Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “rock roll n ‘roll architect” whose high-pitched wail, banging on the piano, and towering pompadour irrevocably disrupted popular music by introducing black R&B into white America, died Saturday. He was 87 years old.
Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard’s, told The Associated Press that Little Richard died on Saturday morning. Minson said he also spoke to Little Richard’s son and brother.
Minson added that the family is not disclosing the cause of death.
Born as Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of the founding fathers of rock and roll who helped break the color line on music charts, teaming up with Chuck Berry and Fats Domino to bring what was once called “career music” “to the mainstream. Playing Richard’s hyperkinetic piano, along with his vocal howl and hairstyle, made him an implausible sensation – a gay, black man celebrated throughout the United States during the Eisenhower era.
He sold over 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally amazing, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. In his personal life, he vacillated between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and scandalous behavior.
Little Richard? That’s rock and roll, “said Jimmy McDonough biographer Neil Young, who listened to Richard’s riffs on the radio in Canada.” Little Richard was great on every record.”
It was 1956 when his classic “Tutti Frutti” landed like a hand grenade in the Top 40, exploding from radios and turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard’s memorable “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom” call.
A series of hits followed that provided the foundation for rock music: “Lucille,” “Keep A Knockin,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” More than 40 years after the latter, Bruce Springsteen was still playing “Good Golly Miss Molly” live.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature howls, perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” of the success “She loves you”. Former bandmate John Lennon covered Richard’s “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” on the 1975 album “Rock and Roll”.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1986, he was among the founding members of Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, and others.
Few were quicker to recognize Little Richard’s pivotal role than Richard himself. The flamboyant singer 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 and roll!” Little Richard sang at the 1988 Grammy Awards when the crowd rose to a standing ovation. “I am the creator!”
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracized 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 Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and excess rock and roll haunted Penniman throughout his career.
Penniman was performing with gangs at the age of 14, but there were problems at home because of his sexual orientation. His father hit the boy and ridiculed him as a “half-son.”
Richard left his home to join a minstrel show directed by a man known as Sugarloaf Sam, who occasionally dragged himself along.
In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the obscene “Tutti Frutti”, with lyrics that were disinfected by a New Orleans composer. Then he sold 1 million records over the next year.
When Little Richard’s success was banned by many white-owned radio stations, white artists like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley covered versions that topped the charts.
Little Richard went to Hollywood with an appearance in “Don’t Touch the Rock.” But his wild lifestyle was still at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard left the business in 1957 to enroll in a theology school and get married.
Richard remained on the charts when his label released previously recorded material. And he recorded a gospel album, going back to his roots.
A 1962 arrest for a homosexual encounter in a bus station bathroom led to his divorce and he returned to acting.
He rode three tours of England between 1962 and 1964, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones as opening acts. Back in the United States, he formed a band that included guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and then fired Hendrix when he was late for a bus.
In 1968 Richard came to Las Vegas and relaunched his career. Within two years, he had another hit single and did the Rolling Stone version.
In the mid-1970s, Richard was struggling with a $ 1,000 a day cocaine problem and once again gave up his music career. He returned to religion, selling Bibles and denouncing homosexuality. For more than a decade, it disappeared.
“If God can save an old homosexual like me, He can save anyone,” said Richard.
But he returned, in 1986, in a spectacular way. Little Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and appeared in the movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”.
A Little Richard song from the soundtrack, “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” even put it back on the charts for the first time in over 15 years. Little Richard returned to stay, enjoying another dose of celebrity that he fully embraced.
Macon, Georgia named a street as his favorite son. And Little Richard received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2002, he announced his retirement from live performance. But he continued to appear frequently on television, including a humorous appearance in a 2006 commercial for GEICO insurance.
Richard underwent hip surgery in November 2009 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and he asked fans at the time to pray for him. He lived in the Nashville area at the time.