Once this might have sounded like mumbo jumbo, but today it’s the signature of early rock and roll.
This classic "wop-bop-a-loo-mop" is quickly recognizable today as an introduction to a 1950s rock song. Back then, though, the sounds of Little Richard were unheard of to many, especially the white suburbanites who would become rock and roll's primary fan base.
Little Richard's off-the-cuff live performances made use of all sorts of semi-nonsensical rhyming words. This form of rhyme was a lyrical tradition that showed up in both jazz (in the form of scat singing) and blues before "rock and roll" even existed. When rock finally exploded into being, Richard's wild scat singing was perfect for this magical fusion of boogie-woogie, country, and rhythm and blues. It was imitated (or, some would say, appropriated) by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Pat Boone.
Although "fruity" is a dated term, it's still one that people recognize as a derogatory word for a gay man.
Unbeknownst to many listeners in the 1950s, Richard was using it that way—kind of. The original lyrics to the song were suggestive of homosexuality, to say the least, and they were also a little bit silly and mocking. The record company insisted that all anal sex references be removed (see the Meaning tab for more on that story), and the song was just left with "Tutti frutti," a phrase with no context. Although his identity has swung between being a proud gay man and a celibate born-again Christian, Richard embraced both the old and the new version of the song.
Before he became an evangelical, Richard Penniman was known for his salacious sexual exploits.
Little Richard was actually raised Seventh Day Adventist, but a career in rock and roll took him down a different path from around the age of 14. Later in life, though, Richard cut off his career not once, but twice, to return to the church. "Tutti Frutti" is a suggestive song, but Richard claims he swore off all the girls (and boys) he sang about (and didn't sing about) when he permanently returned to the church in 1977.
He did not, however, swear off telling stories from a wilder past. In 1984, an authorized biography of Little Richard revealed a whole lot of dirt, including stories of sexual trysts. The popular book thrust Richard back into the spotlight, and although he claimed a generally celibate and religious life, he kept on telling those "Tutti Frutti"-era tales. Here's what he said to John Waters in 1987: "When I was first started in the business, I used to look for that in every city so we could have a ball, do it all, in the hall, even on the wall! When I was in Baltimore [at the Royal Theatre] the girls would take off their – people didn't call them panties then, they called them drawers – and throw them on the stage. It was terrible, but at the time we didn't know better. All the girls would want to come in the room and you'd let them in and they'd never leave! I was shocked! Girl groupies, boy groupies, dog groupies, cat groupies! She would say: 'Give me a pillow' and I'd say: 'My God, ain't she going home?' And they'd stay for a week!"
As for sex, or even flirtation, here's what he told Waters: "We still see a lot of cake in the showcase, but we closed the bakery."
Richard, by his own account, has been gay all his life. But that doesn’t mean he's not afraid to brag about his contacts with women.
Young Richard Penniman was famously involved with a woman, a very young girl (eventually turned professional stripper) known as Lee Angel who he met in 1956 and dated until his first return to the evangelical community in 1957. He asked her to marry him, and she said no, but they continued to date on and off throughout much of Richard's career, reuniting as recently as 2010.
About Richard, Lee Angel stands loyal: "People will never know how generous he is, how many funerals he has paid for; how many people he has helped; how much rent he has paid for others. He is such a caring person. Such a giving person."