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Thank God for Tutti Frutti
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The seething auditorium was packed. A frenzied stir could be felt. Suspense harmonized with anticipation. As swelling ethereal music filled the air, chattering voice could be heard amid the rumble of a steady parade of men, women and children moving down the aisles, looking for seats.

Then, as a mixture of melody and humming voices modulated to a higher key, a tall, handsome man with a white coat stepped to the middle of the stage, and a loud, resonate voice as of the announcer at a boxing event, began to speak.

"Believers!" the voice resonated, "I present the man with the greatest conversion experience since the Apostle Paul: The one and only, Little Richard."

There was almost a savage roar. People were on their feet. Shorts of "praise God" and "hallelujah" and "thank you Jesus" filled the auditorium.

Suddenly, standing like a television evangelist, in a dark business suit and a red necktie, the converted rock star began to speak. The crowd, now less noisy - except a few screeching screams - and for the most part, seated, turned their eyes to see and tuned their ears to hear Little Richard say: "Rock 'n' roll doesn't glorify God. You can't drink out of God's cup and the devil's cut at the same time."

This scene was typical of many prophecy conventions in Dallas, Atlanta and other cities where Little Richard preached and testified for a time.

Born in Macon, Georgia, December 5, 1932, and third in a family of 12 children, Richard lived in a white, wooden shotgun house on Fifth Avenue in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood. His father, son of a preacher, was a moon-shiner and a brick mason.

Primarily through the influence of his mother, Leva Mae, Little Richard became interested in church music. Possessing a beautiful, high-tenor voice, a soaring falsetto and a born talent for learning tunes and lyrics, he became a kind of child prodigy, singing with various groups and as a soloist.

But Richard was restless as well as ambitious. At 13, he left home to travel as a vocalist with Dr. Hudson's Medicine Show and later returned to Macon for a brief tenure at the Tick Tock Club.

In the meantime, he had been adopted by the Pennimans, a wealthy Jewish family, whose name he still affectionately bears. It was this family that "discovered" him s he sang and danced for coins in the streets and on the sidewalks of Macon; they helped him to become an accomplished pianist by the time he was 15.

Little Richard landed his first recording contract with Camden Records at age 16. Then, seeking greener pastures, he went to Atlanta in 1951, where he won a talent contest and was immediately signed by RCA Victor Records.

The whole venture flopped.

The world was just not ready for Little Richard. But he was ready for the world - and was ready to prove it. He did.

He kept singing the high notes, and making them faster and faster, as he went from one black night club to another to eke out an existence and buy more fancy feminine clothes.

After singing another contract with Peacock Records of Houston, Texas, an attempt which also fizzled into failure, he returned to Macon, and washed dishes at the Greyhound Bus station while he was still trying to find his place in the sun.

Then the sunlight of providence smiled on Little Richard's happy face.

It happened in 1954, when he sent a sample tape to Art Rupe, owner of Specialty Records in Los Angeles.

`Specialty arranged a recording session for the piano-pounding, high-toned vocalist in New Orleans at Bartholomews studio.

Came then the unexpected - a moment of destiny.

During a break from the planned recording of a few of Richard's songs, the nervous singing sat down at the piano and began to "play around" with a crazy little ditty, just to relax after the rather stressful regimentation of the studio routine.

The little ditty was called "Tutti Fruitti," something the record producer immediately seized immediately and judged it to be of particular commercial value, but demanded that it be "cleaned up."

He contracted Dorothy LaBostrie, a blues writer, who reworded the lyrics, and left the singing to Little Richard, backed by the studio band.

"Tutti Fruitti" as a gigantic hit.

This was followed by eight more top-40 hits, and "Tutti Fruitti" became Richard's passport to fame and fortune, and the birth of the rock' n' roll phenomenon, and became Little Richard's first gold record - a major crossover piece - which drew the young white population into the swing of the soaring, speeded-up version of rhythm and blues.

It was the start of a new era in American music.

"Just as Ford was the founder of Ford," Little Richard said, "I'm the founder of rock 'n' roll."

Just as Frank Lloyd Wright introduced air conditioning, concrete block construction, and indirect lighting to the world, and with his innovative structures became the builder of modern architecture, Little Richard, with his performances and style, became the major builder of rock 'n' roll.

He actually launched the careers of many performers, including the Beatles and Otis Redding. The first recording contract of the Beatles was arranged by Little Richard, who became an idol of Paul McCartney, who copied Little Richard's style.

Redding got his start in Macon as an imitator of Little Richard at Lakeside Park and the all-black Douglass Theater.

In the fall of 1957, while traveling by plane over Australia, Little Richard saw flames of the engines, caught a vision of hell, and heard the voice of God calling him to quit rock 'n' roll. That he did.

Richard then entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to prepare for the preaching ministry in the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

After denouncing the rock that he had helped to build - a rock that led him into drugs, drinking and orgies - he received more divine illumination in 1962, and returned to entertainment.

Now he says, "I am an ambassador of peace and good will."

Richard now lives in Riverside, California. He returned to Macon in 1990, and played a homecoming concert at the famous copper-domed Macon City Auditorium.

Surely he must have been reminded of the climate of this quiet city, which seems to have some peculiar magic - a kind of atmosphere blended with religion, Sacred Harp roots, blues and spirituals - that inspires, creates and enhances a special kind of music.

On a recent television show, Little Richard was asked about his start in Macon.

He said, "Well, all I got to say, is thank God for "Tutti Fruitti."