It’s been two years since the legendary Little Richard died at 87 from complications due to bone cancer. Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s immense influence on popular music is immeasurable but can be glimpsed in his nicknames: The Innovator, The Originator and The Architect of Rock and Roll.
As The Architect of Rock and Roll, among Little Richard’s tools were his seasoned, raspy vocals — often punctuated by a falsetto “woo!” — the standard for rock singing to this day. His desk was a piano. With these tools, Penniman crafted such towering mid 20th century masterpieces as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Slippin’ and Slidin,” “Lucille” and more. Every single popular musician today stands in the shadow of Little Richard’s dazzling skyline.
And that includes Beatles and Rolling Stones. In 1962, The Beatles opened for Little Richard when he came to the UK. Perhaps recognizing something in the voice of the band’s young bass player Paul McCartney, Richard took him under his wing and showed him how to sing some of his iconic vocalizations, which McCartney had already been emulating for years. From the “woos” on “She Loves You” to the McCartney penned Abbey Road track “Oh! Darling,” there’s a lot of Little Richard. In 1963, Penniman injected some much needed energy into a tour that included The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers. In 1964, Little Richard would recruit another young musician for his own band, Jimi Hendrix.
With just these three examples you can start to see why The Architect of Rock and Roll is a fitting moniker. Aside from his architectural tools, Little Richard was also an incredible showman. He understood the power of image and used it to great effect, especially in his early career as the mode of delivering music shifted expanded from radio to include television. Little Richard gave performances on a number of popular television programs over the years and also had his own TV special, The Little Richard Spectacular. But in 1974, Penniman would deliver a characteristically charged performance on The Midnight Special.
The episode of Midnight Special, named after a traditional song Little Richard and many others recorded, is hosted by Penniman himself and includes a funky performance of his 1970 song “Greenwood Mississippi,” a rocking gospel-tinged rave up of “Midnight Special” (which sees Little Richard singing from atop his piano) as well as the Jesse Hill penned, Allen Toussaint arranged “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Richard also chats with announcer Wolfman Jack at the conclusion of the video.
To remember Little Richard, watch The Architect of Rock and Roll perform on The Midnight Special in 1974 below via the JamBase Live Video Archive:
[Originally Published: May 9, 2021]