“Wop bop-a-loo-mom a-lomp bomp bomp!” If Martians had landed on Earth and conquered it with rock ‘n roll, this could have been their war cry. The opening phrase of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” announced that early rock would be both primal and foreign, earthy and unearthly. Kids scrambled to decipher the meaning of the sounds emitted by the pompadoured piano dervish. “Tutti frutti, all rooty”? “All rooty,” they determined, was a variation of “all right” from Cab Calloway’s 1941 “Are You All Reet?” (which includes the line, “I’m like the tree/ I’m all root”). One thing for sure, “Tutti Frutti” has nothing to do with the ice-cream-and-chopped fruits dessert; the song is a sexual anthem in Richard’s unique language: raving, speaking-in-tongues, R&B Esperanto.
Of the three great black pianist-singers of early rock, Fats Domino was round and crooning, Ray Charles was a nightclub smoothie let loose after hours, and Little Richard Penniman, from Macon, Ga., was the raw goods. His original lyrics for his first hit were just a little raunchy — “Tutti frutti, loose booty! / If it don’t fit, don’t force it! / You can grease it, make it easy” — so Dorothy La Bostrie was called in to sanitize them; she gave Richard a gal named Sue (“She knows just what to do”) and another named Daisy (“She almost drive me crazy”). But really, the words weren’t nearly as important as the remorselessly frenetic beat, the propulsive piano work and the primal, screaming vocal. Richard maintained this astonishing verve for two years, with “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and other orgasmic declarations. His wailing falsetto (“Oooh!”) would be appropriated by the Beatles, who were his opening act on a 1963 European tour. He also toured with the Rolling Stones, and on some 1964 tracks he used the young Jimi Hendrix as a sideman. Said Hendrix: “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”