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"I would say that boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues mixed is rock and roll," Little Richard once said. As one of the first ten inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richard is widely considered an authority on the matter. The type of music exemplified by "Tutti Frutti" became the basis for much of early rock and roll, even though a lot of what we call rock and roll now only faintly resembles Richard's rollicking tune.
A few key elements make up the distinctively rock feel of "Tutti Frutti." As with a lot of early rock songs, what made it rock was not so much in the structure as the style of performance. (Elvis Presley's rendition of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" is another example of this.) "Tutti Frutti" begins with the characteristic striking sound of Little Richard singing out "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop Alop-bom-bom," a sound he says he first made trying to imitate the sounds of a drum lick. The song goes on to follow a basic 12-bar blues progression, with instrumentation on piano, saxophones, a drum kit, and a bass. The piano is played in a classic boogie-woogie style, and the horn section draws from the popular R&B tunes of the time. But the mix of Richard's unusual voice ("I tried to take voice lessons, but I found I couldn't because the way I sing, a voice teacher can't deal with it. I'm out of control," Richard said of himself) with these other ingredients moves in a way that R&B alone hadn't quite gotten to yet. Coupled with Little Richard's notoriously wild and unpredictable performances, the fast and furious sound of "Tutti Frutti" captured the essence of rock and roll.
"More than any other performer - save, perhaps, Elvis Presley, Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona," reads the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page on Little Richard. Indeed, Richard's Calling Card—and the Calling Card of "Tutti Frutti"—seems to be the fact that he is credited at least partially with the invention of the whole genre of rock and roll. He calls himself "the architect of rock and roll" and "the king of rock and roll" and others have called him the "Quasar of Rock" or “the king and queen of rock and roll. His flamboyant confidence and defiant performance style also laid the foundation for much of the rebellion and wildness many still associate with rock today.
Richard Penniman left rock and roll in 1957 to become a born-again Christian after he had seen what he had felt to be a series of apocalyptic signs. He devoted his time first to Bible study, and then to ministry and gospel music recordings, but by the early 1960s he was back in the business. He never again enjoyed the wild fame of his early career, but he remained a powerful performer. In 1962, Little Richard toured with the Beatles and then the Rolling Stones as his opening acts; an unknown guitar player who came to be known as Jimi Hendrix was a member of his band in the mid-1960s.7 His return to rock was not a story of vast commercial success, but he continued to make albums and gradually built himself an unshakeable legacy. At the same time, he developed a drinking habit and a tendency to party a little too hard a few too many nights a week. After a string of personal tragedies rocked the rocker, Richard hit another wall in 1977 and went back to religion, this time for good, he said. He swore off everything from homosexuality to staying out late. In the years since, he has kept fans engaged with a series of albums and tracks ranging from covers and collaborations to original religious music and children's music. His identity might be a bit slippery to grasp firmly, but his ingenuity as a performer is eternal (just check out any random Little Richard interview if you need a reminder).
If you ask Little Richard, eternal good looks don't hurt either. "I'm still beautiful," he said on national TV at age 66. "I'm not conceited; I'm convinced!"8