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Little Richard's Gospel Truth
January 14, 2000, by Dave Hoesktra - Little Richard calls himself the architect of rock 'n' roll. And every good architect draws from righteous angles. For Little Richard Wayne Penniman, few influences were bigger than Chicago gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

"She was my inspiration," Penniman said in a call from his Sunset Boulevard digs in Los Angeles. "She used to call herself Haley. I met her when I was a boy, before I made [his 1955 debut single] `Tutti Frutti.' She would come into Macon [Ga.] to sing at the City Auditorium. She wasn't just screamin' and hollerin'. She could sing." And in a tender, high-pitched sway, Penniman began singing, "Go tell it on the mountain ..."

It's doubtful that Penniman will do much gospel on stage, but the sincerity and passion in his voice demand that he record another gospel album. His sterling 1959 gospel album "God Is Real" (produced by Quincy Jones) was recently re-released by Mercury Records. In 1958 Penniman was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister at Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, Ala.

Penniman has flirted with the church throughout his career. After studying at Oakwood, he discarded the secular world by tossing a lavish ring into the sea. And in 1981 he again returned to the church for a brief spell. "I'd love to do an all-gospel show," Penniman said when broached with the idea. "I get chills in my body when Mahalia Jackson sings."

Nearly all of Penniman's dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel. The architect of rock 'n' roll mixed that ministry--not unlike the preaching Bruce Springsteen did on his 1999 tour--with theatrics he learned from the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.

Penniman's hard-driving piano rhythms came from two places. The late pompadoured piano player Esquerita (Eskew Reeder Jr., who was discovered by rockabilly hepcat Gene Vincent) showed Penniman how to go high on treble without compromising bass. Penniman met Esquerita when he traveled through Macon with a preacher named Sister Rosa.

Then, Penniman credits his technical force to East St. Louis, Ill., gospel singer Brother Joe May, aka the Thunderbolt of the Middle West. Penniman explained, "I used to get in a room and try to make my piano sound just like him. He had so much energy." May generated energy by moving from a subtle whisper to a thunderous tenor and back in a four-bar phrase.

Some of this will be covered in the NBC biopic "The Little Richard Story," airing Feb. 20, 2000. The two-hour drama stars Leon ("The Temptations," "Waiting to Exhale") in the title role and Garrett Morris as Penniman's preacher. "The Little Richard Story" is directed by Robert Townsend ("The Five Heartbeats," "Hollywood Shuffle.")

"I haven't seen the finished product," Penniman said. "They started the movie without us. We came in on it. We supervised the music, but we didn't do any new versions. [The film uses 10 original recordings.] I like the old versions better. You ain't going to do it as good as you did back then, so why bother?"

So Penniman is content to awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom around the country singing from his impressive catalog of hits: "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," just to name a few.

He may have one of the most diverse audiences in rock 'n' roll. Last summer Penniman endeared himself to thousands of kids and families in a marathon 2 1/2-hour concert at the Eyes to the Skies festival in west suburban Lisle. Some friends of mine brought their 3-year-old daughter Jessica to the outdoor concert. To this day, Jessica rocks around the house saying, "Shut up," which Penniman repeats like a mantra onstage.

Then, a few months after the Lisle gig, Penniman headlined Sun City West, a retirement community outside of Phoenix. "It was a bunch of old people--like myself," said Penniman, 67. "We were reliving our youth. It was fantastic. I thank God for longevity."

When he's off the road, Penniman enjoys appearing on the long-running "Hollywood Squares" television show. "Whoopi Goldberg is a good friend of mine," Penniman said of his fellow square. But she's not such a good friend that she would relinquish her middle square--Penniman's favorite. Of course, that square has its roots in the late comedian Paul Lynde. Lynde brought the same flamboyance to comedy that Penniman does to rock 'n' roll. "You always get called on if you sit there," Penniman said with a chortle. "The outside ones are my second favorite, but if you sit inside, you don't get called on that much. I like Gilbert Gottfried on that show, too. I like the way he screams, 'I'M OVER HERE! I'M OVER HERE!'"

But Penniman didn't like the hype over Y2K. In fact, he stayed home and went to bed early on New Year's Eve, even though his compatriot the Rev. Al Green was playing down the street at House of Blues in Los Angeles. "People were so crazy," he said. "Hiding water and hoarding sandwiches? Go ahead and eat your sandwich! And nothing happened. I knew the God that I serve was able to deliver me. And he didn't bring me this far to leave me."

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Little Richard's Birthday / Mini Bio
Dec., 1999 - (by Frank Tortorici/Sonicnet) - The flamboyant, screeching rocker Little Richard is one of the genre's true originals. His pounding rock songs, crazy piano playing, and wild, sexual personality cut an indelible image in the early days of rock 'n' roll and continue to inspire artists today. Richard Wayne Penniman was born Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga. He was one of 12 children who grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist family. Though many male relatives were preachers, Richard's father was a bootlegger. His parents didn't encourage his musical ambition, but Penniman sang and played piano at church. When he was 13, his parents kicked him out of their house, he said, because he was gay. ran Macon's Tick Tock Club, where Penniman first sang professionally. In 1951, RCA Records signed Penniman after he auditioned at an Atlanta radio station. With the label, he cut jump-blues sides such as "Get Rich Quick" and "Every Hour." Eventually, Penniman moved to Houston to record for Peacock Records. First he played with the Deuces of Rhythm and the Tempo Toppers, but by 1955, he began fronting the Johnny Otis Orchestra for a while. He also played blues clubs, which didn't favor his rock 'n' roll numbers.

Penniman then sent a demo tape to Los Angeles' Specialty Records, which signed the singer and arranged for "Bumps" Blackwell to produce him. In September 1955, by now calling himself Little Richard, Penniman cut a former filler number known as "Tutti Frutti" (RealAudio excerpt). It featured his soon-to-be-trademark falsetto and howling lyrics, sold 3 million copies and made Little Richard a rock 'n' roll star. The gold records that cleverly mixed rock and New Orleans R&B followed in droves: the #6 "Long Tall Sally" (later covered memorably by the Beatles), the #17 "Rip It Up," the #21 "Lucille," the top-10 "Good Golly Miss Molly" and others.

Little Richard even appeared in early rock movies such as 1956's "Don't Knock the Rock" and "The Girl Can't Help It" as well as "Mister Rock and Roll" (1957). But following an Australian tour in 1957, Richard quit the rock business. He said he saw a vision of the apocalypse and his own damnation in a dream. Richard also said he prayed to God during a fiery plane flight, promising that if the plane landed safely he would give up his wild life. Richard came out of the flight alive and became an ordained minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He also received a bachelor's degree from Oakwood College in Alabama. a Knockin'," which became another Little Richard hit. But after a failed attempt to become an evangelical/gospel act, Richard returned to rock in 1964. His first single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo," flopped. The music of the Beatles - who were huge Little Richard fans - had eclipsed that of Little Richard, and young people lost interest in his style.

Comebacks with labels such as VeeJay, OKeh and Brunswick all failed. In the early '70s, Richard signed a contract with Reprise Records and cut such R&B/rock albums as The Rill Thing, King of Rock 'n' Roll and Second Coming. They weren't spectacular with Delaney and Bonnie. Richard also performed at the Toronto Pop Festival, and he can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary of the show, "Keep on Rockin'," a.k.a. "Toronto Pop" (1970). That year he had a minor hit, "Freedom Blues." Taking a new turn, Richard became a frequent guest on TV talk shows and appeared at clubs, where he was not shy about discussing his influence on rock greats such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also returned to the church and said he had converted to heterosexuality.

In 1984 "The Life and Times of Little Richard," an authorized biography, spurred renewed interest in the fabled rocker's career, even though the book spared no detail about his drug use and adventurous sex life. Richard appeared in the hit film "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1985) and guested on TV shows including "Miami Vice," "Martin" and "Full House." In addition, he plugged Charlie perfume, McDonald's and Taco Bell. Richard began appearing on charity compilations and guesting on songs for other acts, such as Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead." Richard became one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Though he hasn't issued any albums of new material recently, The Georgia Peach (1991) is one of his best compilations, and he still tours and shows up at awards shows and in TV and film roles. His mascaraed eyelashes and high pompadour remain the symbols of one of rock's most original personas. This year, Madacy Records released The Best of Little Richard, one in a continuing series of Little Richard retrospectives on various labels.


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