How a bad contract cost Little Richard a fortune: ‘Whoever heard cutting a penny in half!’

Little Richard believes he missed out on millions of dollars in royalties from 'Tutti Fruitti' after signing his first record deal

Little Richard leads an all-star group at the taping of "American Bandstand's 50th...A Celebration" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, Ca. Sunday, April 21, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect.

The recently departed Little Richard inspired countless musicians and singers as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll music.

However, as monumental an artist he was, Richard wasn’t immune to the pitfalls of unfair record contracts. Because of that, he missed out on a lot of money when he signed with Specialty Records in 1955, Forbes reports.

After sending a demo of what was to become his breakout single “Tutti Fruitti” and signing the deal, Richard pocketed just $25,000 from the initial 500,000 sales of his first hit.

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The flamboyant crooner later found out that his cut for every record sold was only half a cent. Turns out that Richard sold his publishing to Specialty’s boss, Art Rupe, for only $50.

“Whoever heard cutting a penny in half!” Richard was quoted in his biography, “The Life and Times of Little Richard.” “It didn’t matter how many records you sold if you were Black. The publishing rights were sold to the record label before the record was even released.”

21st November 1966: American rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, pulls a characteristic face. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

It was typical in the 1950s that Black music artists received no royalties for their music. White artists, by comparison, would earn between 3% and 5% of their sales.

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Little Richard later sued Specialty Records decades later for millions in unpaid royalties. The pop icon, who died at the age of 87 on May 9, sought $112 million in owed money in the 1984 suit.

Both parties would settle out of court and the amount of money Richard received was undisclosed. His catalog would be purchased by Michael Jackson the following year when he bought the ATV catalog, which included The Beatles‘ music.

“I was a dumb Black kid and my mama had 12 kids and my daddy was dead,” Little Richard recalled about taking the deal. “I wanted to help them, so I took whatever was offered.”

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