The music world is paying tribute to one of rock and roll’s most important figures today with the news that Little Richard has died at the age of 87.
Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of the singer, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Minson said he also spoke to the entertainer’s son and brother and noted that the family is not releasing the cause of death.
Often referred to as “the architect of rock n’ roll,” Little Richard’s musical career extended over seven decades, but he is best known for his earliest years. Hits like Tutti Frutti and Good Golly, Miss Molly delivered with his sexualised and explosive live performances, carved out a template for rock and roll that would be followed for generations. During that time Little Richard’s own life was torn between the earthy impulses that brought him fame and the church that never stopped calling to him.
Born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932, Richard Penniman grew up listening to gospel and started performing on the chitlin’ circuit in his teens, including a stint as “Princess Lavonne” in a dress and heels.
He recorded a handful of likable blues tracks in the early 1950s, but his breakthrough didn’t come until the second day of his debut recording session for Specialty Records in September 1955. Tutti Frutti, a risque song he’d been playing at clubs, got a G-rated rewrite and a microphone-shredding performance and was an immediate hit. During the course of 1956, Richard banged out one rock and roll classic after another, including Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up and Good Golly, Miss Molly.
Little Richard and his band the Upsetters were a major concert attraction, with the spotlight focused on the singer’s outrageous outfits, hairstyles and onstage antics, such as bounding up and down, jumping onto his piano, howling and growling.
In 1957, Little Richard released his debut album, Here’s Little Richard, one of the earliest start-to-finish classic LPs in rock history. The album reached No. 13 on the then-named Best Selling Pop Albums chart. But in October of that year, while on a tour of Australia, the most flamboyant star of his time announced that he was quitting the music business to join the ministry.
When he returned to recording in 1959, it was as a gospel singer, to muted responses; the 16 Billboard chart hits he’d recorded during his initial stint at Specialty would overshadow the rest of his career.
Richard stopped making albums after 1992, although he continued to tour extensively and contribute occasional tracks to tribute albums. Hip surgery in 2009 left him confined to a wheelchair, and in 2013, he declared that he was “done” with performing.
“I have been many things and I am many things,” he told The Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2003. “I am a creator, emancipator, inventor, the king, originator, a beauty, the Bronze Liberace, original Georgia peach, a human atom bomb, international treasure, living flame and a Southern child.”
You were all that and more Little Richard. Rest in power.
RIP Little Richard (1932-2020).