Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Little Richard

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Little Richard
Photo: Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan (Getty Images)

Little Richard, the legendary singer and pianist whose energetic performances laid the foundation for rock and roll in the 1950s, has died at the age of 87. A consummate showman, Richard’s music combined gospel, boogie-woogie, and his own ferocious energy, creating something that created a blueprint for generations of rock and rollers, yet sounded like nothing recorded before or since. Per Rolling Stone, his death was confirmed earlier today by his son, Danny Penniman. The cause of death is currently unknown.


Little Richard was so charismatic and appealing on stage that even as a flamboyant, bisexual black man in the era when you could be lynched for being even one of those things, he was able to win over a widespread audience in the straightlaced 50s. His lyrics could be ribald or spiritual, and more than once in his career he quit rock and roll to focus on religion, but he always came back. He inherited those contradictions from his father. Born Richard Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, Richard was the third of 12 children, raised by a stern father, a deacon who also bootlegged moonshine and owned a nightclub. Through the church, his parents exposed him to gospel music (although they both considered rhythm and blues to be “devil music”), and Richard sang in the church for a young age, getting attention for his loud voice, which earned him the nickname “War Hawk.”. But at age 13, Charles Penniman threw his son out of the house for being gay. Richard was taken in by another family, who encouraged his talent, as he continued to sing in church, and played the saxophone in school.

When he was 14, Richard went to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a popular gospel singer who was a favorite of his. She heard Richard singing before the show, and invited him onstage to sing with her. The moment he heard the crowd cheer for him, the course of his life was set: Little Richard was going to be a star.

He began performing on the chitlin circuit while still a teenager, and quickly became known for his energetic performances. But the music he was playing was still considered gospel or blues. He released a few singles on RCA Victor, and a slow blues number, “Every Hour,” was a hit, but subsequent singles weren’t and he left the label in 1952. Shortly after, his father was shot and killed by a friend of Richard’s outside his nightclub. Richard was broke and depressed and started working as a dishwasher to make ends meet. He formed a blues band, the Tempo Toppers, but disbanded them within a year. But he followed that group with an R&B group, the Upsetters (which at one point included a young Otis Redding), and audiences began to respond to his more up-tempo music. Little Richard was signed to Specialty Records in 1955, and kept upping the tempo until he had created something entirely new.

Debate still rages over when rock and roll actually started. Was it 1955, when Little Richard and Chuck Berry released their first rock singles a month apart? Was it 1951, when Ike Turner recorded “Rocket 88”? Does it go further back than that, to Richard’s big influence, Sister Rosetta Tharpe? There is no consensus. But if you had to pick one singular moment when the genre came into being, fully formed, it would be hard to top the day when Little Richard, working on a new song and frustrated that his drummer couldn’t get the rhythm right, simply sang the drum intro: “a wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom”.

For audiences in 1955, used to the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby and Mel Torme, “Tutti Frutti” hit like a bolt of lightning. The song began its life as a graphic ode to gay sex Richard sang at some of the less respectable clubs he played: “Tutti Frutti / good booty / if it don’t fit / don’t force it.” There was no way the song, as it was, was making it onto the radio, but Richard’s live-wire performances were so irresistible, Specialty wanted the song anyway. They brought in songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to rework the lyrics, and by the time Richard went into the studio, he had a girl named Sue, who knew just what to do, and censors and audiences approved. But even toned down for the masses, the song crackles with raw energy and sexuality, and was a massive hit. Everything that rock and roll was to encompass—adrenaline, sex, confidence, theatricality, and even a touch of the ridiculous—was contained in those two and a half minutes.

In the next three years, Little Richard would send 18 songs up the charts, and hit #1 on the R&B chart with three of them: “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” and “Lucille.” All three had Richard’s trademark manic energy, and while Specialty had toned down his act, it wasn’t toned down very much, as he reported on women’s sexual exploits in songs like “Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

Sex wasn’t the only reason rock and roll was considered dangerous by some people. Little Richard played to both black and white audiences, often in the same venue, which was unheard of in the still-segregated South. White supremacist groups warned that, “rock and roll brings the races together,” but not everyone thought that was a bad thing, least of all Richard, who preached racial tolerance throughout his career both as a performer and a minister. While there were still times Richard had to sleep at the YMCA on tour because hotels in the South wouldn’t give him a room, he was playing in front of huge audiences, toured the world, and appeared in rock-themed films like Mister Rock And Roll and The Girl Can’t Help It.


Then in 1957, at the peak of his fame, Richard saw a ball of fire fly over a stadium where he was performing in Australia. He took it as a sign from God, abruptly halting his tour, despite taking a huge financial loss. In doing so, he cancelled his seat on a flight that ended up crashing into the ocean. That was all the evidence Richard needed of divine intervention. He quit music and determined to devote his life to God. (The ball of fire was, in fact, Sputnik, which had just been launched into space, and a royalty dispute with his label may have played as much a role as any religious experience)

Richard enrolled in the seminary, and began touring again, this time as a preacher. Determined to walk the straight and narrow, he married Ernestine Campbell, who he met at an evangelical convention, in 1959 (they would divorce four years later). He went back into the studio, but returned to gospel music, scoring minor hits with “He’s Not Just a Soldier,” “Crying In the Chapel,” and “He Got What He Wanted.”


But Little Richard couldn’t stay away from rock and roll for long. In 1962, a promoter convinced him to tour Europe, where his records were still selling well. Audiences weren’t that excited by his gospel numbers, but they went wild for his earlier hits. After touring with Sam Cooke as an opener, Brian Epstein convinced him to take his new group: The Beatles. Richard gave Paul McCartney vocal tips, and McCartney wrote a homage in the form of “I’m Down”. After Richard parted ways with the Beatles, he replaced them on the bill with the Rolling Stones. In 1964, he also hired a talented young guitarist who called himself Maurice James. Richard fired him for being unreliable, but he found success recording under his real name: Jimi Hendrix.

Richard didn’t record many hits in the 60s, complaining that producers were trying to shoehorn him into a Motown-like sound, but he was still a huge touring act. But in 1970, Richard began using cocaine. Soon he was also using PCP and heroin. His drug use worsened, until in 1977, he cleaned up, quit music again, and became a minister (he had been ordained in 1970), officiating at weddings and selling a Black Heritage Bible, which focused on figures in the Good Book with African ancestry.

In 1985, Charles White wrote an authorized biography, Quasar Of Rock, and the positive reaction from the public prompted Little Richard to return to music again. This time, he managed to reconcile the two halves of his persona, playing spiritual music alongside his wilder hits. He and Billy Preston also co-wrote “Great Gosh A’Mighty” for the film Down And Out In Beverly Hills, in which Richard also appeared as a wealthy record producer. The following year, Little Richard was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From that point on, he was rightly venerated as a legend, and continued performing and preaching through his 70s, despite walking with crutches from sciatica, and then having a hip replaced.


In 2012, at age 80, Richard had a heart attack while at home. He chewed baby aspirin, which probably saved his life, and gradually recovered, but his public appearances were limited from that point on. But Richard had made his peace. At a public appearance in 2013—one of several he gave in his final years, firmly focused on his faith—he said, “God talked to me the other night. He said He’s getting ready to come… He’s coming, wrapped in flames of fire, with a rainbow around his throne.”

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.