Little Richard’s Documentary Celebrates the Talent and Mystery After His Death!
Elvis Presley burst into the music scene in 1956, forever altering music history. Presley’s interpretation of “Tutti Frutti,” a song published the previous year by singer, pianist, and songwriter Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, was one of the tracks on his first album.
It wasn’t Little Richard’s only song that was rapidly covered. Little Richard followed up “Tutti Frutti” with “Long Tall Sally” in 1956, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in 1958 — but by then, Little Richard had abandoned rock ‘n’ roll.
Little Richard hailed from a gospel music lineage, which he returned to after departing rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950s, as we learn in the new PBS American Masters documentary, Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But he also performed R&B and what became rock ‘n’ roll, and he never allowed himself to be defined by any one musical genre — or, in his private life, any one sexual identity — for long.
Little Richard identified himself as gay, as being equally attracted to men and women, as “omnisexual,” and then as abandoning homosexuality on religious grounds at various points throughout the years. Little Richard impacted generations of artists with his unfettered, flamboyant, androgynous manner in the late ’50s, when he recorded some of rock music’s fundamental singles and lit up the screen in films like The Girl Can’t Help It.
Little Richard is credited in the documentary as inspiring everyone from Elton John and Prince to Harry Styles and David Bowie. Ringo Starr and Keith Richards, two members of the British Invasion of the 1960s, acknowledge this in new interviews.
Little Richard and his songs were admired by both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles recorded several of his tunes, and Paul McCartney imitated his manner – to embrace, not exploit, Little Richard.
When they first began out, both the Beatles and the Stones took turns serving as Little Richard’s opening act. The Beatles performed it in Germany before signing with George Martin, and the Stones did it on their very first rock tour in October 1963, when the Stones were complete unknowns.
James House, the film’s director, has done a good job of demonstrating Little Richard’s skill, influence, and ongoing legacy. The guy who was one of the founding fathers of rock music as we know it is given a feeling of delayed but genuine appreciation in later TV segments from the ’80s and ’90s.
Little Richard himself is more evasive on this subject, therefore the sections of the documentary regarding his claims about his somewhat ambiguous sexuality throughout the years are less definitive.
Little Richard Penniman was a bit of an enigma as a person, and he still is after seeing this in-depth TV biography. But he was also a dynamic performer, both live and in recording. And American Masters certainly delivers that in full.