THE BIG LIFE OF LITTLE RICHARD

Richard Penniman (1932-2020) was born in Macon, Georgia, a city with a lively music scene. His father, Bud, was a mason, bootlegger, bar owner, and sometime preacher. His mother, Leva Mae, was a churchgoing woman with whom her son identified at an early age, “painting his face with her makeup and dousing himself with her rosewater perfume. He would imitate her speech, in a girlish, high-pitched voice.” Richard was singing at an early age, at first in church and gospel groups. One of his first influences was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an important precursor of rock music. Ribowsky goes on to trace how Richard paid his dues in local R&B clubs and on the “chitlin’ circuit” of venues catering to Black artists, sometimes wearing drag. A relentless self-promoter, he pushed his way into a couple of small record deals—with disappointing results—before finding his way to Specialty Records in New Orleans, where he recorded his first hits in 1955. The author follows Richard’s career through a succession of hits, his surprise decision to quit his music career to become a preacher (a move repeated several times), and his latter-day status as a celebrity/provocateur on talk shows and in 1950s rock revivals. Ribowsky effectively conveys the ambiance of the era, bringing in many of the stars and other public figures with whom Richard interacted over the decades. His task was undoubtedly complicated by his subject’s lifelong habits of embellishing facts and contradicting himself, and the musical analysis is not on par with some of Ribowsky’s previous books. In the final chapter, the author summarizes Richard’s impact on the many who came after him—a fitting tribute to a unique figure.

THE BIG LIFE OF LITTLE RICHARD
Richard Penniman (1932-2020) was born in Macon, Georgia, a city with a lively music scene. His father, Bud, was a mason, bootlegger, bar owner, and sometime preacher. His mother, Leva Mae, was a churchgoing woman with whom her son identified at an early age, “painting his face with her makeup and dousing himself with her rosewater perfume. He would imitate her speech, in a girlish, high-pitched voice.” Richard was singing at an early age, at first in church and gospel groups. One of his first influences was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an important precursor of rock music. Ribowsky goes on to trace how Richard paid his dues in local R&B clubs and on the “chitlin’ circuit” of venues catering to Black artists, sometimes wearing drag. A relentless self-promoter, he pushed his way into a couple of small record deals—with disappointing results—before finding his way to Specialty Records in New Orleans, where he recorded his first hits in 1955. The author follows Richard’s career through a succession of hits, his surprise decision to quit his music career to become a preacher (a move repeated several times), and his latter-day status as a celebrity/provocateur on talk shows and in 1950s rock revivals. Ribowsky effectively conveys the ambiance of the era, bringing in many of the stars and other public figures with whom Richard interacted over the decades. His task was undoubtedly complicated by his subject’s lifelong habits of embellishing facts and contradicting himself, and the musical analysis is not on par with some of Ribowsky’s previous books. In the final chapter, the author summarizes Richard’s impact on the many who came after him—a fitting tribute to a unique figure.