Happy Newsstand Day!

With a visual love letter to Atlanta, reflections on Cormac McCarthy’s haunted characters, a surreal short story starring an immortal Miles Davis, and so much more, you don’t want to miss the Spring 2023 Issue.

Photo by Robbie Drexhage, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hear It Everywhere

All my earliest memories of music are on the road. No matter where we went, my family always switched on the radio. Each morning, when my grandpa drove me to school, he’d pop the most ancient of country music cassettes into his pickup truck’s tape deck. My mom drove along to whatever played on easy-listening stations anywhere we went. As long as we were in the car, something was playing. It’s funny that I grew up to be a homebody, because as a kid, those foggy memories of music crackling in from an old car radio are all I have. It’s a loose mismatch of Poison from my mom, Marty Robbins from my grandpa, Conway Twitty from my grandma, and the Wiggles for me.

At around six years old, I swore off all music. I’d outgrown the Wiggles, but didn’t have my own taste yet. I’d stubbornly concluded that my family’s favorite songs were “old people music.” It was racket. I made my family members sit in silence, listening only to the road rumble underneath us, the hum of tires rolling on asphalt. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to discover the music that I really wanted to listen to, what spoke to me.

I was nine, maybe ten. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, had recently died. I was in the passenger’s seat of my grandma’s pickup truck—too old to insist on silence, but too young still to have formed my own interests in music—and as we ricket-ed down a bumpy highway in northwest Georgia, Michael Jackson began blaring from the radio. My grandma loved Jackson’s early music—the earlier, the better. I can’t remember which song played, but as a tribute on a radio station in rural Georgia, it was probably one of his biggest hits: “Thriller.” “Billie Jean.” “Rock With You.”

I have no memory of being told who Michael Jackson was. I just knew—maybe from his omnipresence in media, TV, airwaves—and understood his importance, even subconsciously. Like those hazy memories of music in the car, I can see his image on the TV, one gloved hand in sparkling white. A dazzling hat perched proudly on his head. In the fourth grade, a friend of mine insisted he could moonwalk. He shuffled his feet, attempting to glide back, but instead clumsily shifted his steps in reverse. Jackson was a fixture of pop culture, a centerpiece for what an icon is. His music became an innate presence in my life without guidance or explanation.

I do, however, have memories of being told who Little Richard was. My grandma was the first person around me to ever mention him. He wasn’t on the radio, and he wasn’t on the TV. He was discussed as an aside. We were talking about her music, “old folks’ music,” she said, like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Elvis. I’d never heard of Little Richard before, and when I went home and played his early songs on YouTube, it was different from the others. His fearless androgyny and wailing voice broke from what I had imagined as my grandma’s music, from my family’s music.


Little Richard is sometimes referred to as the “Architect of Rock & Roll,” and perhaps that’s the most accurate way to describe his impact on the genre. His musical revolution started in Macon, Georgia, just four hours from my home, and grew to encompass the world and music history. I first encountered his legacy in other musicians—the icons he inspired were the ones I listened to and in whom I unknowingly heard his subtle influence.

In 1955, with the release of his first hit, “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard created a new sound. It was fast, luridly lyrical, and combined what would be Richard’s signature vocal style with a rapid-tempo drum and backing horns. The bizarre, made-to-sound-spontaneous lines, “Whop bop b-luma b-lop bam bom / Tutti frutti, oh rooty,” ricocheted around the chorus, and were boosted out into the world on radio waves. The song skyrocketed to number two on r&b charts and created the blueprint for rock & roll—it was loud, it was wild, it blended genres like blues and gospel together with something completely new. The sound was modified, then further popularized by the softer, more dulcet tones of Buddy Holly. Richard, depending on who’s talking, receives varying amounts of credit. He’s known as a trailblazer to so many, but away from the music crowd, like in the foothills of rural Appalachia, his influence is felt but not perceived outright.

Listening to Little Richard for the first time as a teenager, I missed his connection to the more famous artists he inspired—like Michael Jackson, Prince. “Rip It Up” off Richard’s first album, Here’s Little Richard, was rhythm-fueled, and the lyrics about letting go of stress and finding love on the dance floor initially flew over my head. I didn’t connect it to one of Jackson’s early solo hits. “Rock with You,” on his first major record label release Off the Wall in 1979, has Little Richard written all over it. The lyrics have a similar simplicity—and a consistent sound with the repetition of the title line. Little Richard’s “I’m gonna rock it up / I’m gonna rip it up / I’m gonna shake it up,” becomes Jackson’s “I wanna rock with you (All night).”  

Little Richard’s visual style also left a persistent mark. His costuming and public persona were androgynous—and iconic. He was enchanting in dazzling suits often worn with shining silk. And his skintight, revealing bodysuits were revelatory at the time. The vividness of his style was evident, even to me as a teenager, in the sparkling one-gloved hand Michael Jackson so proudly displayed. I could see Little Richard, too, in Prince’s midriff-revealing shirts and his plunging necklines. Experimentation and gender nonconformity became indicative of a certain kind of pop musician in the ’70s and ’80s and began, in some way, with what Little Richard did in the 1950s. When Little Richard died in 2020, costume designer Arianne Phillips wrote on Instagram, “There would be no Prince without the King.”


Little Richard’s influence burned bright and long, but his career flashed and fizzled. At the beginning of his stardom, he sold the rights to much of his music for cheap. It was a predatory and racist tactic from labels to purchase Richard’s catalog for much less than it was valued. As a result, his earliest, most groundbreaking work on Here’s Little Richard, owned by Specialty Records, stayed tied up. He saw little gain monetarily from his most successful outputs.

In a little-told story, aired as part of CNN’s multi-day tribute to Michael Jackson following his death in 2009, Bryan Monroe, the former editorial director of Ebony and Jet, stated that Jackson reportedly purchased Little Richard’s early catalog of music as part of a bundle in the mid-1980s. He was aiming, originally, for the Beatles’ work—which he won, outbidding Paul McCartney in the process. But when Jackson was alerted to his ownership of Little Richard’s Specialty Records’ catalog bundled in what he purchased of the Beatles’ work, he tried to return it to Richard. No questions asked. According to Today, it was his mother’s advice that prompted Jackson to “treat Little Richard with respect.”

Different versions of the story exist from here, in far-flung corners of the internet, all according to a variety of sources. One version insists that the catalog remained stunted in music purgatory, never returned to Richard. Another posits that it was returned—and Jackson took a multi-million-dollar loss. And a third version is an amalgamation, stating that Jackson was unsuccessful in returning the rights to Richard, and, as a compromise, he offered him a job as a songwriter.


On the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder in 1997, Little Richard, then sixty-four, took caller questions about his life, work, and career. “Kevin from Baltimore” asked Little Richard about his feelings on the new generation of pop musicians and if he was offended by their mimicking or ripping-off his signature style.

Little Richard was gracious, kind. He responded, “I’m honored with them.” He spoke with his arms and hands just barely in the frame. “I’m blessed to see somebody emulate me.”

Following setback after setback, Little Richard’s archive took an unfortunate place in music history, lumped into collections with other, more widely played musicians like the Beatles. Despite his role as a forebearer of rock & roll, in so many ways, his music was overshadowed. He took a backseat in popular consciousness over musicians who came just a decade or two later.

The proliferation of pop, rock, and even blues, was led by the bending of genres and the pulse of Little Richard’s energetic style. Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Prince. Decades and decades after his most massive, seismic-shifting hits, Little Richard’s influence is still felt in the widest range of genres, songs, and artists. Even in the foothills of Appalachia, his guiding hand is present in the music my family loved, and the music I’ve embraced as my own. He was the blueprint for change. That musician from Macon, Little Richard, the greatest architect.

Perrin C. Smith

Perrin C. Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Rock Spring, Georgia. Their essays, fiction, and reporting have appeared in Savannah Magazine, THOM, and numerous other publications. In 2021, Smith was a Jeff Baskin Editorial Intern for Oxford American.