Almost 70 years on it is difficult, unless you possessed young ears in the middle of the 1950s, to understand the enormous impact a song like Tutti Frutti had on its listeners.
Everything about Little Richard shouted ‘DIFFERENT!’ Just look at that hairdo – remember this is the staid hung-up 1950s. Our parents, our schools and the ‘establishment’ were still decrying our hair in the last years of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Imagine the public outrage (not too strong a word) in the 50s. Of course, the disapprobation of our elders only made sporting the coiffures more fun!
Although I have not looked at the stats I cannot imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, the Beatles – who actually opened some European concerts for Little Richard in 1962), besting his record of 17 hit singles in about four years circa 1955-1959. The man rocked and everyone into the new rock and roll knew it!
Penniman learned his chops in a manner similar to how many African American polymath performers learned theirs in the first half of the 20th century: first in church, then in vaudeville or traveling troups of performers. In his case it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. He joined in 1949 rather than enter 10th grade. Here he performed a variety of skits, sometimes in drag as Princess LaVonne, and learned to play what church-folk called ‘devil music’. He once said that Louis Jordan’s Caldonia was the first secular piece he ever played (“Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”) HISTORIC NOTE: The second(?) recording of this song was where the term “Rock and Roll” originated. It appeared in a Billboard Magazine review of Erskine Hawkins 1945 record: “right rhythmic rock and roll music”.) A year later Penniman joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra where his childhood nickname of Lil’ Richard was modified (he was quite small and had one leg shorter than the other.)
After a couple recording contracts with his records becoming popular in Georgia but not reaching a larger audience, Little Richard returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia doing menial labor and performing on the side. In 1955 the musician Lloyd Price (with whom my father worked) recommended Specialty Records, the label he recorded for, and Little Richard sent them a demo tape. Months passed with no call. Eventually Specialty’s producer heard Richard sing Tutti Fruiti during an impromtu set at a club – but had to hire another songwriter to clean up the sexual lyrics Little Richard had put to the song. Three takes in September led to a November release and the rest, as they say, is history!In June of 2007 the British music magazine Mojo, based on a survey of music artists (Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Pete Wentz, Steve Earle and others), listed Tutti Frutti as Number 1 in their “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World”.
SIDE NOTE: I almost did not include this mention as a decade ago Mojo moved to take over ownership of copyright of their writers and photographers work AND, at the same time, laid liability for libel and copyright infringement onto those same writers and photographers.