Revisionist History: Arguing Tutti Frutti with Malcolm Gladwell
A respectful disagreement with one of my favorite podcasters over Little Richard's Iconic hit.
“Tutti Frutti, Aw Rooty, Tutti Frutti, Aw Rooty, A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" –Little Richard 1955.
On a recent episode of his exceptional podcast Revisionist History, journalist Malcolm Gladwell was discussing why country music embraces sadness while rock n’roll tended toward generalism in songwriting. Gladwell’s point was to emphasize the awe-inspiring power of music, especially sad music like that of his other subject on the show, the so-called “King of Tears,” songwriter Bobby Braddock. Braddock is the powerhouse behind such songs as "D.I.V.O.R.C.E" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," heavily featured on Gladwell’s show.
However, as Gladwell was praising the specificity of emotion that he argues is why Country music can embrace deeper emotions than rock n’roll, Gladwell used Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti" as a punching bag. This is where Mr. Gladwell and I respectfully part ways. Gladwell spoke of the song dismissively as he pointed out the song’s place on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs Ever Written. I can understand Gladwell’s point, to a point. From a lyrical perspective, "Tutti Frutti" is something close to gibberish. That said, to just look at the lyrics is to divorce "Tutti Frutti" and its creator Little Richard from their historic context, the context that truly makes the song iconic and places it among the greats.
Little Richard was struggling for hits in 1955. After 4 years with tiny Peacock Records, an off-shoot of RCA, he’d been stuck on the so-called Chitlin Circuit of tiny black-owned nightclubs in the south. Little Richard was frustrated and with Peacock seemingly unable to break his records, Richard reached out to tiny, New Orleans recording unit Specialty Records. It was with Specialty Records in 1955 where Richard teamed with songwriter Dorothy Labostrie to rewrite a dirty little ditty that Richard had been performing on the road into something that could be embraced by radio.
The result was "Tutti Frutti," a song that when Little Richard sang it in clubs was filthy as all get out but when paired with new, radio friendly lyrics from Dorothy Labostrie, a Black woman writing a hit song in 1955 by the way, it became immediately iconic. Richard’s frantic piano, the strings and horns forming a rhythm that combined gospel, the blues, and boogie woogie, slowing the rhythm just slightly and suddenly it created the template for all of the rock n’roll that came after it.
Then take the man himself, the flamboyant Little Richard. Here was this outlandish, loud, boisterous black man in 1956 becoming rich and famous while fighting the tides of racial oppression, that’s not to mention his remarkable sexual repression that led him to be married in 1962 though admitting later that he’d always known he was gay. Little Richard rejected any attempt to canonize him for his racial or sexual boundary pushing, he retreated from the spotlight during the civil rights era but that doesn’t lessen the impact of "Tutti Frutti."
"Tutti Frutti" is iconic for the seminal fact that a Black man in 1956 invented the sound that came to define generations that came after it. Everyone from Elvis Presley to The Platters, The Beatles to Motown, owe a debt to "Tutti Frutti" for that song busting the boundaries of the staid, stale, big band music of its day and opening the door for fellow game changers such as Chuck Barry and, as I mentioned, Elvis Presley who loved the song so much, he covered it on record and in concert.
Yes, Mr. Gladwell, you can dismiss the odd, bordering on bizarre, lyrics, but you cannot dismiss the context. "Tutti Frutti" belongs on every list of every important song ever recorded. This seemingly trifle of a ditty blew the doors off of the music industry and shaped generations of music to come for people of all races and his outrageous style influenced millions more. If you want to be pedantic and complain simply about the lyrics, I will agree, it’s no triumph of lyricism, though it is undeniably joyous. It is the context of history that makes "Tutti Frutti" one of the single greatest and most important songs ever recorded.