The remarkable Richard Wayne Penniman is 80 years old today (December 5, 2012). I saw him live only once, at the long-demolished Plaza in Birkenhead, not long before this video was shot in France. In Birkenhead it was a ring he threw into the crowd (while standing on top of the piano), and everyone, even those 50 yards too far back to have a hope, leapt forward and grabbed at the air when he threw it.
The entry I wrote on Little Richard in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia begins and ends like this:
Richard Penniman, the self-styled King of Rock’n’Roll, was born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5,1932. Such was his explosive impact in late 1955 that many babyboomers remember better where they were when they first heard Little Richard than when they heard that Kennedy was killed - the assassination of ‘melody’ being more vividly felt.
To comprehend his impact, picture yourself stuck in the mid-1950s as puberty strikes. Life has been drab. The grown-ups talk about ‘before the war’ all the time; it has cast a long shadow over your childhood. In Britain, ration-books have only just disappeared. Few people have TV. School is like the army. Everybody’s house is cold and you must eat up your liver and rice-pudding. Your parents listen to awful, syrupy music on their radiogram by people like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who think they’re so smooth and sophisticated and who imagine that these are virtues.
By the time you’re halfway through hearing Little Richard’s first hit, ‘Tutti Frutti’, your mind has been mangled by this mad, wild, delicious gibberish from a human voice like no other, roaring and blathering above a band cranking along like a fire truck running amok in the night. By the time the record finishes, you have glimpsed the possibilities of a whole new universe. All those sophisticats defeated at a stroke. Enter glorious barbarity, chaos and sex...
...Few people can shock a whole new world into existence by sheer creative conviction. Little Richard came close. He placed his unique persona at the service of sexual freedom, black pride and anti-stereotyping, way back in the drab Dwight Eisenhower world, before these were even known concepts, and in this way he dragged us forwards into the future. By shaping rock’n’roll, he shaped us all.