5 Things We Learned from the Little Richard Doc, ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’

Three years ago today (May 9), the world lost a legend. Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, was a pioneer, a mover, and a shaker, who defied the norm to help mold the rock and roll we know today.

Videos by American Songwriter

[RELATED: Top 10 Little Richard Songs]

A recently released documentary, titled Little Richard: I Am Everything, tells of the icon’s life, legacy, and genre-altering contributions to music and culture as a whole. The Lisa Cortés-directed documentary follows the trailblazing artist from his roots in Macon, Georgia, to his rise to fame with era-shaping hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and more. With the help of exclusive interviews and archived footage, the film goes even further, exploring rock music’s Black and queer origins and the figure who helped to pave the way.

Here are 5 things we learned from Little Richard: I Am Everything in honor of the icon on the anniversary of his passing.

1. His Love of Music Began Early … Even if it Wasn’t Always Nurtured

The documentary discusses how Richard first became a music man. It was something that was sparked early on, but not necessarily something that was always nurtured in him.

“My granddaddy had an old piano,” the legend’s voice can be heard over black-and-white footage, “but I couldn’t play. I would just hit every key.” He said it made a sound that had everyone around him covering their ears. “Everybody wanted to help to play, but I just know how to memorize those keys.”

A cousin of Richard’s added, “His daddy, Charles ‘Bud’ Penniman, was very strict on him … He didn’t want Richard shouting out loud some of the gospel stuff. He wanted him to sing soft.”

But it was in church, that he found his soul. “I would get there and I would sing, but they wouldn’t let me sing that much because I wouldn’t stop, Little Richard said. “Then people started hearing little turns and things in my voice and started requesting me.”

2. His First Time on Stage was Alongside the Great Sister Rosetta Tharpe

It was at the Macon City Auditorium, where Richard worked as a teen, that he made his first on-stage appearance thanks to the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “I went backstage and I was singing with Sister Rosetta Tharpe a song called ‘Strange Things Are Happening Every Day’,” Richard can be heard saying.

She invited him onstage with her after that, telling the crowd “I have a little boy and he says he can beat me singing.” Richard recalls “just screaming and singing,” saying, “That’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” It was that moment that inspired him to perform professionally and he left Macon shortly after in pursuit of his career.

[RELATED: “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Little Richard’s Expanded And Remastered Reissues Capture Occasional Comeback Sparks]

3. He was Known to Perform in Drag Early on Under the Stage Name Princess LaVonne

Richard began his career on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of venues that were safe spaces for Black performers at the time of segregation. He would perform as a member of various traveling acts, such as Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam. It was during this time that he adopted the name Little Richard, but he adopted another moniker, as well.

“At the time, there would be drag acts,” explained scholar Jason King. “And Little Richard not only sang and performed in the shows, but he also performed in drag.” He would perform under the persona Princess LaVonne, adorning makeup and a dress at a time when cross-dressing was illegal, the film points out. “It was seen as acceptable only because of the context,” King continued.

4. His Hit “Tutti Frutti” Was Originally About Sex

Little Richard wasn’t an immediate hit with record executives until they heard his song “Tutti Frutti.” However, the “Tutti Frutti” we know today is not how the song was originally written. They knew instantly they were hearing a hit, but there was a problem.

“The lyrics to ‘Tutti Frutti’ are about anal sex … They’re about penetration,” King explained. And because of that, the song wouldn’t receive radio play the way it was. Songwriter Dorothy Labostrie was called in the “clean up” the lyrics she called “nasty, nasty, nasty.”

“Dorothy, they was not that dirty,” Richard said in archived footage. “They were just as clean as you were.”

5. His Work Inspired Many of Today’s Stars

Richard was inspired by many and he was emulated by many, but his sound will forever be uniquely his own. Throughout his career, he built a castle out of hits, which echoed with the power of gospel music and amped up the fundamentals of early rock and roll.

[RELATED: From Elvis to Little Richard: 5 of the Best Rock Songs of the ’50s]

Armed with piano chops that were unmatched—bright and percussive on one hand and deep and chug-a-lugging with the other—and a voice like no other, he innovated the rock and roll sound, one that would break down barriers and pave a way for other artists with his same fire.

Welsh showman Tom Jones, Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger, actor-singer Billy Porter, and even filmmaker John Waters, all took inspiration from the performer and sang his praises in the film.

Photo by Lester Cohen/ Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Luke Combs Reveals The Reason Why He Wanted to Record “Fast Car”