Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.

When it comes to the great rock and roll hitmakers of the 1950s, people usually think of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. But Larry Williams rarely comes to mind – perhaps because his name isn’t as colorful – despite having a run of chart hits that were later covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and others.

Williams was born in New Orleans in 1935, and learned to play piano at a young age. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Oakland, California, and he became involved in R&B group The Lemon Drops. Williams went back to visit New Orleans at the age of 19, and decided to stay in his hometown.

He got involved in the city’s music scene – though not as a musician. He became the valet for Lloyd Price, who’d had a big hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” a couple of years before and still was recording for Specialty Records. Williams also struck up a friendship with Richard Penniman, soon to become a household name as Little Richard.

Not long after Williams returned to Louisiana, Little Richard began his run of hits on Specialty Records that spanned “Tutti Frutti” (1955), “Long Tall Sally” (1956) and “Keep-A-Knockin’” (1957). In the meantime, Richard introduced Williams to Specialty’s in-house producer Robert Blackwell, who signed the young man to the label.

In 1957, at the height of rock and roll fame, Little Richard abruptly announced he was leaving secular music to become a Christian minister. Lacking his biggest star, Blackwell swiftly positioned Williams as Richard’s replacement – another raw, piano-playing performer who would wail his songs.

Blackwell’s gambit worked. Williams instantly began to score big hits (with his own material) on the R&B and pop charts. In 1957 alone, he had three smashes – “High School Dance,” “Short Fat Fannie” (#5 on the pop charts) and “Bony Maronie” (#14 on the pop charts). The last two both sold more than one million copies in the U.S. and were certified gold discs.

Although he didn’t match his early chart success in 1958 and ’59, Williams still released top-flight material, including “Slow Down,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “She Said Yeah” and “Bad Boy.” But it came to an end in 1960.

While a higher calling had taken Little Richard away from rock and roll, Williams’ vices would sideline him. Since his early teens, the singer had been running with a dangerous crowd (there were rumors that he was a pimp long before he became a rock star). It caught up with him in 1960, when he was arrested and convicted of selling narcotics and went to jail.

Once out of the slammer, Williams struggled to put his music career back on track, although his songs were doing pretty well on their own. While Williams was out of it for a while, a new generation of rock musicians had taken a shine to his ’50s hits. British invasion bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Animals began recording Williams’ songs.

John Lennon was the biggest fan of them all. Because of his love of Williams’ music, The Beatles recorded and released no less than three of Williams’ tunes: “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Bad Boy” and “Slow Down.” All featured Lennon on screaming lead vocals.

The cover versions helped raise Williams’ profile and he made a comeback in the mid-’60s. Little Richard had come back to rock and roll around the same time, and Williams produced two of his friend’s albums. He also formed a soul band with Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Williams turned to acting in the late ’60s, appearing in Just for the Hell of It (1968), The Klansmen (1974) and Drum (1976). His musical career continued as well; he even attempted a disco-era comeback that didn’t pan out.

By the mid-’70s, music was the least of Williams’ troubles. Years of drug abuse wreaked havoc on the man, who sank so low in 1977 that he pulled a gun on Little Richard, threatening to kill him over a disagreement about a drug debt (both were cocaine addicts at the time). Fortunately, the conflict was resolved. Little Richard quit drugs and returned to Christianity. But Williams was unable (or unwilling) to slow down.

On this day in 1980, police found Williams dead in his Los Angeles home. At the age of 44, he had died from a gunshot wound to the head. The case was ruled a suicide, although rumors circulated that it might not have been true, considering the kind of company Williams kept.

Although Williams isn’t often considered in the upper echelon of early rock and rollers, his music continues to live on, both via his original singles and many, many cover versions. Artists as disparate as Rush, the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Jam and Ricky Martin have recorded and performed his tunes and “Bony Maronie” has become a rock and roll standard.