In 1951, at the urging of his friend, Gospel singer Billy Wright, Richard entered a talent contest in Atlanta and won first place. His prize was a contract with RCA Records. Late in the year he cut eight Urban Blues tracks with "Taxi Blues", "Get Rich Quick" and "Every Hour" being among the unsuccessful single releases on the label. In the Winter of 1952 his father was murdered and he returned to Macon to perform the Blues at the Tick Tock Club in the evening while washing dishes at the cafeteria of a Greyhound bus station during the day. He moved to Houston, Texas in 1953, and sang with the Tempo Toppers and the Duces Of Rhythm, recording four R&B tracks including "Ain't That Good News". Eight months later he recorded another four songs with Johnny Otis' Orchestra, but none of these were released at the time. At the age of 18, Richard won a talent contest in Atlanta that led to a recording contract with RCA Victor. Four tunes were recorded that went nowhere.
In 1955, at the suggestion of his friend Lloyd Price, Richard sent a demo tape to the small L.A.-based Specialty Records. Art Rupe, the owner of Speciality, was hardly impressed and it would be six months before Richard got a call. A recording session was arranged in New Orleans' J&M Studios, owned by Cosimo Matassa and the home studio of Fats Domino. Bumps Blackwell was given the responsibility of meeting Richard and recording the session.
Initially, Blackwell was no more successful then his predecessors. Richard choose to record generally slow Blues and he felt that none were particularly good. During a break, he and Richard went to The Dew Drop Inn. With few people there and an old upright piano, Richard started playing like crazy, singing loud, lewd, and hamming it up. Blackwell was stunned... why couldn't he record this? Local lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie was called to clean up the lyrics. They went back to J&M and with only fifteen minutes left in the session, "Tutti Fruiti, good booty" became "Tutti Fruiti, aw-rootie". The record, credited to his new stage name, Little Richard, met with great success on the Billboard R&B chart and reached #17 on the Pop chart. Unfortunately, a cover version by Pat Boone over shadowed his rendition and went to #12 on the Pop chart.
The follow-up, "Long Tall Sally", topped the R&B chart, reached #6 on the Pop chart, and was the first of his three U.S. Top 10 hits, despite also being covered by Pat Boone. Richard's string of chart success continued with "Slippin' And Slidin' (#33), the double-sided "Rip It Up"/"Ready Teddy" (#17), the former being his first UK release and chart entry in late 1956. Richard triumphantly returned in 1957 with "Jenny, Jenny" (#10), "Keep a Knockin'" (#8) and "Good Golly Miss Molly" (#10). He quickly became renowned for his energetic live shows, his signature greasy pompadour and cake makeup look, his manic and flamboyant personality, becoming one of the most successful African-American artists of Rock's early period.
For eighteen months between early 1956 to the middle of 1957, everything that Little Richard recorded was a hit and club dates were sell-outs. He appeared in several movies including The Girl Can't Help It for which he recorded the title track. On October 12th, 1957 he began a tour of Australia with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, but in the midst of the sold-out tour, Richard quit Rock 'n' Roll after a plane scare, to become a preacher in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Despite his decision, Specialty Records wouldn't let him out of his contract without one last session.
He entered Oakwood Seminary in Huntsville, Alabama where he began studies to become a Seventh Day Adventist Preacher. In the meantime, Specialty had enough material to keep releasing singles and albums for another year. Over Penniman's strenuous objections, two more hit records appeared in 1958, the now classic "Good Golly Miss Molly", which reached #10, and "Ooh! My Soul", which peaked at #31. Sensing he was being cheated, Richard hired a lawyer to collect back royalties from Specialty Records that he estimated at $25,000. In January 1959, he joined a Los Angeles agency to set up a Gospel tour and in June, signed a recording contract with Gone Records. After three years of little success as a Gospel performer, Little Richard went back to Rock 'n' Roll.
In October, 1962, Richard began a tour of England and a year later toured Europe with The Rolling Stones as his opening act. In 1964 he signed with Vee Jay Records where he re-recorded all his hits, revived a few oldies and cut some new rockers, but the sales were unimpressive. In the mid-'60s, Soul music was taking hold worldwide and Richard's Vee Jay tracks, "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me" (which featured Jimi Hendrix on guitar) and "Without Love", although not Pop hits, were among the best recordings of the genre. Though he scored no major hits over the next few years, by 1968 he had sold more than 32 million records worldwide and brought the power of Rock 'n' Roll to countries throughout the world.
Reprise Records, whom he joined in 1970, tried very hard to return him to the top, and under the expertise of producer Richard Perry, he managed minor U.S. hits "Freedom Blues" )#100) and "Greenwood, Mississippi" (#88), but his three albums sold poorly. The rest of the '70s was spent jumping from label to label, recording in supergroup-type projects and playing oldies shows. When he desired, he could still out-Rock anyone, but there was often too much Las Vegas glitter, excessive posturing and an element of self-parody. Richard continued touring throughout the '70s, maintaining his celebrity status as a Rock icon, then suddenly, in 1976, he re-joined the church and for the next decade preached throughout America. In 1979, during a revival meeting in North Richmond, Carolina, he warned the congregation about the evils of Rock 'n' Roll music and declared, "If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody."
In 1985, Little Richard emerged from retirement with a part in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills which included the rocking "Great Gosh A' Mighty", which narrowly missed the U.S. Top 100. In 1986, Richard was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Since the mid-'80s, he became a frequent visitor on chat shows, an in-demand guest on other artist's records and a familiar face in videos. He even got his own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame and a boulevard named after him in his home town. In 1987, Richard recorded with The New Edition on the song "Tears On My Pillow" and in 1990, rapped on a tune called "Elvis Is Dead" with the group Living Color. A regular presenter of music awards, he has also been the star of Jive Bunny hits. In 1993, Little Richard performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inaugural.
Little Richard continued to record, tour and appear on television. He wrote and recorded a song for the 2001 film The Trumpet of the Swan and in 2002, he added Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" to the LP "Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to Johnny Cash". The following year he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. In 2005, Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a duet of The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" for Lewis' 2006 album "Last Man Standing". He was brought in by Simon Cowell in 2006 to be a judge in the Fox television series Celebrity Duets and performed at The White House on July 4th. His next major TV gig was on July 25th, 2007, when he made an appearance on the ABC show The Next Best Thing. That same year, his 1955 hit "Tutti Frutti" was voted Number 1 on Mojo magazine's The Top 100 Records That Changed The World, who called the recording "the sound of the birth of Rock 'n' Roll." In June of '08, Penniman made a cameo appearance on The Young and the Restless as a piano-playing minister.
In 2010, Little Richard was honored again when The United States of America's Library of Congress National Recording Registry added "Tutti Frutti" to its registry. A 78-year-old Little Richard performed at The White House once again on July 4th, 2011 when he sang his most well known hits, including "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly". In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture honored Little Richard for his pivotal role in the formation of popular music genres and in helping to shatter the color line on the music charts, changing American culture significantly. In May, 2016, a now 83-year-old Richard reacted to on-line reports of his failing health by telling Rolling Stone, "You know, I want you to talk to you because I'm really annoyed. This thing started on Facebook. Not only is my family not gathering around me because I'm ill, but I'm still singing. I don't perform like I used to, but I have my singing voice, I walk around, I had hip surgery a while ago but I'm healthy."
The leader of rebellious '50s Rock 'n' Roll, and the man who shook up the music business and the parents of the period, is now a much-loved personality accepted by all age groups.