R&B hit, Penniman played the Bantam Club in Prairieville. In May 1957, when segregation was Louisiana law, the singer performed an afternoon show for a black audience at McKinley High and an evening performance for a white crowd at Cal’s Club in Prairieville.
Local promoters Charles Carter and Fred Williams booked the latter two shows. At McKinley, Carter remembered in 1998, excited students overturned the star’s Cadillac convertible.
“It was wild,” he remembered. “They called out the police to control the students.”
The tour also played Ville Platte, Alexandria, Lafayette and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Little Richard was the only act on the bill.
“We didn't need anybody with Little Richard in those days,” Carter said. “Every place was a sellout.”
Carter remembered Penniman’s performances as “explosive, top of the line entertainment. Like with Elvis (Presley), they (audiences) were at the stage. They screamed and hollered, and they would follow the car when he got ready to pull off in the caravan.”
Penniman’s 1998 performance at Casino Rouge wasn’t quite so wild. As his band thundered through introductory music, Penniman made a grand entrance, arms outstretched in glittering sleeves, embracing the applause, flashing a gleaming smile and climbing atop a baby grand piano.
“I just made 65,” he told an audience of 1,000 early in the show. “Isn’t that something? And looking good!”
Later, he mentioned his childhood in Georgia, when he was the third of 12 children and sang in a church choir.
“You know, when I was a little boy, there was no rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “In fact, there wasn’t much of nothing!”
Penniman’s more recent Louisiana appearances included 2009’s “The Domino Effect.” Staged at the New Orleans Arena (now the Smoothie King Center) in the Crescent City, the event was a tribute to Fats Domino and a benefit for Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ charity, the Dream Foundation. Domino attended the show and Penniman, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Wyclef Jean, Keb’ Mo’ and others performed.
“I’m from Macon, Georgia,” Penniman, resplendent in a white suit accented by sparkling golden sleeves and tassels, said from the stage. “But I was raised in New Orleans. You know, the Dew Drop Inn on La Salle, Club Tiajuana on Saratoga. I was right there."