Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr pay tribute to Little Richard

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have led tributes to Little Richard, who has died of cancer aged 87.

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on 5 December 1932. His breakthrough hit, ‘Tutti Frutti’, was released in October 1955. It was an instant hit and made his reputation as a unique songwriter and a compelling, charismatic, and flamboyant performer.

The Beatles and Little Richard, Liverpool, 12 October 1962

The Beatles first met Little Richard at the Star-Club in Hamburg, during their second residency at the venue in November 1962. They occasionally performed on the same bill, and The Beatles became friends with the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.

We used to stand backstage at Hamburg’s Star-Club and watch Little Richard play. Or he used to sit and talk. He used to read from the Bible backstage and just to hear him talk we’d sit round and listen. It was Brian Epstein that brought him to Hamburg. I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.

They also shared a billing with Little Richard on two occasions in Liverpool, on 12 October and 28 October 1962.

Poster for The Beatles and Little Richard, Liverpool, 12 October 1962

The Beatles’ love of Little Richard went back to their very first days as a band. On 6 July 1957, the day John Lennon met Paul McCartney, the two Liverpool teenagers bonded over their shared love of Little Richard’s music. Hoping to impress the older Lennon, McCartney sang a selection of tunes including Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’, Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, and a medley of songs by Little Richard. Shortly afterwards McCartney was invited to join Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen.

The Beatles released versions Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!’ in 1964. They recorded both songs again for BBC radio, along with versions of ‘Ooh My Soul’ and ‘Lucille’.

McCartney sang The Beatles’ cover versions of Little Richard’s songs, and expressed dismay when Lennon’s character was portrayed as singing them in the 1994 biopic Backbeat.

One of the things I didn’t like about the film Backbeat is that they gave ‘Long Tall Sally’ to the John character. I was not amused. I always sang that: me and Little Richard.
Paul McCartney

McCartney also revealed how he was able to imitate his hero:

I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself… A lot of people were fans of Little Richard so I used to sing his stuff but there came a point when I wanted one of my own, so I wrote ‘I’m Down’.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

On 18 September 1968, The Beatles paused a recording session for the White Album song ‘Birthday’ in order to watch The Girl Can’t Help It. It was the first UK television screening of the rock ‘n’ roll classic, which starred Jayne Mansfield and featured guest appearances from Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent.

What happened was The Girl Can’t Help It was on television. That’s an old rock film with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran and a few others. Gene Vincent. And we wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock. And we said, ‘We’ll do something, just do a backing track. We’ll make up a backing track.’

So we kept it very simple, 12 bar blues kind of thing. And we stuck in a few bits here and there in it, with no idea what the song was or what was gonna go on top of it. We just said, ‘OK, 12 bars in A, and we’ll change to D, and I’m gonna do a few beats in C.’ And we really just did it like that. Random thing. We didn’t have time for anything else, and so we just recorded this backing.

And we came back here to my house and watched The Girl Can’t Help It. Then we went back to the studio again and made up some words to go with it all. So this song was just made up in an evening.

Paul McCartney
Radio Luxembourg, 20 November 1968

‘Long Tall Sally’ was the only song that remained in The Beatles’ live set throughout their touring years. Indeed, it was the final song performed at their last scheduled live concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on 29 August 1966.

Little Richard was one of the all-time greats. The first time I heard him a friend of mine had been to Holland and brought back a 78 with ‘Long Tall Sally’ on one side, and ‘Slippin’ And Slidin” on the other. It blew our heads – we’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives and all those saxes playing like crazy.

The Beatles played numerous cover versions during the month-long Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969. They included Little Richard’s ‘Jenny, Jenny’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Miss Ann’, ‘Send Me Some Loving’, and ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’. They also performed a medley of songs, including Richard’s ‘Rip It Up’, which was released on Anthology 3.

The January 1969 sessions were also notable for featuring Billy Preston on keyboards. Preston had first met The Beatles while touring as part of Little Richard’s band in 1962. The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ single was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”, and he also played on the Abbey Road songs ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Something’.

The Beatles with Little Richard, Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, 12 October 1962

In September 1969 John Lennon appeared alongside Little Richard at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival. It was the first show by Lennon’s new group, Plastic Ono Band.

Lennon and McCartney both recorded Richard’s songs on their respective solo albums.

Lennon recorded ‘Slippin’ And Slidin”, ‘Send Me Some Lovin”, and a medley of ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Ready Teddy’, on his 1975 album Rock ‘N’ Roll. McCartney, meanwhile, recorded ‘Lucille’ in 1987 for Choba B CCCP, and ‘Shake A Hand’ for 1999’s Run Devil Run.

On McCartney’s 1982 appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, he chose Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ as one of his eight song selections.

The Beatles referred to Little Richard three times during their inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The first was at the band’s induction in January 1988.

Thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers, and Little Richard – it was all his fault really.
George Harrison
20 January 1988

In 1994, while inducting John Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, McCartney recalled meeting Little Richard in Hamburg:

We got to Hamburg and met the likes of Little Richard, Gene Vincent. I remember Little Richard inviting us back to his hotel. He was looking at Ringo’s ring and said, “I love that ring.” He said, “I’ve got a ring like that. I could give you a ring like that.” So we all went back to the hotel with him. We never got a ring.
Paul McCartney
19 January 1994

Ringo Starr also referenced Little Richard in 2015 in his acceptance speech while being inducted into the Hall.

I was working in the factory and playing at night and every Sunday, you know we lived in England, we only had the BBC. There was a small country in Europe called Luxembourg…very small. Population of about six. And for some reason, they had the biggest radio master. And they bought the Alan Freed Rock & Roll show. And for the first time I heard… well, I have to backtrack now to ’55… Bill Haley was my hero… he was like the first one. Elvis came in.

But anyway, I’m listening to this guy on a Sunday at four o’clock in the afternoon, and I hear Little Richard, first time ever. I hear Jerry Lee Lewis. And I heard rock & roll music, because we weren’t getting a lot of that stuff in England, and it came from this very small country. So four o’clock every Sunday, Roy and I would go to his house and turn on the radio and Alan Freed would introduce us to so many great rockers. And when I was a teenager, once… we played Little Richard, “Shag on Down to the Union Hall.” Means nothing to you but to us, it’s very meaningful. We couldn’t believe we could hear this guy on the radio! Shag on down to the Union Hall! That seems a good place to go!

Ringo Starr
19 April 2015

Last updated: 8 October 2021
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