The Other Sides of Little Richard

No sentient human needs to be informed about Little Richard’s place in the rock ’n’ roll pantheon. The songs he recorded for Specialty Records in the ’50s were the seeds from which countless heroes would spring for generations to come—The Beatles, Otis Redding, David Bowie, Prince, and countless others. But those ’50s sides are so monumental that they tend to overshadow everything he did afterward. And from the ’60s forward, Richard Wayne Penniman ventured far beyond the roof-raising rock ’n’ roll that made him a legend.

After turning the world inside out with “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” et al., Richard famously forsook the pop world for gospel at the end of the ’50s, having heard the calling from on high. And for a while, he had a good run with gospel, slipping into sweeter tones on songs like “Do Lord Remember Me” than he’d been known for previously. But despite having become a preacher as well as a gospel singer, after a couple of years, he had a rapprochement with rock.

Starting in the mid-’60s, Richard began exploring a riotous run of styles, bringing his reckless rock ’n’ roll spirit along for each step of the ride. He came off like a turbo-charged Ray Charles on a polyrhythmic R&B reinvention of Leadbelly’s folk/blues standard “Goodnight Irene.” He gave James Brown a run for his money with deep-grooving funk workouts like the chattering “Second Line” and snuck in some psychedelic touches with wah-wah-inflected grinders like “Nuki Suki.” He brought country down an R&B path with his stomping takeover of Hank Williams’ hit “Lovesick Blues,” funked up the swampy sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou,” and made The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” sound like part of a Stax soul revue.

Richard released only one album in the ’80s, but by that time he was venturing even further afield, dipping into digital pop-soul on “Somebody’s Comin’” and even flirting with rap on “I Found My Way.” In his later years, Richard seemed to revel in spreading himself around, cutting a manic version of the folk staple “Rock Island Line” with Fishbone, duetting with Elton John on the New Jack Swing-tinged “The Power,” and even injecting some manic rock ’n’ roll abandon into the Sesame Street chestnut “Rubber Duckie.”

The world Little Richard left behind when he passed away at the age of 87 on May 9, 2020, is one that was radically altered for the better by his presence. And the playlist partnered with this assessment demonstrates that for all of Richard’s iconic status, there was still a lot more to his story than most people knew.