Little Richard, 87, the trailblazing showman who helped detonate a rock-and-roll explosion in the 1950s and whose high-energy performances and gender-bending persona would be profoundly influential on generations, from the Beatles to Prince, has died.
The death of the piano-pounding pop-music pioneer born Richard Penniman was confirmed to Rolling Stone magazine by Danny Jones Penniman, the musician’s son, who said his father died Saturday morning at home in Nashville. Little Richard’s lawyer said the cause of death was bone cancer.
Along with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, Little Richard spearheaded a musical revolution, unleashing an unbridled torrent of sexual energy that teenagers across America and around the world were powerless to resist.
The Macon, Ga., native stood with his pompadour piled high, expressing himself in ecstatic shrieks, speaking a language of liberation that was unmistakable even if the words didn’t make literal sense. As he put it in “Tutti Frutti,” his first hit on Specialty records in 1955: “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”
On Saturday, many paid tribute to his greatness.
“The King of Rock and Roll,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots wrote on Instagram. “Zero questions. The man was literally the blueprint of all the world took from ... Long live the King.”
“The man who invented it,” Steve Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen guitarist and Underground Garage radio host who was married by Little Richard in 1982, said on Twitter. “Elvis popularized it. Chuck Berry was the story teller. Richard embodied the spirit of rock n’ roll.”
“Little Richard was the essence of rock-and-roll,” legendary Philadelphia rock promoter Larry Magid said. “He was the originator. When I heard `Tutti Frutti’ it was like a light went on in my life.”
“His `Tutti Frutti’ exploded when I was eight years old, awaking a positive anarchy in a little girl’s heart,” Patti Smith wrote on Instagram. “Nothing was the same after hearing his exciting and excitable voice. In 1955 we were stomping in our Buster Brown shoes, and the name of the energy was Little Richard!”
“I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved," Bob Dylan wrote on Twitter. "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.”
Dylan said that he played shows with Little Richard in the 1990s and “in his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.”
In 2013, Mick Jagger told The Inquirer that Little Richard was a standout among the acts that influenced the Rolling Stones.
“I always liked Little Richard because he was a really energetic performer,” Jagger said. “I liked his records before I was with the Stones. I used to do songs that he did when I was a singer when I was a kid. ... Richard’s records hold up. ... [They] have this fantastic energy to them. Which is what rock-and-roll is about. Energy.”
One of 12 children of a father who was a church deacon who also owned a nightclub that sold bootleg whiskey, Richard Penniman was a small, skinny child who walked with an uneven gait, with one leg shorter than the other.
Growing up in the segregated South, he dealt with homophobia as well as racism. His father called him “half a son.”
Singing in Baptist, A.M.E., and Pentecostal churches, he listened to the female gospel singers Marion Williams and Mahalia Jackson as well as Brother Joe May, a vocalist known as “the Thunderbolt of the Middle West.”
At age 14, he first left home for a traveling medicine show, covering songs by jump blues bandleader Louis Jordan and sometimes performing in drag under the name Princess LaVonne. Bandleader Buster Brown gave him the name Little Richard.
Early on, he was influenced by pompadoured pianist Esquerita and in 1951 fell under the spell of Ike Turner’s playing on Jackie Brenston’s proto rock-and-roll song “Rocket 88.”
He recorded unsuccessful rhythm-and-blues sides for the RCA and Peacock label with bands like the Tempo Toppers and Duces of Rhythm. In 1955 he signed to Specialty and hit pay dirt, recording in New Orleans with Fats Domino associates like drummer Earl Palmer.
The rip-roaring hits came fast and furious: “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Keep A-Knockin’.”
It was a relentless run, boogie-woogie piano and R&B gone berserk, delivered with a reckless abandon that knocked the socks off a white audience that had never seen an unabashedly androgynous African American performer like Little Richard before.
Singing in a voice that was “a wild, hoarse, screaming thing,” in the words of Paul McCartney, Little Richard called himself “the Georgia Peach” and batted eyelashes at an adoring if often perplexed audience.
It took years for pop music to catch up with his showmanship, with glittery sequined robes eventually turning up on everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to James Brown, Presley, Elton John, Parliament-Funkadelic, Freddie Mercury, and Prince.
“He was electrifying,” recalls Philadelphia radio legend Jerry “The Geator” Blavat, who saw him perform frequently at local “Chitlin’ Circuit” venues such as Pep’s and the Cadillac Showbar.
“Richard would demand that he appear with his whole band who performed with him in the studio,” Blavat says. “James Brown got the idea from Richard, that when you travel, you travel with two drummers, and capture the sound on stage that’s the same sound you heard when you bought his records.”
Little Richard was among the new stars in movies Don’t Knock the Rock in 1956 and The Girl Can’t Help It! in 1957.
But that same year, he dramatically retreated from the music business.
Playing in Australia on the night that the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into space, “a big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet over our heads,” he told his biographer Charles White. He made a decision: “I am leaving show business to go back to God.”
He studied at a Bible college in Alabama, got married, and recorded several gospel albums, including one in 1963, Little Richard With Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the pioneering guitarist who lived the last years of her life in Philadelphia.
He returned to his rock-and-roll hits on European tours in the early 1960s, with the Beatles opening for him in Hamburg, Germany. Mid-decade, he toured the U.S. with a then-obscure guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.
The young axeman lost the gig — which included a 1965 Blavat-promoted show in Wildwood in 1965 — because Little Richard didn’t appreciate being upstaged.
“People would scream and I thought they were screaming for me. I look over and they’re screaming for Jimi!,” he said on VH1 Legends. “He’d be playing the guitar with his teeth.” Later, Hendrix would say, “I wanted to do with my guitar what Little Richard did with his voice.”
His career in the United States wasn’t truly revived until later in the decade. In 1969, he headlined the Atlantic City Pop Festival, two weeks before Woodstock.
“He stood on top of the piano, and yelled, ‘Give me an A!’ ” says Magid, who recalls the show as a highlight of his own career. “And then he jumped down onto the bench and just tore that place apart. He was wearing that mirrored sleeveless vest, and played every hit he ever had.”
He toured throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and in the 1990s, he popped up on TV shows like Miami Vice, Baywatch, Martin, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, often playing himself.
In his authorized biography in 1984 and again in 2017, he denounced homosexuality, but other times said he was “an omnisexual,” and in a 1995 interview said, “I’ve been gay all my life.”
In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s original class. In 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. And in 1997, he was honored at the American Music Awards.
“I am the originator, I am the emancipator, I am the architect of rock-and-roll!” he said in his acceptance speech. “I’m the one who started it all!”