Little Richard: Eccentric Founder and King of Rock n Roll, Dies at 87

May 9, 2020–Little Richard, the eccentric founder of rock and roll whose eccentric persona embodied the spirit, sound, and look of that new music-art form, died Saturday. He was 87.

The musician’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death, but said the cause of death was unknown. Little Richard posing for the camera: rs-239428-little-richard 

Little Richard’s hits were a mix of boogie, gospel, and jump blues, driven by his simple, pumping piano, gospel-influenced vocal exclamations and sexually charged lyrics.  Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, he had a string of hits – “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” that same year, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958.

“I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John said in 1973 interview.  “I didn’t ever want to be anything else. I’m more of a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder.”

Little Richard’s influence was huge. The Beatles recorded several of his songs, and Paul McCartney’s singing on those tracks – and the Beatles’ own “I’m Down” – paid tribute to Little Richard’s style.

His songs became part of the rock and roll canon, sung by the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions.

Little Richard’s stage persona – his pompadours, androgynous makeup and glass-bead shirts – also set the standard for rock and roll showmanship.

Prince owed a debt to the musician. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Richard said in 1989.  “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”

Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in the slums of Macon, Georgia, he was one of 12 children and grew up around uncles preachers.

His father wasn’t supportive of his son’s music and accused him of being gay, resulting in Penniman leaving home at 13 and moving in with a white family in Macon.  One of his friends was Otis Redding, and Penniman heard R&B, blues and country while working at concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium.

After performing at the Tick Tock Club in Macon and winning a local talent show, Penniman landed his first record deal, with RCA, in 1951.

He became “Little Richard” around the age of 15, when the R&B and blues worlds were filled with acts like Little Esther and Little Milton. He learned his piano style from Esquerita, a South Carolina singer-pianist who also wore his hair in a high black pompadour.

“When I started singing rock & roll, I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”

By 1956, he washed dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon; after his father was murdered, Little Richard had to support his family.  He sent a tape with version of bawdy novelty song called “Tutti Frutti” to Specialty Records in Chicago. He came up with the song’s famed chorus — “a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom” — while bored washing dishes. He also wrote “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” while working that same job.

By coincidence, label owner and producer Art Rupe was looking for lead singer in New Orleans. In September 1955, Little Richard cut a cleaned-up version of “Tutti Frutti,” which became his first hit, peaking at 17 on the pop chart.

“Long Tall Sally” hit Number 6, the highest-placing hit of his career, followed by “Slippin’ and Slidin.’”

With his trademark pompadour and makeup, which he wore to be less “threatening” in playing white clubs, Little Richard was on the level of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rock icons.

 

a man standing on a stage: Little Richard in performance at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York in 2007. “He was crucial,” one historian said, “in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.”

Little Richard also was cast in rock and roll movies like Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1957). In a sign of how segregated the music business and radio were at the time, though, Pat Boone’s milquetoast covers of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” both also released in 1956, charted higher than Richard’s own versions. “Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” hit Number 12, surpassing Little Richard’s by 9 slots. He made sure to sing “Long Tall Sally” faster than “Tutti Frutti” so that Boone couldn’t copy him.

But then the hits stopped, by his own choice.  Little Richard gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, it was a gospel set called God Is Real.

His gospel music career floundering, Little Richard returned to secular rock in 1964. Although none of the albums and singles he cut over the next decade for a variety of labels sold well, he was welcomed back by a new generation of rockers like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (who used to play Little Richard songs on the piano when he was a kid). When Little Richard played the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, the opening act was none other than the Beatles.

By the 1970s, Little Richard was making a respectable living on the rock oldies circuit, captured in the 1973 documentary Let the Good Times Roll. During this time, he also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine.

Little Richard also dismantled sexual stereotypes in rock & roll, even if he confused many of his fans along the way. During his teen years and into his early rock stardom, his stereotypical flamboyant personality made some speculate about his sexuality, even if he never publicly announced he was out. But that flamboyance didn’t derail his career.

In a 1984 biography, The Life and Times of Little Richard, he denounced homosexuality as “contagious … It’s not something you’re born with.” Eleven years later, he said in an interview with Penthouse that he had been “gay all my life.” Later in life, he described himself as “omnisexual,” attracted to both men and women.

Yet none of that craziness damaged his mystique or legend. In the 1980s, he appeared in movies like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and in TV shows like Full House and Miami Vice. In 1986, he was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.