Little Richard (photo © Echoes/Redfern/Getty Images)

I never met Little Richard, but I did spend some time with Dewey Terry, who played in his band. We sat in front of Dewey’s bungalow on Johnny Otis’s estate in Pasadena, drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor while Dewey played guitar and talked about studio sessions and orgies. At some point, he picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s go see Richard!’ I was young – 26, 27 years old – but I knew who Little Richard was and what he meant to the world, and was relieved when no one answered the phone. Why would you want to meet Little Richard? What would you say?

‘He did it so good. He give it all to you, and that’s what you want. You want it all or none.’ That’s what Little Richard said about Jimi Hendrix – who toured and recorded with Richard before striking out on his own – but it’s also a perfect description of Little Richard’s appeal and aesthetic. ‘Don’t be ashamed to do whatever you feel,’ he told Hendrix. ‘The people can tell if you’re phony. They can feel it out in the audience. I don’t care if you’re wild. I don’t care if you’re quiet. They’ll know if you’re putting yourself into it, whatever it is.’

Hendrix wasn’t the only musician Little Richard took under his wing. Otis Redding, James Brown, Joe Tex, the Beatles, the Stones and others apprenticed with his band or opened for him. When Richard called himself ‘the originator, the emancipator, the architect of rock’n’roll’, he wasn’t exactly right but also not remotely wrong. ‘He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy,’ Bob Dylan said the other day. ‘Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager,’ Paul McCartney said. ‘I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say: “I taught Paul everything he knows.”’

Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. The third of 12 children, he left home at 14 or 15 or 16 – it’s hard to tell from the memoir Charles White helped him produce in 1984. Almost in passing, he mentions having been raped and molested, by both men and women. He talks about being called ‘sissy’ and ‘faggot’, being discriminated against, being beaten:

Daddy was always criticising me for the way I walked and talked and for the people I was running with. He would get real mad at me. He’d say: ‘My father had seven sons and I wanted seven sons. You’ve spoiled it, you’re only half a son.’ And then he’d hit me. But I couldn’t help it. That was the way I was.

So he left home, joining medicine and minstrel shows, sometimes performing in drag. He made a few singles for RCA; they didn’t really sell but, for the first time, his father was proud. Then, at the start of 1952, his father was killed – shot dead outside the small club he ran – and Richard got a job washing dishes in Macon’s bus station to support the rest of the family. ‘I’ve seen people pull wood off their houses to make a fire in the house,’ he recalled. ‘That’s poor. And I was one of the people pulling wood off the house.’

It took him three more years to break through, which he finally did with ‘Tutti Frutti’ – a song he’d been singing for a long time already in its original form: ‘Tutti frutti, good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it/Make it greasy, goes in easy.’ For a few years, he ran parallel with Chuck Berry, who’d released ‘Maybellene’ earlier that year, and Elvis Presley, who’d signed to RCA a few days before ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out. Then, on tour in Australia in 1957, Little Richard saw Sputnik streak across the sky and – taking it as a literal sign from the heavens – quit music.

That’s one way of telling the story. The dates line up. Other stories out there involve burning airplanes, and terrible dreams. But none of those stories include all the times Richard was thrown into Southern jails; the times he was assaulted; the terrible contracts he signed; the disc jockeys who would stop playing his songs the minute that Pat Boone came out with a cover; the wear and tear of a thousand nights on the road. Who wants to dwell on those things? It’s more fun to focus on the orgies and everything that Little Richard did before anyone else.

‘Tutti Frutti’ isn’t even Little Richard’s best song. I like ‘Rip It Up’ better, and ‘Long Tall Sally’. One of the credited co-writers of that one is someone called Enortis Johnson. Little Richard’s producer, Bumps Blackwell, told White that a DJ called Honey Chile introduced him to Johnson, a ‘little clean-cut kid, all bows and things’, who had ‘walked all the way from Appaloosa, Mississippi, to sell this song to Richard, cause her auntie’s sick and she needs money to put her in the hospital’. She didn’t have a melody, just a scrap of paper with a few words written on it: ‘Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally/They saw Aunt Mary comin’/So they ducked back in the alley.’ And she said: ‘Aunt Mary is sick. And I’m going to tell her about Uncle John. Cos he was out there with Long Tall Sally, and I saw ’em.’

But as Larry Birnbaum points out in Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock’n’Roll, that story is bullshit – and I’ve been thinking about what the story conceals, all the things we don’t know. Uncle John ‘said he had the misery but he had a lotta fun.’ Couldn’t the opposite be just as true?

Little Richard called himself ‘the Original Georgia Peach’ and ‘the prettiest man in showbiz’. ‘I am the best-looking man in this business, without any doubt,’ he told Dick Cavett. ‘I’m very, very beautiful, and I’m not conceited.’ He was that rarest of things, a benign and generous narcissist. (‘The Famous Flames were stranded in New Jersey with no money to get us back to Georgia,’ James Brown’s right-hand man, Bobby Byrd, said. ‘We asked Richard for a loan. He opened the trunk of his car, reached in, and scooped out a handful of dollars without even looking.’) You can spend all day on YouTube, marvelling at all the incredible things Little Richard had to say about himself. But at the end of that day, you’re left wondering if he’s doing much more than repudiating the view stated most baldly by the Klansmen who beat Nat King Cole up in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1956: that ‘the basic, heavy-beat music of Negroes … appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.’ Maybe all the self-praise was just Little Richard’s way of telling the nation that if anyone is ugly, animalistic and vulgar, it isn’t him or his people.

‘There were signs on the water fountains,’ he said, remembering his childhood in Macon,

‘colored’ and ‘white’. The white fountain would be electric and would have cool water. The black one would be rusted, twelve or fifteen years old, no cooling. Just an old thing. You were raised in prejudice. There were certain things you were allowed to do and those were the things that you did.

Among the things he did, the most impressive of all may be the way he put himself on a first-name basis with America. In the course of praising and mourning him this week, the New York Times couldn’t bring itself to call him ‘Mr Penniman’, which had long since stopped being his name. It couldn’t call him ‘Mr Richard’, because Richard wasn’t his surname. It called him ‘Little Richard’ throughout, to avoid the whole problem, which was connected to another problem that he’d long since solved: if you don’t hate me, his music had said – if you can’t hate me – how can you hate all the places I’ve been?