Little Richard, not Elvis, created modern-day rock and roll

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” documents how rock and roll originated with Richard Penniman. The film features interviews with family members, musicians, and Black and queer scholars. Credit: YouTube.

Before Elvis, The Beatles, and David Bowie, there was Little Richard. Music historians consider him to be the architect who developed the sound and attitude of rock and roll, especially with hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Lucile.” He was also one of the first openly queer entertainers on the radio, defined by his flamboyant clothing and makeup.

But despite that enormous legacy, his contributions went largely ignored for much of his career, and he didn't make much money off of those seminal recordings. It’s all the focus of a new documentary called “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” Directed by Lisa Cortés, the film examines the musician's life and rock music’s origins — each rooted in the Black, queer American experience. 

Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. As a teenager, his father kicked him out of the family home for being queer. Though the two reunited later in life, Richard grew up around a new community — one that loved and accepted him.  

“Richard takes the church, he takes his queerness, he takes the people he meets, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who brought the aesthetic to rock and roll, and artists like Esquerita and Billy Wright, who were openly queer and have really dynamic ways of performing,” says Cortés. “But he puts them into his own gumbo — this anarchic rebellious rock and roll that speaks to the teens and frightens their parents.”

As Richard crafted his persona during the late 1940s-1950s, he never declared himself as queer. But when he burst into the music scene in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti,” Cortés says “anyone looking at him knew he was different.”

What did that look like? Beautiful, Cortés says. “He amplifies that with the use of pancake makeup and drawing on his mustache. His hair was slicked back and he wears it high in a pompadour. And then he's sexy. He's lean, he's muscular. He wears suits, and he's not afraid to swivel his body around when he's performing.”

Little Richard works on perfecting his pompadour. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

“Tutti Frutti” was originally about gay sex and “good booty,” as Cortés explains. Later, the song was cleaned up and recorded by Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, who helped it cross over into pop. 

Influencing The Beatles 

Cortés says Richard was The Beatles’ idol, so they joyously embraced him when he went to England in 1962. Effectively, he taught them how to be rock and roll stars. 

“Richard has his funny line where he says that nobody knew who they were except for their mothers — when he met them. And when you are in such close proximity, every night, several shows a night to such a great innovative performer, you can't help but take notes on how he engages with the audience, his vocal technique. As Paul and co. have said, they sampled so much from Little Richard.” 

Wide audience appeal 

Richard had a particular way of engaging the community through his queerness. The film shows him saying to late-night talk show host Tom Snyder in 1997: “It wasn't just a gay thing. What it was is — to be Black and to work for white girls, I had to look that way. If I didn't wear makeup and look feminine, I couldn’t work the white clubs.” 

Cortés says Richard made himself look effeminate to protect himself despite the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time. It also helped protect him as a Black man, since in some places, “Black bodies are in peril.” 

“He brought such joy and exuberance. He got a pass. … Because it was very scary. It's very challenging. When we teleport back to 1955, that a Black queer man is claiming his agency, he's calling himself a king, and that is … one of the many amazing things about Richard's journey.” 

Rock v. religion

Then in 1958, Richard stopped wearing the flashy outfits and makeup, and became an ordained minister who created gospel music. 

Cortés explains that at the height of his fame, Richard experienced an incident in Australia that made him think the world was ending. Afterward, he denounced his lifestyle and went to Bible college.

“He was on this roller coaster of navigating the rock and roll lifestyle, the sinner with the saintly. And that's one of the great tensions that existed in his life for many years.”

Meanwhile, he struggled with drugs, and he wasn’t often compensated for his work. At one point, Richard sold Bibles to make a living. Cortés says Richard signed away his rights when he broke his contract with Specialty Records, while the covers of his hit songs generated lots of money. 

Then during the 1980s, Richard protested ATV Music, which controlled his catalog. He demanded royalties. With the help of Michael Jackson — who bought ATV — he secured his cash. 

All the while, Richard felt the rock and roll establishment never fully recognized him. He never won a Grammy. 

“I think it's really difficult when you create an art form and then you see so many other people who are making money and getting a claim off of something that you are such an important architect of. I think it was very painful for him,” Cortés says.

Richard was, however, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received the Merit Award at the American Music Awards in 1997. 

He said in the acceptance speech, “I'm really glad to get this award. It's been a long time coming, and I've been waiting. And I'm just so grateful that Dick Clark, which is an old friend of mine, he and his wife seen fit to make this tribute to me while I'm still alive in this world. … I'm glad that he saw, and he wants you to see, that I am the originator. I am the emancipator, and he wanted you to know that I'm the man that started it all. And I want you to know tonight that rhythm and blues had a baby, and somebody named it rock and roll.”



  • Lisa Cortés - director of “Little Richard: I Am Everything”