10 Massive Artists Profoundly Inspired by Little Richard

Here are ten musicians who owe an insurmountable debt to the late King (and Queen) of rock ’n’ roll.
10 Massive Artists Profoundly Inspired by Little Richard

Here are ten musicians who owe an insurmountable debt to the late King (and Queen) of rock ’n’ roll.

Words: Dan Epstein

photo by Les Chadwick

May 11, 2020

Never exactly one for understatement, the man born Richard Wayne Penniman liked to claim that he was the “Originator” of rock ‘n’ roll music. But if he wasn’t actually the first one to the workbench—Ike Turner, Wynonie Harris, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were just a few of the earlier pioneers who helped shape what would become known as rock ‘n’ roll—the thumb print that Little Richard (who passed away Saturday at the age of 87) left on rock music and popular culture was undeniably colossal.

Little Richard’s pounding, screaming, humorously risqué 1950s hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” were brilliant and massively influential in their own right. But combined with his outrageous stage presence and unashamedly “omnisexual” persona, the music of “The Georgia Peach” served as a clarion call to outsiders of all flavors, many of whom snatched up the bejeweled gauntlet flung down by the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and used it to make world-changing art of their own.

Bob Dylan’s senior yearbook listed his life’s ambition as “to join Little Richard.” A young David Bowie, fired up by Little Richard’s “I Got It,” bought a saxophone and dreamed of one day playing it in Little Richard’s band. Jimi Hendrix, who did play in Little Richard’s band (at least until he got fired for upstaging him), spoke of wanting to use his guitar like Little Richard used his voice.

Just how massive and wide-ranging was Little Richard’s influence? Here are ten other examples of artists who were profoundly imprinted by his work.

1. The Beatles

Not only did the Fab Four religiously study Little Richard’s records, but they also picked up quite a bit about showmanship from the master when they shared stages and dressing rooms with him during their Hamburg days. “I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it,” Paul McCartney tweeted on Sunday in tribute. “He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows’. I had to admit he was right.” The Beatles covered several of his songs live and in the studio, including this raver, and Little Richard returned the favor in 1970 with a cover of “I Saw Her Standing There”.

2. Otis Redding

“If it hadn’t been for Little Richard, I wouldn’t be here,” Otis Redding recalled in a 1966 interview. The second-greatest singer ever to come out of Macon, Georgia, Otis actually took the place of the first in 1957, when Little Richard left his band The Upsetters to devote himself to God. Though the Big O would make a major mark of his own with his deep soul ballads, the Little Richard influence was still heavily apparent on his 1961 single “Shout Bamalama.”

3. The Sonics

One of the greatest and most influential garage rock groups of all time, Tacoma, Washington’s Sonics might have looked pretty strait-laced, but they owed a heavy debt indeed to Little Richard. Not only did the band cover several of his songs, but when Sonics frontman and keyboardist Gerry Roslie opened his mouth to roar through such unhinged originals as “Psycho,” “The Witch,” and “Cinderella,” it was pretty damn clear where he’d learned to sing like that.

4. Creedence Clearwater Revival

Little Richard’s lasting influence was likewise evident in John Fogerty’s mic-busting wail. “His singing had this edge to it,” the former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman told Rolling Stone in the wake of Little Richard’s death. “By the time the records ended, your jaw had dropped to the floor and you weren’t able to breathe. It was that exciting.” CCR’s raucous 1970 B-side “Travelin’ Band” was cut from similar cloth—so much so that Specialty Records, which owned the publishing rights to Little Richard’s original hits, actually sued Fogerty for plagiarism in 1971.

5. Led Zeppelin

Sure, Led Zep lifted more than a few of their riffs and song ideas from other sources, but they only stole from the best. So when John Bonham ripped off Charles Connor’s rampaging drum intro from Little Richard’s 1957 hit “Keep A-Knockin’” for 1971’s “Rock and Roll,” it made perfect sense—after all, you just don’t get much more “rock and roll” than Little Richard.

6. Elton John

A world without Little Richard might well have meant a world without Elton John, whose flamboyant stage persona, falsetto vocal flourishes, and hard-pounding piano attack owe so much to Little Richard’s groundbreaking style and vision. “Without a doubt—musically, vocally, and visually—he was my biggest influence,” tweeted Elton over the weekend. The pair recorded “The Power” together for 1993’s Duets album, but 1972’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” is far more indicative of how Little Richard’s music and madness impacted Elton.

7. Queen

With his high-energy music, opulent stage costumes, and shockingly ambiguous sexuality, Little Richard was truly glam rock before glam rock even existed; consequently, just about every British musician that came up (or out) in the early-’70s glam era nicked something from his tool box. Not least of these was Freddie Mercury, who’d sung Little Richard songs with his school band The Hectics, and whose own regal charisma and playfully flamboyant persona owed much to the Queen of Rock and Roll, even if Queen’s music didn’t seem to. Then again, the band occasionally tossed a Little Richard cover into their live sets, just to underline the connection.

8. Prince

One of the most jaw-dropping rock bios ever written, Charles M. White’s Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard returned Little Richard to the public eye at almost the exact moment that Prince was riding the crest of his Purple Rain popularity; consequently, the former never let an interview go by without taking a shot at the latter’s musical and sartorial debt to him. (“I had a purple Cadillac before you were even born!” was a favorite.) Though written before White’s book, the voyeurism and onanism of “Darling Nikki” could have been cribbed directly from Little Richard’s own freaky sexual escapades—and the eventual PMRC outcry over the song certainly echoed the way that outraged self-appointed guardians of the public morality went after Little Richard and his music during the 1950s.

9. Motörhead

“I think Little Richard is the greatest rock n’ roll singer of all time,” Lemmy Kilmister told me during a 2002 interview, then growled, “Do you agree?” Yes, I absolutely did, though I hadn’t realized how much of an influence Little Richard had been on him until that very moment. It made perfect sense, though: Lemmy always had a soft spot for the weirdos, outcasts, and eccentrics of society—especially the ones who told the straight world to fuck off, implicitly or otherwise—and Motörhead’s “everything louder than everything else” musical ethos can be traced directly to the full-on intensity of Little Richard’s Specialty sides.

10. John Waters

“It was as if a Martian had landed,” John Waters recalled in 2010 of the first time he’d ever heard a Little Richard record. “My grandmother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, beyond comprehension. The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room.” Waters, who grew his signature pencil-thin moustache in tribute to Little Richard’s 1950s facial hair, also paid tribute to his idol with the memorable use of his 1956 hit “The Girl Can’t Help It” in the 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos. Spoofing the song’s original appearance in The Girl Can’t Help It (where it soundtracked the entrance of cinematic sex-bomb Jayne Mansfield), Waters used it for a scene where drag queen Divine sashays through the streets of Baltimore and briefly stops for a pee break. The girl can’t help it, indeed.