Originally from the small town of Macon, Georgia, Richard Penniman, also known by his stage name Little Richard, developed his musical roots early singing gospel music in churches. By the time he recorded his first hit in 1955, the groundwork for his extravagant and high-energy shows had been laid. Coupling zany, good-time lyrics with theatrical performances, Little Richard described himself as an “architect of rock and roll.”
And an architect of the then-young genre he truly was. When rock was still in its infancy, he showed audiences and critics alike just how much innovative music you could make by combining rhythm and blues with screaming piano, big band sounds, and a voice full of hollers and laughter. Via his revolutionary discography, he invented a subgenre of rock all his own.
One of contemporary music’s most important figures, read on as we break down the best Little Richard songs below.
10. By The Light Of The Silvery Moon
A lively cover of an early 1900s classic, ‘By The Light of The Silvery Moon’ is a perfect introduction to Little Richard’s sound. Featuring a vibrant horn section and the pianist’s trademark shouts that cap off spirited vocal melodies, this vintage love song has been around since 1909, when it was first written by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden and featured in the production Ziegfeld Follies. The ditty was born out of the Tin Pan Alley musical movement centered in New York. The songwriters and composers hailing from the bustling epicenter were responsible for the majority of hits at the turn of the 20th century. Little Richard released his cover in 1959, infusing the song with his signature animated stylings.
9. Slippin’ And Slidin’ (Peepin’ And Hidin’)
Little Richard’s piano work is on full display with ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’,’ a 1956 release that got its start all the way down in New Orleans. The origins of the song are a bit murky, but supposedly a fellow musician in the same circles as Little Richard, Eddie Bo, wrote a song called ‘I’m Wise’ before Richard got ahold of it and added his own flare to it, ultimately changing the title to put a whole new spin on it. Little Richard’s version is a song about a man who’s finally calling it quits in his relationship after realizing the girl he’s with is bad news. Bo released his track around the same time, and though the two singles were similar, Little Richard’s took off into the top 40 of American charts, while Bo’s faded into New Orleans musical obscurity. A tune that shows Little Richard could run a masterclass on rhythm and grooves, it continued to have commercial success decades after its release. The Swiffer brand of cleaning products even changed up the number themselves and wrote new lyrics (“Sweepin’ and Glidin'”) to showcase their innovative product.
8. Get Down with It
Kicking things off with a show-stopping series of vocal runs, Little Richard eventually ushers in the music featuring his classic uptown soul flavor. An epic party tune perfect for dancing, musician Bobby Marchan first wrote the tune and released it in the mid. ’60s. Perfect for Little Richard’s high-energy live shows, he released his own version in 1967. With a driving rhythm and lyrics that command audiences to “clap your hands” and “stomp your feet,” the vivacious single was perfect for the performer’s repertoire. Like listeners, many bands and artists took note of his pioneering interpretation skills. Years later, in 1971, British group Slade covered ‘Get Down With It’ in the style of Little Richard’s release. Highlighting the infectious quality of the rock musician’s unique blended sound, Slade’s version was a huge chart success, remaining in the top 20 for over 14 weeks.
7. Keep A-Knockin’
One of Little Richard’s most popular tracks, ‘Keep A-Knockin” is another fast-paced interpretation of an early 1900s classic. A story about a scorned lover who refuses his former flame’s repeated attempts at rekindling romance, it’s all systems go for this version, from the opening in-your-face drum hits to Richard’s roaring vocals and his band’s invigorating horn sections. One of early rock ‘n roll’s ingenious architects, Little Richard flawlessly combined boogie-woogie-inspired rhythms with R&B stylings and rock-induced beats. This song might find Little Richard saying, “You keep on knocking, but you can’t come in,” but in the case of this reinvention, he blew the doors wide open with the chart-topping single in 1957.
6. Ready Teddy
A definitive early rock and roll piece, ‘Ready Teddy’ shows why Little Richard is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the genre. A romantically-charged song about a guy who’s out on the town with his girl, the high-voltage piece was a popular one for the showman, and though he helped write it, he never received credit for it because it was early in his career and he didn’t have the business side of things all worked out yet. Fellow rockers really took to the track, and other greats like Buddy Holly and Tony Sheridan recorded their own renditions. But none got more attention than Elvis Presley’s performance of the cover on the popular Ed Sullivan Show in ’56. Elvis’ performance of ‘Ready Teddy’ garnered over 60 million viewers. After that, the fun single was given the industry recognition of “rock standard.”
5. Rip It Up
American football enthusiasts will still be very familiar with Little Richard’s ‘Rip It Up.’ The NFL riffed on the blues-rock number beginning in 2020 for Monday Night Football games, with the lyrics like “I”m gonna rip it up, and ball tonight,” setting the stage and providing the ideal hype song for viewers. The tune has been around since 1956. One of Little Richard’s longtime collaborators, Johnny Marascalco, wrote the tune while thinking of penning new compositions in the style of the ostentatious rocker. The song has major staying power, but its contents are classic early rock at its finest. For some of the lyrics, he takes a page out of Chuck Berry’s book, another rocker who, like Richard, had a love of singing about muscle cars. While Berry preferred the Ford Mustang, Little Richard preferred the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, and in the song that’s exactly what he picks up his girlfriend in before they hit the town.
Released during a hot streak in the late 1950s, ‘Lucille’ was another hit for Little Richard and received extensive radio play. The lyrics are simple and catchy, and listeners loved the driving rhythm inspired by the trains that used to roll by the young rocker’s house growing up. But the fast-paced, love-gone-wrong hit didn’t start out as a rock composition. When Richard was first starting out, he wrote it as a ballad, keeping in mind a girl who had broken his heart. When he reached stardom he needed another hit single, so he pulled this one out of the archives and sped it up, scoring himself another top 20 knockout in both the US and UK.
3. Good Golly, Miss Molly
Songwriting machine John Marascalco proved himself yet again with another top hit for Little Richard, ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly.’ Richard first heard the term from a radio DJ and loved it so much he paired up with Marascalco to put their own spin on it, writing about a tried-and-true subject integral to the early rock genre, a good-time girl who’s got the attention of fellas in the palm of her hand. Little Richard had tons of early hits, and this was one of them. He set the standard for the origins of rock and helped it become the wide-open genre it is today. One of his signature tracks, ‘Good Golly, Miss Milly’ shows why he is considered to be one of rock ‘n roll’s greatest founding figures.
2. Long Tall Sally
Utilizing his tried-and-true formula, Little Richard constructed a chart-topper with ‘Long Tall Sally,’ a wild tale inspired by real-life personalities he grew up around. He was part of a big Georgia family in a small town, so even close friends felt more like family members. “Sally” and “John” were based on a crazy couple who drank too much and fought often, giving the musician plenty of songwriting material to work with. Performed by a wide variety of bands from The Kinks to The Beatles, many credit this single as Richard’s biggest hit. The commercially successful number was the best-selling single ever released by any artist on the label he was a part of at the time, Specialty Records.
1. Tutti Frutti
Little Richard’s best-known song is also one that almost didn’t make the cut onto his 1956 album, Here’s Little Richard. He had ‘Tutti Frutti’ in his back pocket for a while, often performing it for raucous audiences long before he tracked it in a studio. Before his music career took off, he spent his days working as a dishwasher at a small Macon, Georgia restaurant. While doing dishes, he came up with some of his most popular singles, including ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Tutti Frutti.’ For this tune, he worked in a lot of jargon he used in the restaurant business. The song’s title is an Italian phrase for a certain type of ice cream. And the song’s signature line, “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom,’ was recited every time he finished cleaning another load of dirty dishes. His first hit, this Little Richard classic introduced fans to his passionate vocal screams, high-energy piano work, and over-the-top image, and went on to become his trademark composition.