New Little Richard PBS Doc Details Gay Origins of ‘Tutti Frutti’: ‘This Ain’t About Ice Cream’

Little Richard knew exactly what he was doing when he sang the seemingly gibberish lyrics “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom/ If it don’t fit, don’t force it/ You can grease it and make it easy.” The iconic couplet he originally wrote for his 1955 breakthrough hit “Tutti Fruitti” is explored in a new episode of PBS’ American Masters, “Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which will debut on public stations on Friday (June 2) at 9 p.m. ET as pat of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month and African American Music Appreciation Month.

The show, which features interviews with the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Nile Rodgers, Pat Boone, Ringo Starr, Bobby Rush and Big Freedia, as well as activist/drag performer Sir Lady Java and Richard’s spiritual advisor, Rev. Bill Minson, tells the origin story of Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) from a child prodigy steeped in the world of gospel to global rock stardom; it features never-before heard audio recordings of Richard made by his authorized biographer, Charles White, who is also featured.

In a Billboard exclusive clip from the show (see below), Little Richard’s bandmates and contemporaries talk about the origin story of “Tutti Frutti,” which was birthed at the raucous Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. “When we went into the Drew Drop Inn there was a piano… and that’s when I began to know and understand Little Richard,” says Specialty Records producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell.

“‘Cause that’s all you gotta do is give Richard an audience, turn the lights on and show is on,” Blackwell says. Richard’s longtime keyboard player and friend Ronald “Ron” Jones adds that one day Richard jumped on the piano and played the “alop-bam-boom” riff and his producers asked about the hook they’d never heard before, even though the singer — who died in May 2020 at age 87 of bone cancer — had been using it for years while playing to Black audiences on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

In the episode we hear archival tape of Richard reciting the next two lines in the chorus, “If you want it, you got it/ Tutti-frutti, good booty.” The lyrics, of course, could be interpreted as being about gay sex, laughs Deacon John Moore, a blues musician who recorded with Richard. “They’re not gonna play that on the radio. ‘Tutti-frutti, good booty!’ And everybody knew this ain’t about ice cream!”

The bottom line from Richard’s producer, though, was that regardless of what he was singing about, “Tutti Fruitti” sounded like a slam-dunk hit record. Informed that he would have to clean up the “smutty” lyrics a bit to get airplay, Richard agreed, with Blackwell explaining how they changed the first bit to “tutti frutti, oh rootie,” while adding girls named Sue and Daisy. After two or three takes, history was made.

The PBS doc follows on the heels of producer/director and former label exec Lisa Cortés’ recent doc, Little Richard: I Am Everything, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been streaming on Prime Video and Apple TV since April.

Watch the American Masters preview below and watch the full episode on Friday night.

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