Little Richard was the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, and without him, there’s no Elvis Presley or The Beatles. However, Little Richard never enjoyed the level of success of either of those names, which was hard for him to take.
Richard knew he wasn’t short of ability and, subsequently, did not believe for a second that the quality of his songs was the reason why he didn’t sell as many records as Elvis. Before Little Richard emerged, there wasn’t anybody else bringing rock ‘n’ roll to the masses. It was a watershed moment in music history, but, unfortunately, he didn’t stay at the top of the pile.
Following his breakout hit, ‘Tutti Frutti’, in 1956, Richard was everywhere, but by the end of the decade, his chart presence dwindled. Even though the late singer rightly gets the credit he deserves for being the originator of his sound, that didn’t translate to record sales.
During an interview with Rolling Stone in the 1990s, he recalled: “When I first came along, I never heard of any rock ‘n’ roll. I only heard Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ruth Brown, and Roy Brown. Blues. Fats Domino at the time was playing nothing but low-down blues”.
“When I started singing [rock ‘n’ roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public, because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I had never heard nobody do it, and I was scared,” he added.
Richard continued: “I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor [of rock ‘n’ roll]. If there was somebody else, I didn’t know then, didn’t hear them, haven’t heard them. Not even to this day. So I say I’m the architect.”
When asked about Elvis Presley’s success, Little Richard didn’t hold back, and honestly explained that he believed race was the main reason they had contrasting careers. As Elvis was white, he was seen as a more acceptable face to market to middle America, and there were barriers which Richard faced that were open to Presley.
“I think that Elvis was more acceptable being white back in that period,” he explained. “I believe that if Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was. If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House! A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.”
In the 1950s, race relations in the US scuppered the mainstream careers of many artists who could have become household names if we lived in a meritocracy. Although he never accrued the same level of plaudits and riches as Elvis, history remembers him as the founding father of rock ‘n’ roll, and his legacy can’t be understated.