Today is the birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman—82, known to the world as Little Richard. If you can listen to his debut album, or, hell, even just today’s song, its lead-off, and not feel better, then I fear for you.
“Tutti Frutti” is more than high spirits. It’s a rave, it’s a celebration of the ability to rock. At whatever point you first hear this song—I expect I was in grade school—you suddenly have the striking realization that some people in this world are having a great time. Penniman is so enthusiastic it’s contagious. But why take my word for it, let’s hear the Library of Congress put it all in perspective for us, as they did in 2010 when citing the song’s historical importance: the "unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music." Jeeze, are these guys stiffs or what?
Well, OK, I’m game. “Unique vocalizing”—there it is. Nobody sounds like Little Richard, but everyone—including John Lennon and Bob Dylan, big names for yours truly—wanted to. Richard just makes it all as natural as . . . well, other urges you might have. And, since this is the birth of rock’n’roll and this is a black man with a pompadour, sometimes bouffant, and a pencil moustache and make-up, the vocalizing isn’t the only thing here that’s “unique.” Little Richard is the first prima donna of the rock’n’roll way of life. It was always about threads and hair and gear, but when you’re painting your face as well, well, that’s a level of show-biz that even now few aspire to. Penniman was there, as flamboyant and “gender-bending” (before that was even “a thing” that could be acknowledged in print) as they come.
Which is a way of saying “they”—name your preference—all owe something to Little Richard. He upped the ante. And his first album is a prime party record that I bet would still add some life to any lame gathering you could muster. Yeah, for real, Daddy-O. And it all announces itself with LR counting off the beat with words that should be engraved on the big tablets of Rock Godhood: Womp-bom-alu-bom-a-lomp-bom bom! Which has to be one of the most distinctive uses of onomatopoeia in the vernacular.
Little Richard was a performer on the “chitlin circuit” and he knew how to have a good time on stage. But his recordings weren’t working till he convinced his producer to go with this song which was much more ribald in its original. The lyrics on the recording, re-written by Dorothy LaBostrie, are more anodyne, though they have the jist, with a “gal named Sue, she’s knows just what to do” and a “gal named Daisy, she almost drives me crazy”—we get what he means but it sounds harmless. As to “tutti frutti, aw rooti,” how much better would it be as it was originally—and as would be permissible today: “tutti frutti, good booty.” Yup, from the start it was all about the thrill of the dear rear.
And the thrill is in Little Richard’s voice, particularly—those unique vocalizings again—of the high-pitched “oooooo” and the quaver on “ga-al,” and the “frut-tay,” and then that scream before the sax solo. This is the sound of a hot band getting down and its leader getting off on it. And that’s the formula for a helluva lot of successful rock’n’roll songs. In fact, if that’s all it is—someone getting off on the sound they’re making—then that’s good rock’n’roll. And, sure, a song called “all fruits” isn’t likely to make us restrict our taste to just one kind, one way. Nope, we imagine, it’s about any that’s ripe for pickin’…
If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy