A legend of rock and roll has died. He was arguably the first to combine gospel, rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie but undeniably one of a small number of artists who can be counted among the very first architects of rock and roll. Perhaps no artist in history has inspired bigger names – among them Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, John Fogerty, Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury and Elton John. And perhaps no one has been imitated more than the half-sybarite half-evangelist known as Little Richard.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood of Macon, Georgia, “Little Richard” was the third of 12 children.
He began singing in church, counting gospel performers such as Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams among his early influences. He also took in performances by the stars of the day at the Macon City Auditorium, where he worked hawking soda to the theater’s patrons.
From his first paid performance in October of 1947, when Richard bounded on-stage to open for Sister Rosetta Tharpe (at her invitation, but over the objections of the promoter who was ultimately so impressed that he ended up paying Richard for his performance) until his final curtain call in 2013, Richard’s performing career spanned a total of 66 years.
In his early teens, Richard was, in essence, disowned by his father for exhibiting homosexual behavior. (His father, Bud, a church deacon / moonshine bootlegger, was shot dead by an ex-convict friend of Richard’s when Richard was 19 years old.)
It wasn’t long after his gospel debut that Richard began performing secular music, starting with “Caldonia” in 1948. (Rhythm and blues – “devil music” – had been prohibited by his deeply religious family.) After joining traveling shows locally and hitting the road with a couple of bands as the forties came to a close, the fifties found Richard – now calling himself “Little Richard” – performing in vaudeville shows as a drag queen. He was influenced heavily by fellow Georgian singer Billy Wright, from whom he gleaned chops, flamboyance and a love of stage makeup (Pancake 31, to be exact). After a brief recording career with RCA Victor and Peacock Records, Richard found himself disenchanted and destitute, taking odd jobs while attempting to launch new traveling bands from time to time.
Lightning struck when, at the urging of Lloyd Price, Richard was signed to Specialty Records. While the first few Fats Domino-esque sides failed to get much attention, Richard’s producer thought that recording a lyrically-sanitized version of the singer’s (extremely dirty) song “Tutti Frutti” might do the trick. In November of 1955, the single shot up the charts both in the U.S. and in the U.K. More surprisingly, the song made both the R&B (black) and pop (white) charts in the States. Richard would later be credited with bringing together white and black music fans in areas where artists generally appealed to one or the other, but not both. Shortly after, Little Richard had his first chart-topper with “Long Tall Sally” and he was launched as a force to be reckoned with both in the studio and on stage. He would often perform alongside other hit-makers of the day, but would always steal the show, with sequined outfits and a raucous stage show that frequently found him spending as much time on top of his piano as he did on the piano bench.
Richard closed out 1956 with a total of 9 hit records and, despite covers of his biggest hits by white artists, became extremely wealthy as a result. Movie roles – as himself, playing his hits – abounded including “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Don’t Knock the Rock” and “Mister Rock and Roll.” Nonetheless, he felt under-compensated and after an enviable string of monster rock and roll hits, Richard announced in 1957 that he would leave the music business and enroll in college to major in theology.
Prior to the end of the decade, Richard would return to the studio only to record traditional gospel sides for End Records. It was 1962 before the singer would return to the hits that launched his rise to stardom. Five years would elapse before he’d record another song that charted. He would help the opening act on his ‘62 U.K./European tour learn how to properly play and sing some of his material. It would serve them well as they later landed stateside and turned the rock world on its proverbial ear. That opening act was none other than the Beatles. His influence on the mop-tops was undeniable, with “Long Tall Sally” becoming one of their favorite songs to cover live – it was present from their nascent days as the Quarrymen in the late 50s through to their last public concert in August of 1966. (Interestingly, on Richard’s next U.K. tour, the Rolling Stones would open for him.)
While in the U.K., he became acquainted with Billy Preston, with whom he and a young Jimi Hendrix would record several sides in the mid-sixties. However, despite attempts on his own label as well as Modern and Okeh, Richard’s days at the top of the charts were long over. His time in the studio during the 1970s was predominantly as a sideman, playing on other artists’ recordings. He’d chart two records on the Reprise imprint but would never again enter the Top 40.
He maintained his place in the spotlight for the balance of his career in casinos, resort showrooms, on multi-act rock and roll shows and even festivals, where he frequently stole the show from headliners including John Lennon and Janis Joplin. It helped that TV specials and talk show appearances were never in short supply. Richard was a frequent and welcomed guest for anyone hoping for a colorful and ratings-worthy interview.
A mid-eighties lawsuit against his old record label (settled out of court), a book about his life and a starring role in the comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” gave Little Richard just the platform he needed to launch a major comeback. He even hit the charts with the song he performed in the movie, “Great Gosh A‘Mighty,” earning him the rare distinction of having hits in 4 decades. A contract with Warner Brothers and later Disney Records led to Richard’s last LP release in 1992, a children’s album called “Shake it All About.”
In 1998, he appeared in the Frankie Lymon polygamy-drama biopic, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” proclaiming on the witness stand, “I am the originator! I am the innovator! I am the emancipator! I’m the motivator! I conceived and achieved it, defined it, refined it, molded it, sold it! Then the white man stole it.”
Richard’s sexuality at times became more newsworthy than his music, as he spent the better part of his public life vacillating between a flamboyant openly-gay hedonist and a bible-thumping preacher. In later years, he seemed to come to grips with his diametrically-opposed obsessions by describing himself as “omnisexual” and saying that he believed God loved him and would not condemn him for his actions. He had 2 brief notable relationships with the opposite sex, the second a marriage that included adopting a son with whom he maintained a relationship until his death.
To list his honors and recognitions would take an hour. Among the highlights, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Little Richard helped lay the groundwork for countless artists. On hearing of the March, 2017 passing of Chuck Berry (one of the few men who might be called his equal), Richard commented in a rare interview with Billboard, “I lost a really great friend – one of my best friends in music.” On the question of who made the greater contribution in the early days of rock and roll, Richard continued, “We both contributed. It’s been a blessing and a lesson, and I thank God for letting me live at this time so I could be a part of it.”
He had to end a performance early in 2012 when he was heard to complain of breathing problems. In 2013, played the annual “Viva Las Vegas” weekend event in Sin City, he announced his retirement from performing, and revealed that he had a heart attack in September of that year. His only appearances since then had been for small fundraising events for organizations that were honoring him or a close friend. He often had his handlers distribute religious pamphlets to the attendees whenever he would appear at such a function.
In May of 2016, Richard dispatched his attorney William Sobel to speak with Rolling Stone magazine so that they might dispel rumors regarding Richard’s health. Sobel described Richard as “vivacious and conversant” at 83 years old and quoted Richard as saying, “I don’t perform like I used to, but I have my singing voice.” While recent sightings were of Richard confined to a wheelchair following a second hip surgery, Sobel said his client was still walking around. Credible reports said that Richard was living in a penthouse suite at the Hilton in downtown Nashville. On October 23, 2019, Richard showed up to receive the Distinguished Artist Award at the 2019 Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards, held at the Governor’s residence. The cause of death is unknown at this time.
Richard Penniman is gone, but the music and the indomitable spirit of Little Richard will live on forever.