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The story of "Tutti Frutti" is one of the most essential stories in the history of rock and roll. The song hit the airwaves in 1955, just as the whole new-fangled idea of a type of music called "rock and roll" was starting to dig its heels into popular culture. Little Richard rocked a pompadour, sexually suggestive dance moves, and hit records even before Elvis Presley's first big song. His in-your-face style, feminine makeup, and primped hair was a shock to many suburban households in the 1950s. Frankly, a big part of the shock factor was race: rock and roll was a genre that featured racially integrated musical groups. Even where musical groups were not integrated per se, the popular new genre was associated with rebellion, in part because a lot of young white people listened to it and idolized black singers.
What the mainstream public saw in 1955, though, was a toned-down version of Richard's original style: a hired writer had rewritten “Tutti Frutti” before Specialty Records recorded it in 1955. Why was the original version such a big problem for the record company? Funny you should ask, because there's a good answer: the song talked about gay sex so explicitly as to be almost pornographic. "Frutti" was not a random rhyme, but a re-appropriation of the common slang "fruity" that meant, essentially, "gay-acting." The original lyrics, according to Little Richard, went as follows: "A wop bop a loo mop a good goddam, Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it don't fit, don't force it, you can grease it, make it easy."2
Yes, it's a little shocking—not just because of the sexual innuendo, but also because of the questions it raises about one of rock's greatest icons. Was Little Richard gay or bisexual? Was he a straight guy making fun of gay people? How could a song like that be sung onstage in the 1950s? Well, the answer to all of your questions can be summed up in a familiar phrase (at least in the land of Facebook): it's complicated. But, since we're Shmoop and we like trying to explain complicated things (as long as they're not your friends' relationships), we'll try to explain.
Little Richard's tale begins in 1932 in Macon, Georgia. Young Richard Penniman was one of 12 children in a relatively strict Seventh Day Adventist family (his father, by contrast, was a bootlegger by profession). Richard loved the spotlight: by age 10, he started performing faith healings in which he would sing, preach, and heal other parishioners. At age 13, his parents kicked him out (In the 1980s, he revealed that it was because he was a homosexual. Key word: was.). Richard moved in with a local family and began performing to make money. By his mid-teens, he was touring and performing under the name Little Richard. He played spiritual music and blues, moved around the stage like a holly roller coming to Jesus, and sang with a growling, thrilling grind to his voice that sometimes bordered on yelling. His idols were gospel divas like Sister Rosetta Tharp and Mahalia Jackson. Imitating his role models, he did up his hair and feminized his style of performance. By 1951, big labels had noticed his unique talent, and he began recording blues music professionally.
Blues was the type of music suggested for a lot of up-and-coming black singers. However, blues was not what Little Richard had in mind. He had musical tastes that went beyond just one genre, and he had a vision of integrating elements of boogie-woogie and gospel with the popular rhythm & blues of the day. He formed a band called The Upsetters to play this style of music with him as a front man. In 1955, he successfully submitted a demo to Specialty Records, a gospel and R &B label. It was at Specialty that Richard connected with Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, the producer who would go on to work with Richard on many of his big rock hits. After recording some songs that Blackwell was unsatisfied with, Bumps heard Richard pounding out "Tutti Frutti" on the piano and suggested they record it.
"I'd been singing 'Tutti Frutti' for years," Little Richard said, "but it never struck me as a song you'd record." It seemed too wild, first of all; second of all, there were those suggestive lyrics to deal with. It was one thing to roll out a song like that in a wild bar show that was partially improvised; it was quite another to record it for posterity. But Blackwell hired a second songwriter to re-write the words to the song. The band did three takes in the studio, and voilà: Little Richard's first hit single was made. In September 1955, "Tutti Frutti" climbed to the top of the R&B charts and hit #17 on Billboard's pop chart. It was followed by sixteen more Little Richard hits in the next three years. Almost overnight, Little Richard had made it big.
In the early fifties, no one was sure what to call the kind of music that Richard and other performers were making; it was an aggressive and exciting fusion of country, blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie that grabbed the attention of white and black audiences alike. By the mid-50s, the title "rock and roll" had been appropriated (the phrase was originally a bit of sexual slang used by some black performers), and a movement was born. Richard's success paralleled the moment when rock and roll started to take hold in popular culture, and "Tutti Frutti" became an icon from this time.
As a black performer in the burgeoning rock world, Richard was up against a number of barriers that white performers did not face. The problems began with the open racists and racist laws in the South, where many concert locales required whites and blacks to stand on separate sides of the room during concerts. Little Richard's concerts were picketed for encouraging interracial mixing and teenage sex. One white supremacist group put out public service announcements warning against the multiple dangers of rock music: "Rock n Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation. It is sexualistic, unmoralistic and ... brings people of both races together."3
Racism wasn't the only barrier Little Richard faced. He was the worst nightmare of much of mainstream white America, because he was not just black, he was apparently flamboyantly gay and happy to promote sexual hedonism, too. He was "sexualistic" indeed! If certain parties were offended by Elvis doing pelvic thrusts, you better believe that they did not want to hear about Little Richard.
But was Richard gay? Well, according to him, he was gay at the time, but now he's not. Sometimes. Or something: "I love gay people," he said in an interview in the 1980s. "I believe I was the founder of gay. I'm the one who started to be so bold tellin' the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother's curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn't care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me."4
Proud though he is of this trailblazing past, in 1957—and then again in 1977—Richard returned to his Christian roots as a Seventh Day Adventist. Although he diverged from that path for a time during the 1960s and 70s, much of his career has been spent as a combination rock star/minister, preaching the gospel through his music (and sometimes without it). He never stopped wearing his hair long and sporting mascara during shows, but he says he's sworn off his wild bisexual past. Still, Charles White's 1984 tell-all biography of Richard confirmed (and maybe even exaggerated) rumors of Richard's scandalous sex life with both men and women at the height of his celebrity. And as recently as 1995, he told Penthouse: "I've been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate…How can I [put] down the fisherman when I've been fishing all my life?"
All this may seem strange and contradictory (and, um, a bit explicit), but it's important to remember that in the 1950s, the word "gay" was not really in use the way it is today. Someone might be described as "fruity" (a derogatory term), or by the 1960s, as "homosexual," but "gay" was not an identity, much less a political cause or an issue of wide public debate as it is today. In any case, Little Richard's delicate managing of his public image has helped make him into one of the most influential gay-but-not-really-gay people in U.S. history (bet you didn't know that category existed…). We can't disagree that he might just be "the founder of gay."
The question of his sexuality aside, explicit racism and segregationist bigotry were not Richard's only problems as a black man in the music industry. Shortly after "Tutti Frutti" came out, both Elvis and Pat Boone covered it. Covers were standard practice in those days (almost all of Elvis's big hits were covers), but the dynamics of whose version of a song became popular were complex. Pat Boone's version made it up to #12 on the pop charts, surpassing Richard's version. "They didn't want me to be in the white guys' way,” Richard said about the covers. “I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers' way, because that's where the money is. When 'Tutti Frutti' came out… They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer 'cause they liked my version better, but the families didn't want me because of the image that I was projecting."5 As a parent, it was bad enough if your kids liked rock and roll, but if the face and voice were that of a white singer, it was much more socially acceptable.
Racism had an effect on sales, and it also had an effect on the record deals black musicians received. Many young black musicians got bad record deals, which Richard attests was a rule, rather than an exception. Record labels, he says, knew that they could take advantage of aspiring black musicians because they often came out of poverty with few other options than to take any deal they could get, and with little information on how to negotiate.
"It didn't matter how many records you sold if you were black," Richard said in The Life and Times of Little Richard. "The publishing rights were sold to the record label before the record was released. 'Tutti Frutti' was sold to Specialty for fifty dollars," he went on. "So the people who got recorded were the ones who didn't know or care too much about the money angle of it. And when one came along who showed signs of knowledge of the business, he was called a smart n***er who knew too much for his own good."
In 2003, Richard recalled that time period with bitterness. "Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn't go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car," he wrote in a profile of himself for Rolling Stone. "You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car."
"People called rock & roll ‘African music,’" Richard explains. “They called it ‘voodoo music.’ They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan — the same thing that they always used to say about hip-hop. Only it was worse back then, because, you have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me. We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were "white spectators." But then they'd leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were."6
Performing in those days as a black rock singer was an uphill battle, and one that black rockers arguably lost. By the time rock became truly mainstream in the 1960s, nearly all of its big stars were white (with, of course, some notable exceptions who had worked with and were inspired by Little Richard). Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were opening acts for Little Richard in the early 1960s. They idolized him, and then they went on to surpass him in commercial success. Of course, Little Richard remained famous into old age, continued to make albums, and by the 1980s moved from the status of a famous performer to a rock icon. He was among the first ten inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986; in 2010 "Tutti Frutti" was entered into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry as a homage to its cultural influence. These accomplishments are no small feat for a gay black man who began his career in the 1950s, and Richard Penniman knows it. "A lot of people call me the architect of rock & roll," he wrote. "I don't call myself that, but I believe it's true."
5 Quoted from Wikipedia, which cites ^ Harrington, Richard. "'a Wopbopaloobop'; and 'Alopbamboom', as Little Richard Himself Would Be (and Was) First to Admit." The Washington Post 12 Nov. 1984, Final ed., sec. C1. Is that okay?