Little Richard, one of the chief architects of rock ‘n’ roll whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died. He was 87.
Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard’s, told The Associated Press that Little Richard died on Saturday. His son, Danny Jones Penniman, also confirmed his father’s death, which was first reported by Rolling Stone.
Bill Sobel, Little Richard’s lawyer, told the AP in an email the musician died of bone cancer at a family home in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers who helped shatter the colour line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream. Richard’s hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and hairdo, made him an implausible sensation – a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.
He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour and looks – mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache and glittery suits.
“Little Richard? That’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Neil Young told his biographer.
It was 1956 when his classic Tutti Frutti landed like a hand grenade in the Top 40, exploding from radios and off turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard’s memorable call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom”.
A string of hits followed, providing the foundation of rock music: Lucille, Keep A Knockin’, Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly. More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing Good Golly Miss Molly live.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature yelps – perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” from the hit She Loves You. John Lennon covered Richard’s Rip It Up and Ready Teddy on the 1975 Rock and Roll album.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the charter members with Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and others.
“It is with a heavy heart that I ask for prayers for the family of my lifelong friend and fellow rocker Little Richard,” said Lewis, 84, in a statement provided by his publicist.
“He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly. God bless his family and fans.”
Mick Jagger called Little Richard “the biggest inspiration of my early teens” in a social media post on Saturday.
“His music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s,” Jagger wrote. “When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music. I will miss you Richard, God bless.”
In a post on Facebook Bob Dylan said: “I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved.
“He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy.
“His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.
Richard claimed he paved the way for Elvis, provided Mick Jagger with his stage moves and conducted vocal lessons for McCartney.
“I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!” Little Richard crowed at the 1988 Grammy Awards as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. “I am the originator!”
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracised because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.
The family was religious, and Richard sang in local churches with a group called the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock ‘n’ roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career.
Penniman was performing with bands by the age of 14, but there were problems at home over his sexual orientation. His father beat the boy and derided him as “half a son.”
In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy Tutti Frutti, with lyrics that were sanitised by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell one million records over the next year.
When Little Richard’s hit was banned by many white-owned radio stations, white performers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley did cover versions that topped the charts.
Little Richard’s wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard quit the business in 1957 to enroll in a theological school and get married.
A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter with a man in a bus station restroom led to his divorce and return to performing.
He mounted three tours of England between 1962 and 1964, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones serving as opening acts. Back in the States, he put together a band that included guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
In 1968, Richard hit Las Vegas and relaunched his career. Within two years, he had another hit single and made the cover of Rolling Stone.
By the mid-1970s, Richard was battling a cocaine problem and abandoned his musical career. He returned to religion and renounced homosexuality. For more than a decade, he vanished.
But he returned, in 1986, in spectacular fashion. Little Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Little Richard was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2002, he announced his retirement from live performing. But he continued to appear frequently on television.