Little Richard’s Lasting Influence on Metal
Rock ‘n’ roll predecessor Little Richard’s staccato screams transcended more than the sound barrier. They also transcended time, making their way into our favorite metal songs today.
Written by Tiana Woodard
Illustrated by Mark Yoder
It’s the 1950s. A group of guitarists, drummers, and saxophonists stand at the back of the stage, moving in sync with their instruments in hand. Women faint left and right, probably from a mixture of dehydration and sexual frenzy. A wide array of women’s undergarments fly over people’s heads and onto the sweat-covered stage before them.
Despite all of the chaos going on, all of the audience members remain transfixed on the microphone-wielding, pompadour-wearing, suit-stripping performer before them. The singer, who we now know as Little Richard, pounds away at the keys on his piano. And his piercing, staccato screams ring through the air in the stuffy auditorium.
But another element permeates the air of these spectacles: the building blocks of today’s metal music. Through his groundbreaking use of screams and shouts in his records, Little Richard created a blueprint for the metal artists which would follow in his footsteps decades later.
As a former vaudeville performer, Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, heavily used theatrics in his performances. This could be found in his fiery piano riffs, suggestive dance moves, and most importantly, his one-of-a-kind vocals. It’s hard to pin down the exact origins of Little Richard’s staccato screams, but his first Billboard hit, “Tutti Frutti,” features the “woo’s” that people commonly associate him with today.
Though Little Richard’s artistry stands apart from others because of his unique style, “Good Golly, Miss Molly” is his first song to include the aggressive ad-libs people tie him to today. About a minute into the 1958 record, he leads his backing band back in with an unearthly, out-of-body yell. In his live performances of the song, he becomes less modest with his volume, letting his screams pierce his listeners’ ears.
Most of Little Richard’s songs follow this shouting blueprint, as his cue signals for his saxophonists to take over.
His eventful career ushered in an era of experimentation by some of music’s earliest screaming vocalists. In the 1960s, the rock ‘n’ roll that people bopped and jived to in the 1950s lost its smooth edge and shortened to “rock.” As rock artists used more distorted chords and amped up the volume, vocalists altered their singing to match the genre’s edgier sound.
Heavy metal band pioneers such as Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin are associated with popularizing screaming in the rock industry.
Although Judas Priest struggled to solidify their success until the 1980s, Led Zeppelin already rose to the top of the charts in the early 70s. And as they became more popular, Plant became one of the most famous singers of the era. Their 1969 hit single “Whole Lotta Love” highlights some of his screaming abilities, among countless others. Backed by the song’s iconic guitar riff, Plant finishes his repeat of the lyrics “Ah-keep it cooling baby” with an energetic, suggestive cry as the music fades out.
In this record, Plant’s vocals match the undertones of Little Richard’s fast-paced, sensual performances from the 1950s through the 1970s. And unsurprisingly, Little Richard’s name and the word “influences” popped up together in Plant’s interview with journalist Dan Rather in 2018.
While Led Zeppelin sold out arenas, Judas Priest also pushed the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll. As Judas Priest’s lead singer since their 1969 debut, Halford became known as the “Metal God” because of his wide vocal range, expressed tonally and stylistically. Judas Priest’s 1976 record “Dreamer Deceiver/Deceiver” is the best example of Halford’s vocal abilities.
The song begins as a slow, sensual ballad, but Halford’s lengthy screech leads the band into the second half. He begins “Deceiver” with raspy, bellowing notes and ends the song with an echoing, high-pitched “We will stay forever!”
Although his screams are much longer and more piercing than Little Richard, he does mimic the 50s performer in delivery. Just as Penniman did in many of his top-charting records, Halford tends to drive his point home by ending lyrical phrases with a wailing cry. In fact, Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s lead vocalist, cited Little Richard as one of his biggest influences in a 2014 interview with VICE.
While Little Richard impacted heavy metal’s pioneers, artists like Plant and Halford directly influenced the artists we consider tie with this singing style today. English hard rock band Black Sabbath listened to Led Zeppelin and developed their own sound, influencing metal bands like Slayer, Korn, and Slipknot. Suicide Silence’s Mitch Lucker, Avenged Sevenfold’s M.Shadows, and Bring Me The Horizon’s Oli Sykes all share inspiration from the metal they grew up listening to in the late 80s and early 90s. And this lineage, all with Little Richard at the top, goes on.
It’s difficult to tell if heavy metal artists would’ve found their way into screaming vocals without Little Richard’s guidance. However, it’s a sure fact that without the rock ‘n’ roll icon breaking the radio waves with his innovative sound, the metal singers we love today wouldn’t have seen success as possible.