If you’re looking for a single phrase to encapsulate the feel of early rock ‘n’ roll — not a definition or an explanation for what it was about, but a bunch of syllables that sound the way the revolutionary style of music felt — you just have to go with this gem from Little Richard:
It’s from “Tutti Frutti” (you knew that, right?), and it’s rock ‘n’ roll circa 1955 in a nutshell.
It has energy and drive. It makes no sense, except that it sounds as if it might have something to do with sex. It can start arguments: maybe it’s really “wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bop-bop!” or whatever variation you hear. It has the feel of something that came from another planet, or at least another world from the one where people who listened to pop radio in those days lived. And it sounds like a novelty, but it has lasted for 65 years and counting.
“Tutti Frutti” also pretty much encapsulated the journey of Little Richard, who died on Saturday at the age of 87. At the time he recorded it, Richard Penniman (his birth name) was struggling through a New Orleans recording session with Specialty Records, playing mostly slow blues songs that didn’t show much and didn’t have much commercial potential.
On a lunch break, the musicians adjourned to a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, where Little Richard saw a piano and, crucially, an audience. He jumped on the stage and ripped into “Tutti Frutti,” a raucous — and very, very sexual — number he claimed to have written while washing dishes and then honed playing gay bars. His producer, Bumps Blackwell, recruited a songwriter who’d been hanging around the studio to turn the dirty lyrics into cleaner nonsense ones, and before the afternoon was out Little Richard had recorded his first smash hit and summed up rock ‘n’ roll as well as anybody ever would.
Little Richard is rightfully lumped in with other early rock pioneers — Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis — and he belongs in that company. But there was something different about Little Richard, all frenzy and bombast and braggadocio; not only was he Muhammad Ali before there was a Muhammad Ali, he brought a certain sexual ambiguity and gender fluidity into the picture that wouldn’t really surface until David Bowie a good 15 years later.
“From what my dad told me about his love of this legend growing up, it’s very likely he would not have taken the path he did without the huge influence of Little Richard,” Bowie’s son, director Duncan Jones, wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
From what my dad told me about his love of this legend growing up, it’s very likely he would not have taken the path he did without the huge influence of Little Richard.
One of the highest of the high.
Enjoy whatever’s next, Superstar. pic.twitter.com/BbeYa2fs1Z
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) May 9, 2020
Like plenty of the early rockers, particularly the ones reared on gospel music, Little Richard was perhaps torn between the ways of the flesh and the path of the lord. In 1957, with nine Top 40 hits under his belt, he abruptly abandoned rock music to study theology. But he was possessed by a different spirit, so within five years, he was back to performing his rock ‘n’ roll songs onstage, even if they were occasionally mixed with gospel numbers.
“The first time I saw him was in 1963, sharing a bill with the Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers, and he cut them all to shreds,” British rock journalist Nik Cohn wrote in 1969. “He didn’t look sane. He screamed and his eyes bulged, the veins jutted in his skull. He came down front and stripped – his jacket, tie, cufflinks, his golden shirt, his huge diamond watch, right down to the flesh. Then he hid inside a silk dressing gown and all the time he roared and everyone jumped about in the aisles like it was the beginning of rock all over again.”
Whatever he did later in his life — recording gospel and blues and country, appearing on the Monkees’ TV show, acting in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” — that phrase, “the beginning of rock all over again,” went with Little Richard. He embodied it, he celebrated it and he summed it up in a phrase every time he ripped into “Tutti Frutti.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, Little Richard came up with another word to sum up that indescribable something he brought to the music. “I always did have that thang,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with the thang. I had my own thang I wanted the world to hear.”
The world heard it, loud and clear.
A wop-bop-a-loo-bop… and you know the rest.