(Picture: the location of the former J & M Recording Studio at 840 N. Rampart St., where Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. Jason Riedy/CC Flickr)
Little Richard (born Richard Penniman in Macon Georgia) passed away on May 9 at the age of 87 and was earned the nicknames such as “The Innovator” for his contributions to rock and roll music, even though he didn’t invent the genre. Penniman’s hit single “Tutti Frutti,” which was recorded inside a French Quarter studio, is often credited with shifting the evolution of rock music for the next 60-plus years.
J & M Recording Studio, located at 840 N. Rampart St., was operated by Cosimo Matassa, a young sound engineer and Tulane chemistry dropout who recorded Penniman’s single, along with some of rock and roll’s earlier hits. The historic building, which many consider the birthplace of rock music, currently houses a laundromat.
Archived interview footage, including with Penniman and other historical figures, provide brief, first-hand accounts on the genesis of Tutti Frutti inside J & M.
While historians often cite late 1940s hits performed by Fats Domino and Roy Brown as some of its earliest examples of rock and roll recorded at J & M, Penniman’s recording of Tutti Frutti in 1955 changed things.
It wasn’t just Penniman’s energetic piano playing, but also his vocal ability and flamboyant showmanship, which included fancy dress and flashy hair styles, that added to his repertoire.
“Everything he did was dynamic,” Matassa told WGBH in 1995. “He’s an exciting performer. He performs as one of the best and he believes he’s the best, and he plays that way and he sings that way.”
Penniman had recorded under several labels before Los Angeles-based Specialty Records sent him to New Orleans to record in early 1955, although it took several months for inspiration to manifest itself.
Tutti Frutti’s exact origins aren’t clear, although rock historian Richie Unterberger said it was an obscene little ditty played by Penniman in between recording sessions. Penniman gives a similar account, according to one interview.
According to biographer David Kirby, the song refers to anal sex. Penniman gave such a clue during a 1987 interview with David Brenner.
Dorothy LaBostrie, a songwriter hired to work with Penniman, offered a different version of events in an interview with WGBH. While she acknowledged Penniman’s tendency to recite songs with “dirty” lyrics, LaBostrie said Tutti Frutti‘s title was inspired by an ice cream flavor and wrote its lyrics in 15 minutes upon hearing a request from Penniman.
“I listened to his voice and I saw down and I wrote it,” LaBostrie said. “When I came back out and he stood at the piano. He went to banging, banging, hollering and then I took the song up and began to sing wamp poma luma poma lump bam boom. He couldn’t take a word from mine.”
The song was hit and earned Penniman instant fame, along with other subsequent hits. The success, however, was short-lived as Penniman suddenly quit rock and roll in 1957 while on tour in Australia.
Expressing “great fear” over the recent launching of Sputnik by the Soviet government and believing the world would end, Penniman ended his world tour early to “get his affairs in order,” according to the Atlanta Daily World.
Penniman became a gospel music performer and vowed to become an evangelist, enrolling in Seventh-day Adventist school at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama—his reported final resting place, according to Essence magazine.
Penniman returned to rock and roll in the early 1960s with a little help from British invasion bands, according to Unterberger, but never regained the success achieved years earlier and instead lived out his days as a living legend.