Elvis Presley performs ‘Hound Dog’ in 1956
Elvis Presley was quite literally crowned as The King of rock and roll in the mid 1950s and has worn that mantle ever since. He always acknowledged his childhood roots among black communities and culture in Mississippi and Tennessee – but his triumph came at the cost of the man who believed he had created the iconic sound. New documentary Little Richard: King & Queen of Rock n Roll, airs on BBC2 tonight and subsequently on BBC iPlayer. It powerfully pays tribute to a star who wrestled with his sexuality and the restrictions his race placed on his career and legacy through archive footage as well as new contributions from fellow legends like Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Nile Rodgers.
Richard had been releasing music since 1951, but various recording contracts had failed to yield any chart success. However, he had begun to refine his signature sound (and moves), shaping it into the beginnings of rock and rock.
1955 single Tutti Frutti, which he also wrote (with additional ‘cleaner’ radio-friendly lyrics by Dorothie LaBostrie), finally took him to the top of the R’n’B charts, Crucially, it had crossover success, peaking at number 21 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. His follow-up Long Tail Sally made it to number 13 on the Hot 100.
However, Richard was “disgusted” when industry powers quickly gave Tutti Frutti to white star Pat Boone – who had a bigger success. Elvis’ ten-million-selling Hound Dog, of course, had similarly originally been recorded by Big Mama Thornton (with half a million sales). The pattern was set for Richard being eclipsed by white singers. Shockingly, it would also later be revealed that Richard received virtually nothing for his own recording or the numerous covers of Tutti Frutti.
Elvis with his back up singers The Jordanaires in 1955
Little Richard; Rock and roll moves in 1956
Pat Boone later said: “Some people think if they didn’t live through the era, think that we were taking something from those Black performers. No, we weren’t – we were introducing them to a much bigger audience. I’ve said many times, I think I and Elvis were midwives at the birth of Rock ‘n’ roll.”
On the new documentary, in archive footage, Richard says: “When I start singing rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t nobody singing it. Listen, when I started ‘wooo’ weren’t nobody saying that.”
He remained proud of his contribution and how it reached across race divides, adding: “A lot of white kids over the world, they would buy my Long Tall Sally or my Tutti Frutti. But they would buy Pat Boone’s and put it up on the table, and put mine under the table to satisfy their family coz their mother wanted this white image for them. We were in the same house but different locations.”
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Elvis in 1953
Little Richard at the piano in 1956
He never belittled his own success, saying: “To be a black artist and go to the top of the pop charts – like, phew! It was amazing to me.”
However, he was also frustrated by the blocks put on his career and deeply hurt by the lack of acknowledgment for his creations at the time: “See they didn’t want a black guy to be the creator of rock and roll, cause white kids liked it and they don’t want the white kids screaming over no black boy.”
His friend Bobby Rush says on the new documentary: “He’d laugh and talk about it on TV, but it wasn’t funny to Richard… If he were living today, I wouldn’t say this. In the back room when we was alone, he had tears in his eyes. You could see the hurt
“I understood him so much, not just as a man, as a blues singer, as a black man. They stole his music and when they crowned people as the king of rock and roll and it wasn’t him – that tore Richard.”
Elvis in 1954 with his first single Thats Alright Mama
In 1990, Richard told Rolling Stone: “I think that Elvis was more acceptable being white back in that period. I believe that if Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was. If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House! A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.
“When I first came along, I never heard of any rock and roll. I only heard Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ruth Brown and Roy Brown. Blues. Fats Domino at the time was playing nothing but low-down blues. When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public, because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I had never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”
WATCH LITTLE RICHARD BLAST THE GRAMMYS FOR NOT ACKNOWLEDGING HIS CAREER
“I was inspired by Mahalia Jackson, Roy Brown and a gospel group called Clara Ward and the Ward Singers and a guy by the name of Brother Joe May. I got the holler that you hear me do – ‘woo-ooh-ooh’ – from a lady named Marion Williams. And this thing you hear me do – ‘Lucille-uh’ – I got that from Ruth Brown I used to like die way she’d sing, ‘Mama-uh, he treats your daughter mean.’ I put it all together.
“I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor. If there was somebody else, I didn’t know than, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day. So I say I’m the architect.”
Like so many, especially black artists, Richard also found himself exploited by an extraordinarily bad record contract.
Little Richard was a great showman
Powerless in 1955, he signed away the rights to Tutti Frutti for $50 and a half percent royalty on sales to Specialty Records. He sued in 1959 and received $11,000. He then launched a major law suit in 1984 against three record labels claiming up to $115million in unpaid royalties. It was settled outside court.
The documentary reveals that standard royalties for black artists in the 1950s and 1960s were just 2% and shows Richard at the time saying: “I’m not only standing for myself but I’m standing for many black people that have been ripped off that was not paid, and they was used and abused. I’m not asking for nothing that don’t belong to me – all I want is what I have earned and I would appreciate it so much.”
Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock’n’Roll airs at 9.30pm on BBC Two and then on BBC iPlayer