It was the shout heard ’round the world: “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom.” Billboard was there to hear it, but didn’t yet realize its significance. In an Oct. 29, 1955, roundup-style “reviews of new R&B records,” we called the breakthrough hit from Little Richard (né Richard Penniman), who died of bone cancer on May 9 at the age of 87, “a cleverly styled novelty with nonsense words.” It didn’t get the kind of praise reserved for Piano Red’s “Gordy’s Rock”: “The Solid South should cast its ballots for this typical pile-driving instrumental jump boogie.” Within a year though, Billboard warmed up to the red-hot hitmaker, one of the original architects of rock.
THE PEN OF PENNIMAN
For decades, labels and artists have celebrated big wins with ads in Billboard, but Little Richard’s “open letter” in the June 23, 1956, issue was particularly poignant. “Dear D.J.’s [sic] Dealers and Distributors, You’ll never know what it feels like to be a poor Negro boy in Macon, Georgia, dreaming a dream that couldn’t possibly come true,” the letter opens. “The dream that kept buzzing in my head was to make a living as a singer. … Although TUTTI-FRUTTI was covered by several big-name artists, my record appeared on all the pop charts, as well as R&B charts. And believe me, I was in heaven!” He added that “I’ve really got my fingers crossed” for new single “Rip It Up,” which would go on to top Billboard’s Most Played in R&B Juke Boxes chart.
LET IT “RIP”
“Little Richard grooves it up on both sides with wild, rip-roaring abandon that’s sure to excite the fans,” rhapsodized a June 16, 1956, review of his “Rip It Up/Ready Teddy” single. “Both have big potential in the pop field as well.” That proved true: The single hit the Top 100, and the Jan. 26, 1957, issue said it let Richard “outstrip the competition” as other early rockers faded into obscurity.
“LONG TALL SALLY” FORTH
A Jan. 26, 1957, piece looked at some R&B acts becoming “established pop stars,” while facing competition from white performers covering their songs. “Specialty’s Little Richard, an established R&B seller, cracked the pop barrier first with ‘Tutti Frutti,’ despite very heavy cover competition from Pat Boone,” wrote critic Bill Simon, who went so far as to call rock’n’roll the “adulterated product” of R&B. In this case, “the deejays led the kids in the appreciation of the true, original article.”
“LUCILLE” OF APPROVAL
Less than a year and a half after hearing that “novelty with nonsense words,” Billboard put Little Richard’s single “Lucille” in the March 9, 1957, “R&B Best Buys” column, raving that the “disk is going like a streak of lightning to the charts.” Two weeks later, an appropriately outlandish ad for his debut album featured an upside-down Richard, trumpeting “LITTLE RICHARD IS TOPS… and no wonder, for every Little Richard record makes the Billboard Hit Charts!”