Musical innovator and cultural icon Richard Penniman, known as Little Richard, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of its first class in 1986. He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. His song “Tutti Frutti” was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010, which stated that his “unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.” Since his rise to fame in the 1950s, Little Richard has been widely credited with helping lay the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll. Known for spirited shouting, raspy vocals, rollicking piano style, and fabulous costumes, his performances were unlike anything audiences had seen before.
Born in Macon, Georgia during the Great Depression, Little Richard has remained an influential figure in American music for over seven decades. As a child, he absorbed blues, country, vaudeville, and most of all, gospel music, especially the influence of female singers Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He first performed professionally at the age of 15 as part of a traveling medicine show and toured with various groups throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1955, Little Richard signed with the Specialty Label and began combining elements of boogie, gospel, and blues in his recordings. His groundbreaking music in this era introduced what would become some of rock-and-roll’s most characteristic musical features, including the loud volume, aggressive and powerful vocal style, and distinctive beat and rhythm. Over the next year and a half, Little Richard produced several hits, including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Send Me Some Lovin’.” He also appeared in several early rock-and-roll films, such as Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1957) and Mister Rock’ n’ Roll (1957).
In 1957, he retired from performing rock-and-roll and committed himself instead to the ministry and to recording gospel music. He released his debut religious album, God Is Real, in 1959. In 1964, following the Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard made a triumphant return to rock-and-roll. Over the ensuing decades, he continued to perform, record, and appear widely in films and on television.
Little Richard’s relationship to Tennessee has been a long one. While playing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the early 1950s, he was a mainstay in the blues clubs on Jefferson Street in Nashville, an area that was the heart of the city’s African American culture. Among his favorite venues was Club Revillot. “I didn’t make $100 (per week) nowhere but there really,” Little Richard recalls. It was at Club Revillot that he met Jimi Hendrix, who became for a time a member of his band. Little Richard continued to play on Jefferson Street throughout the 1960s. In 1976, he made studio recordings in Nashville for the first time and moved two years later to Nashville part-time while working for Memorial Bibles International. Since 2008, Little Richard has lived in Nashville and Lynchburg fulltime.
“Little Richard is a titan of American music,” states Henry Hicks, CEO of the National Museum of African American music. “His importance to the American soundtrack is unparalleled. Like many southern African American artists around the time, he spent many of his formative performing years playing in clubs around Nashville further embedding him in the fabric of Music City. We are honored that he calls Tennessee home.”