In 1950, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became classmates when they enrolled at Wentworth Primary School in Dartford. Soon after that, they became close friends. However, four years later, Jagger’s family moved to Kent, and it wasn’t until a chance encounter at Dartford Railway station in 1960 that the pair fatefully met once more.
While chatting about their lost years apart, it soon became clear that they both shared a love for American rhythm and blues music, and one artist, in particular, stood out from the pack: Little Richard. As it happens, this is a love that helped to spawn The Rolling Stones in the first place, and it has endured ever since.
Upon the sad passing of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer back in 2020, Jagger told Rolling Stone: “His music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid-1950s.” That is a visceral sonic edge that Jagger has always attempted to imitate, describing Little Richard as not only the “biggest inspiration of [his] teen years,” but a lasting influence on his career.
The inspiration that Little Richards served for Jagger was not purely second hand either, their paths crossed in a much more direct sense and The Rolling Stones frontman became a rock star apprentice. As Little Richard recalls: “I had never heard of the Rolling Stones before I went to England.” Nevertheless, he soon found them to be a beady-eyed support act on his tour.
He adds: “Mick Jagger used to sit at the side of the stage watching my act. Every performance. They had a little record out, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’, but had never done a tour before. Mick opened the show with the Rolling Stones. They were making fifty dollars a night. He couldn’t even pay for his room. Mick used to talk to me all the time. He’d sit there and talk all night if I let him. He and the others used to sleep on Bo Didley’s floor in the hotel.”
Jagger would later ratify this story himself, vouching: “When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me,” he said, adding: “I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard on stage. He was amazing… Nobody could beat Little Richard’s stage act. Little Richard is the originator and my first idol.”
It wasn’t just Jagger who adored him as a fellow singer and performer either, Keith Richards recalls: “The most exciting moment of my life was appearing on the same stage as Little Richard.” Richards’ all-action ways and storytelling style made it clear to the band that you couldn’t just perform, you also had to entertain. For Jagger as a singer, this meant that hitting notes was one thing, but interpreting the song and giving life to the music was another essential element.
This was Little Richards great gift to the world and he shared it with a lot more than just The Rolling Stones. In fact, his path on the far side of the pond is so auspiciously woven into cultural history that he almost seemed like a rogue envoy who conspired to bring about the ensuing ‘British Invasion’.
As Richards would tell Rolling Stone in 2004 about how happy he was to be somewhat usurped by his own legacy: “The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made a record — but they’re going to always be in front of me.”
And as it happens, even David Bowie was in the audience to witness the tour when Richards and The Stones came together. For Bowie, Little Richard was something of an “idol” and, during an interview with Michael Parkinson, he recalled watching him for the first time. “I saw him first in 1963 I think it was. And I think it might have been at the Brixton Odeon. I don’t know, somebody will remember the tour. Everybody remembers everything these days.”
Although Richard was the main attraction, it was the support act that caught Bowie’s attention: “The Rolling Stones were opening up for him,” he continued, “It was the first time I ever saw them. And they weren’t very well known. There was about six kids that rushed to the front, you know — that was their fanbase. Everybody was there for Little Richard. I think Bo Diddley was on the show and all that.”
Watching The Rolling Stones’ set, Bowie realised that he needed to change his angle as he witnessed proto-punk tenets first hand. In his own words: “It was priceless. I’ve never seen anything so rebellious in my life. Some guy yells out ‘Get a haircut!’ and Mick says ‘What and look like you!’ I thought, ‘oh my god, this is the future of music’ and sure enough.”