Gateway to the Architect of Rock n’ Roll.
A portion of Downtown Macon’s Second Street Corridor connector and one of the city’s most significant street gateways is named in Little Richard’s honor. Macon’s most famous native son was honored with his own Boulevard in the early 1990s, shortly after his Hollywood Walk of Fame designation. Little Richard Penniman Boulevard runs from Telfair Street to Mercer University Drive, just outside the main entrance of Mercer University.
Little Richard, who would catapult his way to mythic status as the pioneering “Architect of Rock n’ Roll.”
Richard Wayne Penniman grew up in Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood and lived at this house on and off during his youth, until his hit “Tutti Frutti” was released in 1955. From there, he went on to be known as the “Architect of Rock n’ Roll, ” defining the early rock n’ roll era.
Like many Macon artists, Penniman got his start singing and playing piano in the church. His grandfather was a preacher, and it’s written his own father was a Deacon by day and bootlegger by night. His father was later shot and killed outside the Tip In Inn bar in Pleasant Hill.
As a young boy, Penniman performed with two gospel groups: the Tiny Tots and the family’s Penniman Singers. During his childhood, he experienced fate when gospel troubadour Sister Rosetta Tharpe pulled him on stage at the Macon City Auditorium to perform. This moment fueled his desire to live the rest of his life as a musician and entertainer, despite the poverty, perceptions, and prejudices he was often subjected to.
Born with one leg shorter than the other and a noticeable limp, Penniman was also known to have a flamboyant flair, even as a child. These antics often got him teased or in trouble with the church, his family and the authorities. But as a young teen, he soon put it all to good use when he began his pioneering performances under the moniker “Little Richard.”
When he wasn’t performing, he was washing dishes. Among his employers were Ann Howard, owner of the Tic Toc Lounge restaurant and nightclub. It’s also said that “Miss Ann” would allow a young Penniman to live at her house when he didn’t have anywhere else to stay. Penniman earned his first big break after a performance on an Atlanta radio station led to a recording contract, but it soon became clear that the music business wasn’t sure how to receive his signature shrill and piano-pounding sound.
It wasn’t until 1955 that Penniman found himself in New Orleans with Specialty Records, where he went into a recording studio and came out with “Tutti-Frutti,” an instant hit that surged up the charts.
Other hits would soon follow, including “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” both songs recapping Macon’s influence in their suggestive lyrics. Penniman became established alongside his fellow groundbreakers like Elvis Presely and Jerry Lee Lewis, even becoming an influence to the Beatles.
In addition to his hit records, Penniman appeared in film projects and sold out shows, known for his unique style of musicianship all over the globe. But in 1957, after a world tour performance in Australia, Penniman abruptly quit performing the music he was known for and switched to recording gospel songs. Due to his abrupt exit from rock n’ roll, James Brown stepped up to complete Penniman’s world tour.
Penniman recorded his debut religious album God is Real in 1959. He also entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, earned a degree in theology and was ordained as a minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. To this day, because of his faith, he never performs from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.
Still, about five years later, Penniman returned to the music he defined, creating a new genre for so many artists to pursue. In 1986, Little Richard was one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although he never returned to Macon full-time after his career took off, he has never hesitated to proudly proclaim where he comes from.
In the 1990s, a portion of Mercer University Drive was renamed Richard Penniman Boulevard. In May 2013, he returned to Macon where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Mercer University. Around this same time, his childhood home on Fifth Avenue was acquired by the Department of Transportation and the process began to relocate the property to Craft Street and renovate it as a tribute to him. The house was moved in April 2017 to its current location, where plans were announced to convert it into a community resource center, coinciding with Penniman’s 85th birthday.
Today, the Little Richard House is dedicated to the Pleasant Hill Community as a resource center offering services such as technology, job preparation, resume and cover letter assistance, career pathways and much more. It also pays tribute to Little Richard’s life once lived there, who said via a phone call at the celebration of the house’s restoration: “I thank y’all for loving me through the years, and I still love y’all. Thank you for everything you’ve ever done for my old house. That old house has a lot of Tutti Frutti, aw rutti.”
About the Surrounding Geography.
Little Richard Penniman Boulevard is a significant portion of Downtown Macon’s Second Street Corridor project and can take you directly from Mercer University’s main campus into the commercial heart of Downtown Macon. One of the most visible Boulevard signs is just outside the main entrance of Mercer University, within a short walking distance to the main campus and the University’s Five Star Football Stadium. It is also within walking and parking proximity of Mercer Landing, a residential and retail hub featuring college-friendly businesses, eateries and two hotels.