Born to a poor family in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was one of 12 children—“the best-looking one of all of them, and I’m not conceited at all,” he once said. He was musical from an early age, singing with gusto in church and banging on pots and pans at home. The gospel-rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe had him open a show for her when he was 14; soon after, he began performing in vaudeville revues, which helped hone his showmanship and his makeup skills. An early record contract that failed to produce any hits left him disillusioned, and by the time of his big break he was working as a dishwasher in a Greyhound station.
But what a break it was. His first hit, 1955’s “Tutti Frutti,” lays bare the idea that rock and roll thrives in some blend of order and anarchy, with a steady, driving boogie beat and a lightning-struck vocal performance. The lyrics—“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”—are the sort of nonsense that articulates some inarticulable lust. Indeed, hired songwriters reworked some of Richard’s original, overtly raunchy lyrics to be radio-friendly. According to some accounts, the song once went, “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.”
Pat Boone’s cover of the song would chart higher than Richard’s original, establishing a pattern in which white artists benefited from his breakthroughs. Richard brought the Beatles with him on tour when they were mostly unknowns. He inspired Elvis in obvious ways. Over the years, he asserted his status as an underappreciated architect of rock and roll with a blend of graciousness and grievance. “I believe that if Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “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!” But he also, in that interview and others, expressed gratitude to the likes of Pat Boone for helping boost his own career.
In addition to race, another facet of his identity shaped his career in complex ways: sexuality. He was mocked as effeminate as a child and later in life had run-ins with authorities while acting on same-sex desires. Over the years, he sometimes condemned homosexuality as sinful; other times, he described himself as gay or omnisexual. Many of his songs fixated on alluring women while leaving open a queer subtext. Through it all, his flamboyant public presentation scrambled gender paradigms, and much of his appeal lay in the way he never seemed all that concerned with reconciling his apparent contradictions. In 1972, an interviewer asked him why he was wearing makeup. “You’re suppose to wear makeup,” Richard replied. “Just like when you toast your bread or put sugar in your coffee, you’re supposed to add a little touch to it.”
In that same interview—which, like every TV appearance Richard gave, is a must-watch performance in itself—the singer was asked about why he’d left gospel music behind. Richard insisted that he hadn’t. “I consider my music sacred; I consider ‘Long Tall Sally’ sacred,” he said, referring to the 1956 hit that many listeners believed to be about a promiscuous woman and that other listeners heard as a riff on gay slang. “I don’t mean that it’s a hymn like it’s an anthem in church. It’s a song of love and joy in a world of chaos and commotion and strife.” He then summed up the magic, spanning all categories of identity and sound, with which he’d changed the world: “When I sing my songs, you can’t sit still. Your big toe shoot up in your boot!”