How Little Richard Mentored A Young Paul McCartney

To their millions of fans, the Beatles represent the alpha and omega of popular music: the greatest band to have ever lived. Their influence today is incalculable, and it is almost impossible to imagine any other band coming along that could one day rival them in terms of their cultural impact and incredible longevity.

But the Fab Four didn't just emerge from nowhere; as teenagers plying their trades in Liverpool and Hamburg, the young musicians had their own rock heroes to lionize, fawn over, and imitate. Indeed, Beatles legend Paul McCartney has been open about his own influences in interviews throughout the decades. As noted by many musicologists, the easy availability of rock 'n' roll records in Liverpool, a port city, allowed McCartney to immerse himself in the sounds of American artists such as Buddy Holly and Big Bill Broonzy, while in later years, McCartney has cited his own parents — both of whom were musically active — with being a huge influence on his music (via the BBC).

But by his own admission, there was one musician who influenced McCartney above all others: Little Richard, whose glut of hits in the late '50s — such as "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti" — presented McCartney with a performing style he simply had to imitate. But McCartney wasn't just a fan; after joining The Beatles, the young musician was lucky enough to spend time with his rock 'n' roll idol, who mentored him as a performer. Here's the story of their very special relationship.

McCartney's first sight of Little Richard

According to professor of music Clint Randles (via The Conversation), Paul McCartney's first glimpse of Little Richard came at the age of 14, when he saw the rock 'n' roll pioneer perform in the film "The Girl Can't Help It," a popular 1956 musical comedy featuring Jayne Mansfield. In "The Beatles Anthology," McCartney explains that "The Girl Can't Help It" was an important landmark in rock 'n' roll, as, for the first time, important Black American artists were given front and center billing in a big-budget musical. "We idolized these people and always thought they were given crummy treatment — until 'The Girl Can't Help It,'" claimed McCartney, describing "The Girl Can't Help It" as "still the great music film."

Richard performs three times in the movie, including a rendition of the title song. Though the film also features seminal performances by other musical greats — including Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent — it was Richard's charisma and outlandish vocal style that most impressed McCartney, which would have repercussions the next year, when he first met a young musician by the name of John Lennon.

Imitating Little Richard

In the summer of 1957, 15-year-old Paul McCartney was introduced to John Lennon — who was performing at a church fete with his band, the Quarrymen — by their mutual friend Ivan Vaughn. According to Mark Lewisohn's "The Beatles: All These Years," a chronicle of the band's pre-Beatle days and subsequent success as a foursome, the future collaborators were hanging out in a group when McCartney, aware that this was a chance to impress some older musicians, asked Lennon whether he could have a go on his guitar. He went on to perform Eddie Cochran's intricate rock 'n' roll number "Twenty Flight Rock" — a featured song in "The Girl Can't Help It," a film Lennon was also obsessed with. In just a few minutes, McCartney gave Lennon an insight into his incredible level of musicianship and their shared taste in rock 'n' roll.

But according to Lewisohn, it was what McCartney did next that cemented their friendship: Turning to a piano in the church hall, he went on to perform a medley of Little Richard songs, imitating uncannily the American singer's distinctive, powerful vocals. Their shared love of Little Richard was instrumental in bringing McCartney and Lennon — who would go down in history as the most successful pop songwriting combo of all time — together at such an embryonic moment. Without Richard existing as a shared touchstone, it is arguable that the Beatles as we know them today might never have existed.

Meeting Little Richard in Hamburg

After the Quarrymen disbanded and John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed the Beatles, the new band's manager, Brian Epstein, booked the new band for scores of gigs in Hamburg, Germany, where they often shared the bill with rock 'n' roll legends. One such legend was Little Richard, whom the band used to watch from backstage and who, bonding with Ringo Starr over the drummer's ring collection, invited the band to hang out back at his hotel (via Beatles Bible). Richard later recalled that he would pay for the young musician's food when they were low on money (via YouTube). And — perhaps more importantly — he taught McCartney how to perfect the trademark Little Richard scream.

In 2020, McCartney recalled (via Twitter): "In the early days of the Beatles, we played with Richard in Hamburg and got to know him. He would let us hang out in his dressing room, and we were witness to his pre-show rituals, with his head under a towel over a bowl of steaming hot water ... he would suddenly lift his head up to the mirror and say, 'I can't help it cos I'm so beautiful'. And he was."

The pervasive influence of Little Richard

As described by Beatles historian Aaron Krerowicz, Little Richard's fingerprints can be found throughout The Beatles' discography ... and also deep into the band members' respective solo careers.

Paul McCartney's natural ability to replicate Richard's vocal style was the driving force behind the Beatles' decision to include many cover versions of his songs in their live performances and early recordings. "I could do Little Richard's voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it's like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it," McCartney told biographer Barry Miles.

Though the Beatles began to turn away from straight covers as their songwriting talents continued to develop, Richard's stylistic flourishes remained, such as the "woos" that end each verse of "Twist and Shout," while songs such as McCartney's "Get Down" were attempts to write original material in Richard's rock 'n' roll style.

'He taught me everything I know'

Paul McCartney has never been shy of telegraphing the musical debt he owes to Little Richard. Which is lucky, as Little Richard has made no secret of it himself (via YouTube).

When the death of Little Richard was announced in 2020, McCartney was among the most prominent public figures to pay tribute to the late musician, and again, he had to continue the banter the two had shared throughout their friendship. "I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, 'I taught Paul everything he knows.' I had to admit he was right," the musician posted on Twitter.

According to the poet Paul Muldoon — who worked with McCartney on his career-spanning "Lyrics" book in 2021 — McCartney still turns to Richard as the musician he most often "channels" when trying to give voice to a new song — a habit he has turned to for more than half a century (via The Guardian).