Wild and outrageous don’t begin to describe Little Richard. He hit American pop like a fireball in the mid-1950s, a hopped-up emissary from cultures that mainstream America barely knew, drawing on the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal. He had deep experience in the sanctified church and in the chitlin’ circuit of African-American clubs and theaters, along with drag shows, strip joints and, even in the 20th century, minstrel shows.
He had a voice that could match the grit of any soul shouter ever, along with an androgynous, exultant falsetto scream that pushed it into overdrive. He plowed across the piano with a titanic gospel-and-boogie left hand and a right hand that hammered giant chords and then gleefully splintered them.
He had the stage savvy of a longtime trouper, built by a decade of performing before he recorded “Tutti Frutti.” He had a spectacular presence in every public appearance: eye-popping outfits, hip-shaking bawdiness, sly banter and a wild-eyed unpredictability that was fully under his control. He invented a larger-than-life role for himself and inhabited it whenever a camera or audience could see him.
Little Richard was a challenge to 1950s proprieties: to segregation, to musical decorum, to chastity, to straightness. And his genius, beyond the music that made everybody pay attention, was to embody that challenge not as an openly angry threat or a reactive counterattack, but as pure pleasure within reach, as the joy of sheer freedom.
In his music, he wasn’t obviously pushing back against all the obstacles in his life. He made it sound like he had already banished them and was laughing at them, having sweaty fun entirely on his own terms. If Little Richard was a forerunner of countless pop taboo-breakers, theatrical figures and bad boys (and girls), it wasn’t as a dissident or a delinquent. He wasn’t calling himself Lucifer, smearing himself in stage blood, striving to shock or shouting out gang affiliations. Instead, he offered an ecstasy you couldn’t refuse.
Little Richard made most of his definitive recordings in the 1950s, when he was an absolute revelation. From 1955 to 1957, he often had the best New Orleans sidemen backing him up, socking the backbeat and answering him with impudent saxophones. From then on, he moved in and out of the church, turning to gospel songs and renouncing but then returning to secular rock. His own songwriting largely dried up in the decades that followed. But he stayed vital onstage and, when producers caught the right song and moment, in the studio.
A comprehensive Little Richard playlist wouldn’t just include songs from his albums. It would include talk-show slots (like telling Arsenio Hall “I’m not conceited — I’m convinced!”), awards-show takeovers like his 1988 Grammy showstopper and concert performances through the years that proved he could still rip it up, anytime he chose. Here are 17 essential Little Richard songs:
The first song that Little Richard got to record, as Richard Wayne Penniman, was “Get Rich Quick,” a swinging jump-blues that few people heard; it was written by the jazz critic Leonard Feather. His distinctive voice was barely recognizable; he was going for smoothness rather than grit, emulating Louis Jordan. But he didn’t sound like a rookie; over a hard-hitting small band, his phrasing was bold, enthusiastic and playful.
This is the meteor strike, Little Richard’s national pop debut — brash and lascivious, opening with a salvo of gibberish that makes perfect sense. Little Richard pounds the piano and he unleashes his scream at whim. But there’s also a certain nonchalance to his voice; he knows what power he has whenever he needs it. Pat Boone’s tepid cover version robbed Little Richard of radio play when the song deserved to reach the Top 10, but only the original has endured.
Has any other pop hit ever been so concerned with an uncle’s love life? It seems Aunt Mary is about to catch Uncle John messing with Long Tall Sally — but really, it’s all just a vehicle for Little Richard to growl and whoop and promise “Gonna have some fun tonight!”
The rolling Mardi Gras mambo beat has Little Richard glancing toward Fats Domino on “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” an indictment of a lover’s infidelity that masks its anger in comedy, cracking notes in the middle and coming to a decisive verdict: “I won’t be your fool no more — owwww!”
“Saturday night and I just got paid,” Little Richard barks, and it’s obvious where things are headed: to a date, a dance and more. “Fool about my money, don’t try to save,” he admits, but no regrets: The moment beckons and the song seizes it.
Little Richard’s voice stands alone and unstoppable for half of each verse in “Ready Teddy,” and the band drops out again as he sings “I’m ready, ready, ready to rock and roll,” only to kick up a ruckus with every return. The song, like “Rip It Up” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” is by Johnny Marascalco and Little Richard’s early producer, Bumps Blackwell. Although Little Richard was in his 30s, “Ready Teddy” aims for a teen audience, reveling in how “all the flattop cats and all the dungaree dolls/are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball.”
“Lucille” warms up with an instrumental intro that has Little Richard teasing at the piano, building himself a splashy entrance. Before he has finished the first word, “Lucille,” he has already broken into the scream, and for the rest of the song he delivers lines with precise initial attacks — landing hard on the beat — that break into desperate pleas.
The band is a nonstop steamroller on “Keep a Knockin’,” from the relentless drumbeat to the saxophones that charge into every pause. Naturally, Little Richard is more than a match for them, with a rasp that gets even more biting when he taunts, “You said you love me but you can’t come in!” He may not be ready to forgive; he may be otherwise engaged. Still, he dangles some hope: “Come back tomorrow night and try it again.”
Recorded in 1956 but released in 1958, after Little Richard’s first retirement from rock ’n’ roll, “Good Golly Miss Molly” is two minutes of pure lust, declaring from the get-go that she “sure like to ball.” (How did that line get played on 1950s radio?) The low-fi recording puts Little Richard’s voice and out-of-tune piano upfront, and his vocal starts out excited only to rev up even more. Then the scream he hits halfway through overloads the tape, and from there it feels like barely contained mayhem.
For many of Little Richard’s gospel recordings, he transformed his voice into a devout but unctuous croon and sang over elaborately formal arrangements. But “Milky White Way” not only shows off his operatic suavity; it also lets out the shouter within him.
Little Richard turns an early-1950s Fats Domino song, “Going Home,” into a loose, anguished blues on his 1964 album “Little Richard Is Back (And There’s a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On).” The slow tempo lets him linger over phrases that quaver and curl and slide, with an electric violin trilling beside him; he screams a little, but mostly he aches.
In an easy-rolling R&B ballad written by Don Covay, Little Richard is lovesick and long-suffering, taking the time to build long dramatic arcs from moan to yelp to roar. An organ gives the song a gospel foundation, but instead of preaching, there’s a spoken-word interlude that veers from a confession of love for his wife to the discovery that she is cheating on him. Not even that can break the infatuation.
Over a brawny guitar riff and a tambourine-shaking band, Little Richard exhorts, “Do it well or not at all.” While he and his producer clearly had Motown in mind, they fully lived up to their model.
In the mid-1960s, Little Richard emerged from his self-imposed retirement to record for small R&B labels including Okeh, which released “The Explosive Little Richard” in 1967. “Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail)” was written by the album’s producers, Larry Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. It’s a Memphis-style soul stomp with a snappy horn section pumping behind Little Richard’s piano as he sings about self-reliance, hitting every line with preacherly vehemence.
For his 1970 album, “The Rill Thing,” Little Richard recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a stronghold of country-tinged Southern soul, and he downplayed his piano for twangy guitar funk. “Freedom Blues” — written with his piano-pounding early mentor, Esquerita — is a rare socially minded song in Little Richard’s catalog, a post-1960s plea to “just open your mind/let love come through.”
Little Richard’s 1972 album, “The Second Coming,” was a deliberate throwback, reuniting Little Richard with his 1950s producer, Bumps Blackwell, and some of his invaluable New Orleans sidemen, Earl Palmer on drums and Lee Allen on saxophone. The lyrics of “Mockingbird Sally” strain to recapture the old 1950s silliness, but no matter: Little Richard makes the song an unhinged holler.
Wah-wah guitars, not piano, define this bluesy gospel song, a tale of tribulations and faith, crossing desert and ocean, sung by Little Richard in a parched, scratchy voice that opens up when he proclaims, “I’m satisfied.” It was recorded in 1972 for the album “Southern Child,” which Reprise Records didn’t release, and only emerged from the vault in 2005.