NEW ORLEANS — For Little Richard, the road to music stardom literally began in New Orleans. The rock and roll pioneer, who died Saturday at age 87, recorded his first and best known hit, “Tutti Frutti” in New Orleans at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Recording Studio on N. Rampart Street.
Little Richard would record many of his other early chart-busting hits at Matassa’s studio, including “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” and “Ready Teddy.”
"New Orleans (is) a very inspirational city for me as far as it comes to music. All my hits was made there," Little Richard said in a 1993 Offbeat interview with Keith Spera.
At those J&M recording sessions, Little Richard was backed by legendary studio players like Earl Palmer, Red Tyler and Lee Allen.
“I’m not a real stickler on details, but I recall the Little Richard sessions vividly,” Matassa told writer Jeff Hannusch in his book “I Hear You Knockin’: The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. “They were always real high energy just because Richard was that kind of guy.”
Matassa, who died in 2014, was honored by the Grammys and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his role in recording all of the biggest names in early rock and roll and rhythm and blues, including Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Roy Brown, Lloyd Price, Dr. John, Irma Thomas and many more.
“We always had about two or three good takes on those Little Richard songs,” Matassa said. “Everybody wanted to get the best take they could…for Richard because he had the ‘Queen of the hill’ attitude. They always thought they could do better, so a lot of times those sessions were long and drawn out.”
Little Richard, whose real name was Richard Wayne Penniman, also performed at the Dew Drop Inn, the legendary 1950s and 60s New Orleans entertainment venue for African-American performers.
He landed his first record deal, with RCA, in 1951. Four years later, he would be brought to New Orleans by record producer Bumps Blackwell of Specialty Records for a recording session.
The origins of “Tutti Frutti” were murky over the years, with Penniman claiming to have written it. Most music historians give him credit for the original, very risqué version of the song, which was cleaned up and rewritten by New Orleans songwriter Dorothy Labostrie.
In its obituary of Little Richard Saturday, the New York Times called it “a raucous song about sex, its lyrics cleaned up but its meaning hard to miss.”
One version of the story says that after Little Richard performed his version of “Tutti Fruitti” at the Dew Drop Inn, Blackwell insisted that Richard record the song. Labostrie was tasked with rewriting the lyrics for a general audience. She claimed to have written the song in 15 minutes.
"It was very risque at the time. We had to change some of the lyrics to make it more fitting for the radio," Little Richard said in a 1995 Times-Picayune interview, adding, "We were very polite and discreet compared to the music today."
"It was different from anything I had ever heard in my life," Little Richard said of his recording style. "I had a different style. I didn't realize it, I didn't recognize it. Being from Macon, Ga., I didn't realize that I was way out on a limb by myself, different from the whole tree."
Little Richard, who performed at the 1994 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and made other appearances in town over the years, often cited Fats Domino and other New Orleans icons as key musical influences in his life.
"He influenced me as an entertainer, period. I loved him," Penniman told Rolling Stone in 2017 after Domino after the music legend's death in 2017. "He could make a piano talk."
In the 1993 interview with Offbeat, Little Richard, who was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, mentioned his love for the city of New Orleans.
"Well, the city is a very unique city, it’s a rock and roll city, and it’s a jazz city, as well as a rhythm and blues city. It’s a musical palette, New Orleans is, to me, the capital of music. I’ve always respected it as that, and always will."