Page last updated at 17:53 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Richard still rocks 50 years on

By Mark Rickards
Producer, BBC Radio 4

Veteran singer Little Richard talks about the prejudice and racism he has experienced during his 50 years in the music industry.

Little Richard
Little Richard admits he began singing to grab attention

"A Little Richard concert was electric. It was contagious," veteran DJ Sir Jimmy Savile remembers.

"For Richard aficionados like me, he is number one."

A wild and exuberant singer from Macon, Georgia, Little Richard blew the world away with his 1955 track Tutti Frutti.

Now 76 years old, the musician is at a point in his life when he can reflect on the highs and lows of his 50-year career.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman, he was one of 12 children who started singing, the star admits, because he wanted to stand out from his siblings.

"I was the biggest head of all, and I still have the biggest head," he says.

"I did what I did, because I wanted attention. When I started banging on the piano and screaming and singing, I got attention."

'Culture of hatred'

It was in the southern state of Georgia where, as a child, he absorbed the rhythms of gospel music and the influences of New Orleans, blending them into his own extraordinary sound.

As his singing career developed, however, so did prejudice against his colour.

I've been singing all of my life and never got what I should have gotten. I got some respect but it could have been more
Little Richard

Lee Angel has known Little Richard since she was a teenager in the 1950s and can still remember how bad the early days.

"The only time we would get a chance to sleep was behind a theatre screen with a movie going on between shows," she says.

"We could perform, but we couldn't stay in those cities."

These were the days when concerts would have a rope drawn up the centre of the auditorium, with blacks on one side and whites on the other.

Little Richard's biographer Charles White recalls it being "horrific". "We can't imagine what it was like to be black in the south," he sighs.

"They couldn't use hotels or restaurants. It was a deliberate culture of hatred between the blacks and the whites."

Little Richard feels he has never been given the recognition he deserves for being the innovator of rock and roll.

Smear campaigns

He puts this down to the underlying racial prejudice that poisoned the US for so long.

"I've been singing all of my life and never got what I should have gotten," he says. "I got some respect but it could have been more."

As his hits were released, the establishment's campaign against rock and roll intensified.

In the state of Alabama, the White Citizens Council declared that it was "part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of the nation".

"It is sexualistic, unmoralistic [...] and brings people of different races together."

Smear campaigns started in newspapers and on TV and radio.

Jimmy Savile
Sir Jimmy Savile persuaded Little Richard to go back to rock and roll

For Little Richard, though, the greatest frustration was not the prejudice that could be found in the media but the insidious nature of the music business itself.

He claims he was never paid properly, and that he, like many others, were exploited by ruthless operators.

"One promoter had him touring for about a year and a half," agrees Charles White.

"He was doing two or three shows a day and then the guy refused to pay. It was just outrageous."

At the same time, artists such as Pat Boone were producing cover versions of Little Richard's songs for the white market that sold in huge numbers.

Rock and religion

This still irks Little Richard today. "He knew I was a little black boy from Macon Georgia, and he would take my songs, like Tutti Frutti, which were already hits," he says.

I am special, we are all special as God made us special
Little Richard

"The white kids would have their own music, and their parents wouldn't allow them to buy mine."

Little Richard has had an extraordinary relationship with both rock and roll and religion.

Turning his back on music in the late 1950s, he found a profound religious belief that he maintains today.

He arrived in the UK in the 1960s believing he was going to play gospel music - something Sir Jimmy Savile was brought in to persuade him against.

"Richard goes on stage and the band were there with all the music up for the gospel," the DJ says.

"I'm standing in the wings and he turned round and looked at me, and suddenly starts - 'Awop-bop-a-loo-bop, Alop-Bam-Boom!'"

Despite the tensions between religion and rock, Little Richard seems comfortable in the knowledge that he has found his rightful place.

"I am special, we are all special as God made us special," he says. "Without any doubt he gave me this voice."

Little Richard's career has had its highs and lows, like many of the great pioneers of rock and roll.

Today he still wants to perform, although a recent planned concert in London was postponed due to ill health.

He will be back next year, however, confident he can at last command the respect he deserves.

50 Years of Little Richard, presented by Sarfraz Manzoor, can be heard on 15 November on BBC Radio 4.

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