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‘I Majored in Mouth’: How Little Richard Invented the Rock Star

With his “A-wop bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop bam boom” battle cry, the late singer-pianist embodied an irrepressible rebel spirit that inspired everyone from John Lennon to Jimi Hendrix

Rob Sheffield looks back on how Little Richard's big mouth and chaotic ego paved the way for every rock star who would follow.

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Rebellion, outrage, scandal, hypersexual egomania, ripping it up, rocking it up, gigantic hair, and mascara — all these things are in rock & roll because Little Richard put them there. He was the loudest and wildest and rudest of the Fifties pioneers, the most flamboyantly and untamably free. He invented the rock star. That’s why the world is mourning today for Little Richard, who died this morning at 87. “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Heebie Jeebies” — these songs have been an inspiration to rebel hearts ever since. When John Lennon was asked in 1970 by Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner about his taste in music, Lennon simply replied, “A-wop bop-a-loo-bop.”

That battle cry — the opening holler of “Tutti Frutti” — kicked off Little Richard’s career in 1955. It was the sound of a poor gay black kid in Macon, Georgia, announcing to the world that his time had come, exploding with falsetto screams and piano-stomping flash and a six-inch pompadour. As Little Richard told Rolling Stone in his legendary 1970 cover story, “I came from a family where my people didn’t like rhythm & blues. Bing Crosby, ‘Pennies From Heaven,’ Ella Fitzgerald, was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.” 

He famously had the biggest mouth and the most chaotic ego in the music world. There’s a great scene in the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary, Hail Hail Rock & Roll, where Berry is talking about the old days with Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Chuck complains about his royalties, joking, “I majored in math.” Little Richard yells, “I majored in mouth!

Richard Penniman was born in Macon in 1932, one of 12 kids. His dad sold moonshine whiskey, but threw Richard out of the house at 13, accusing him of being gay. Ricard toured the vaudeville circuit and started making records, doing straight jump-blues sides. But they got him nowhere — by the age of 22, he was a has-been, working at the local bus depot. That’s where he wrote his first hit. “I was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots for me to wash,’ and I said, ‘A-wop bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ And that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the kitchen.”

All around the world, people heard Little Richard scream those lines and said, yes. Over in sleepy London town, a kid named David Jones decided it was “the voice of God.” It inspired him to become David Bowie. (His childhood photo of Little Richard was on display in the long running exhibition “David Bowie Is.”) “Little Richard was just unreal,” Bowie told Rolling Stone. “Unreal. Man, we’d never seen anything like that.” In Liverpool, the Beatles devoted their teen years to studying that voice. “A wild, hoarse, screaming thing,” Paul McCartney calls it in Many Years From Now. “It’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.” Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his goal was “to join Little Richard.”

Countless artists have tried to write their own version of that a-wop bop-a-loo-bop, from the Beatles’ “I’m Down” to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” to Prince’s “Baby I’m a Star.” When the Beatles played their last gig, at Candlestick Park in San Franciso in 1966, they signed off with “Long Tall Sally,” the song Paul first played to impress John 10 years earlier. One night when they were making the White Album, the lads took a break and headed over to Paul’s house: The Girl Can’t Help It, the 1956 musical featuring a Little Richard cameo, was on TV, a rare treat at the time. The song that resulted: “Birthday.” When Led Zeppelin were in the studio making their epic fourth album, they got frustrated trying to rehearse “Four Sticks,” so Bonzo blew off some steam playing the intro of Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’.” Page started playing along, and in just four takes, they had a new tribute called “Rock and Roll.” Even an austere Celtic bard like Richard Thompson paid tribute — I saw a 1988 solo acoustic show where he did a frighteningly great “Heebie Jeebies.”

Like so many of the great rock & roll pioneers, except even more so, he was into gender-flipping outrage. His vocal idols were mostly women. “I got the holler that you hear me do — ‘woo-ooh-ooh’ — from a lady named Marion Williams,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “And this thing you hear me do — ‘Lucille-uh’ — I got that from Ruth Brown. I used to like the way she’d sing, ‘Mama-uh, he treats your daughter mean.’ I put it all together.” The first time he ever sang in front of people for spare change, it was a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” He devoted his life to being one of those strange things.

“Tutti Frutti” came together in New Orleans’ famous J&M Studio with producer Bumps Blackwell, along with a Crescent City all-star team: Earl Palmer on drums, Frank Fields on bass, Lee Allen on sax. It made Little Richard a star overnight. The same year he turned up in The Girl Can’t Help It, he made an attention-grabbing appearance in the movie Don’t Knock the Rock (belting his ode to a back-alley drag queen, “Long Tall Sally”). Getting famous overnight did not calm his built-for-speed personality. As he famously said in the Eighties, “If there was anything I loved better than a big penis it was a bigger penis.” He also did plenty of drugs over the years, telling Rolling Stone, “My nose was big enough to put diesel trucks in.”

At his peak of fame, he suddenly quit to enter the church, going to Bible college in Alabama and becoming a preacher, like his grandfather. He became a symbol of the eternal war between the gospel and the flesh. After 1958 he never reached the Top 10 again. But of course he returned to music, touring in the Sixties with a young guitar hotshot named Jimmy James. When the kid went solo and got famous as Jimi Hendrix, he showed how much he’d learned from the master about showmanship. But as part of Little Richard’s band, upstaging the boss didn’t go over so well. “One night I heard this screamin’ and hollerin’ for him! I thought they were screamin’ for me. But he was back there playin’ the guitar with his mouth. He didn’t do it again, ’cause we made sure the lights didn’t come on that area no more. We fixed that! We made sure that was a black spot!”

Little Richard became a talk-show staple, always ready to boast to Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett about how he was still the greatest, the prettiest, the Georgia Peach, the Bronze Liberace. He loved to remind everyone he was the originator, though he always praised his inheritors. “Oh, I really like Prince a lot,” he said in 1990. “I like Michael Jackson. I like Bon Jovi. I like Bruce Springsteen. I like a lot of them.” John Waters gave “The Girl Can’t Help It” a memorable cameo in Pink Flamingos.

At the 1988 Grammy Awards, they unwisely asked him to present the prize for Best New Artist, not realizing that giving Little Richard a microphone on live TV was an invitation to anarchy. He didn’t disappoint, giving a long sermon about how he refused to give out the award. “The best new artist is … me! I have never received nothing! Y’all ain’t never gave me no Grammys, and I’ve been singing for years! I am the architect of rock & roll!” At first, the crowd cheered — Oh, what a character! — until they realized this guy was serious; he had no intention of reading what was in the envelope or surrendering the spotlight to anyone else. Co-presenter David Johansen stood there in agony. (Poor Terence Trent D’Arby was waiting in the wings, assuming like everyone else that his name was in the envelope; it turned out to be Jody Watley.)

Little Richard embodied that uncrushably crazy rock & roll spirit, the sound of a kid who’s been told all his life that he’s nothing, erupting with the news that he is everything. That’s why “Rip It Up” and “Tutti Frutti,” and “The Girl Can’t Help It” still destroy. That’s why “a-wop bop-a-loo-bop” remains the ultimate scream of freedom.  And that’s why the world will always love and remember this man.