“I should be better recognized today for sure,” Little Richard said in an August 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I am the beginning. I am the originator.”
And indeed, the outrageous performer with the wild falsetto and pounding keyboards ushered in a new sound in the 1950s that combined rock ‘n’ roll with gospel and rhythm and blues. He also influenced artists through many decades and several genres, from David Bowie to Prince. Richard, the ultimate showman and self-promoter, died Saturday at age 87. Little Richard’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the legendary musician’s death to Rolling Stone, but the cause of death was unknown.
Born Dec. 5, 1932, in an impoverished Macon, Ga., Richard Wayne Penniman was one of 12 children. His father, Charles “Bud” Penniman, was both a Seventh-day Adventist minister and a bootlegger. Religion played a central role in the family: Richard’s grandfather was also a preacher, his father’s family went to an AME church in Macon, and his maternal grandmother and mother were Baptists. Richard liked the Pentecostal churches because he enjoyed dancing and speaking in tongues with the congregants.
Richard built his musical foundation in the church. As a young boy, he sang with gospel groups the Penniman Singers and Tiny Tots Quartet. His family called him War Hawk for his loud singing voice. At age 10 he became known as a faith healer, singing gospel tunes and touching people who would later testify that they had been healed.
His mother actively encouraged Richard’s involvement in the church in hopes of “healing” his effeminate nature. “The boys would want to fight me because I didn’t like to be with them,” he said in the 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, by Charles White. “I wanted to play with the girls. See, I felt like a girl.”
By his early teens, Richard was straying from the church, and his “flamboyant” mannerisms angered his father, who kicked Richard out of the house. Richard dropped out of school in the ninth grade and soon hit the road, traveling around the state and performing with vaudeville and other groups, including B. Brown and His Orchestra. “Brown made up my stage name without telling me,” Richard told the Journal. “When I first saw it on a sign, I didn’t realize it was me.”
Richard’s vocal style was heavily influenced by gospel artists, including legends such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marion Williams of the Clara Ward Singers, Mahalia Jackson and Brother Joe May. He picked up much of his boogie-woogie piano playing on the road. Blues singer Bill Wright, whom Richard met in 1952, had perhaps the greatest influence on Richard’s personal style. Wright was known for his pomade hair, flashy clothes, eyeliner and face powder—all of which caught Richard’s eye.
Richard got a recording contract with RCA Victor after winning a local contest, but his first records faltered. In 1953 he signed a contract with Peacock Records, but once again, none of his recordings took off. One of his tunes, however, “Little Richard’s Boogie,” with the Johnny Otis Band, hinted at the style that was about to be unleashed on the music scene.
In late 1955, Richard, now recording on Specialty Records, landed on Billboard’s R&B charts with “Tutti Frutti,” a song he’d been performing for years, although with racier lyrics—and after that, the hits wouldn’t stop. By 1957, 16 of his recordings—including “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Keep a Knockin’ “—had made the Billboard Top 100. He also appeared in several rock ‘n’ roll movies: Don’t Knock the Rock and the comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, both from 1956, and Mister Rock and Roll (1957). As noted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richard “blew the lid off the ‘50s.”
In each of his performances, Little Richard showcased his outrageous outfits, heavy makeup and wigs—all of which, he later said, was to make himself more palatable to white America. “I wore makeup and wild outfits to keep white people from focusing on me as some kind of a sexual threat,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Richard’s onstage performance couldn’t match his offstage antics, however, which included wild parties and orgies that he talked about freely in The Life and Times biography. At the height of his success, Richard abruptly decided to leave the music industry in 1957 to become a Seventh-day Adventist preacher. He formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, traveling nationwide preaching and helping people on skid row. From 1957 to 1962, he also went back to his roots musically and recorded gospel music for several labels. Richard also got married, in 1959, to Ernestine Campbell and adopted a 1-year-old boy, Danny, in 1962. The marriage ended in 1963.
Financial pressures led Richard to return to rock ‘n’ roll. He was a headliner in Europe in the early 1960s with opening acts like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, who idolized him. “I heard so much about the audience reaction, I thought there must be some exaggeration. But it was all true,” Mick Jagger would recount in the Richard biography. “He drove the whole house into a complete frenzy ... I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard onstage.”
In the 1970s, Richard battled an addiction to a variety of drugs, as well as his inner conflict over his sexuality, which has been described in many ways but was probably best summed up by Richard in 2000 when he reportedly told the Los Angeles Times, “I was what you called back in that day a freak. I was flamboyant in every direction.” By the end of the decade he was embracing the church and rejecting sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll once again, although Richard continued to be torn between the sacred and the secular, musically and otherwise, for much of his life.
He never settled down into a quiet retirement, making numerous appearances in film and on TV. He sang backup on the 1988 U2-B.B. King number “When Love Comes to Town” and performed at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993. As a reverend, he performed weddings for a number of celebrities, including Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. He also continued to tour into the 21st century.
In 2013 he talked to Cee Lo Green about his heart attack: “I was coughing, and my right arm was aching. I told my son, ‘Make the room as cold as ice.’ So he turned the air conditioning on, and I took a baby aspirin. The doctor told me that saved my life. Jesus had something for me. He brought me through.”
Richard landed numerous awards and honors during his career, including being one of the first recording artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. In 1990 he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1993 he received an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Rolling Stone ranked Richard No. 8 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004 and No. 12 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2006 he was inducted into the Apollo Theater Legends Hall of Fame.
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.