Little Richard died today, taking with him one of the foundational careers in the history of rock and roll. But while the tributes have already begun pouring in, from Mick Jagger, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, Chance The Rapper, and any number of other musical artists who were touched or influenced by his work, our minds keep turning to the music. Not just classic, revolutionary hits like “Tutti-Frutti” or “Long Tall Sally,” but also songs that might not have received quite as much critical clout, but which probably reached a much wider audience over the years: children’s songs. Because let’s face it, nobody could rock a nursery rhyme like Little Richard.
For a man whose work so often veered between the openly sexual and the devoutly religious, Little Richard embraced his position as a kids entertainer in the 1990s with signature gusto, showing up on everything from Full House to Sesame Street to introduce young listeners to the piano-heavy sounds of classic rock. That included a long association with Disney, including one of the oddest entries in the company’s vault of direct-to-Disney Channel movies: 1990’s Mother Goose Rock ’N’ Rhyme. Music video director Jeff Stein brought in a whole host of ringers—Cyndi Lauper, Ben Vereen, Bobby Brown, Debbie Harry, ZZ Top, and Simon and Garfunkel (separately) among them—to fill out the cast of the Shelley Duvall-starring trip through Rhymeland. But nobody rocked harder than Little Richard as Old King Cole, inviting poor Gordon Goose (The Breakfast Club’s Dan Gilroy) to come and “Party With The King.”
For a (slightly) more traditional take on the nursery rhyme canon, we can turn to the Tanner residence, circa 1994. Such is the power of Little Richard that neither the relative boringness of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” nor the sight of Dave Coulier trying to understand what “dancing” is, can keep him from successfully rocking a San Francisco furnished basement. Hell, not even being forced by Full House bylaw to let John Stamos drum for him appears to have been able to diminish Richard’s smile. (That being said, the studio version of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” Richard released a few years earlier is definitely the definitive version.)
Clearly sensing a market, Little Richard made the leap fully into kids music in 1992, when he teamed up with Disney for Shake It All About. Built entirely out of children’s songs—plus a few religious standards that were never far from his repertoire—the album proved that there was pretty much nothing you couldn’t improve by applying Richard’s soaring vocals, distinctive “whoo!”s and uptempo piano work. Nowhere was that clearer than with “The Hokey-Pokey,” a song that has rarely rocked harder in the history of music:
Not that he was solely devoted to Disney, mind you; in addition to his Sesame Street appearances, Little Richard also lent his talents to another PBS educational institution:
One of the interesting effects of having worked for as long as he did was that pretty much everybody born after, say, 1957 grew up with Little Richard in some form or another. It made his transition into becoming a certified children’s entertainment legend—at a time when he was also being rediscovered by everyone from U2 to Living Colour—a natural fit, helped along by the fact that, hey, Little Richard music is fun as hell. (There aren’t a lot of people who could make a tie-in song for the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito comedy Twins legitimately infectious, but Richard was that man.) Let’s face it, like Rubber Duckie before him, the man could make even the most onerous of chores a whole hell of a lot of fun.