Little Richard, who rode the first wave of rock n’ roll in American culture, has succumbed to bone cancer at the age of 87.
As a pioneering force behind early rock n’ roll, Little Richard inspired the next generation of musicians who would build on the genre, and more artists for years to come. Starting with his 1956 smash hit “Tutti Frutti”, Richard infected the United States with his instantly recognizable piano riffs and iconic singing. With fellow hits like “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up”, “Lucille”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, and many others, Richard cemented himself in the American songbook for decades to come.
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Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5th, 1932 in Macon, GA, he had 11 siblings and grew up around his preacher uncles. Even with that emphasis on the gospel background, and the family’s regular singing at a local church, Richard’s father did not approve of his musical leanings and even accused his son of being gay. Richard eventually left home at 13 to live with a white family in Macon. Despite his father’s disapproval, Richard pursued his musical interests and even befriended Otis Redding when the two were still children growing up in Macon. He heard all sorts of music while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium.
In 1951, Richard earned his first record contract with RCA after winning a local talent show. As was the style of the time, he was rebranded “Little Richard” (following the string of “Little” R&B artists like Little Esther and Little Milton, a trend some could argue reemerged as “Lil” in the hip-hop era). Little Richard, a figure as inspirational and oft-mimicked as Chuck Berry, himself even took inspiration in the form of his piano playing and pompadour wearing style from Esquerita, a South Carolina R&B singer with similar style.
Those first records for RCA, released in the early 1950s, didn’t sell well and never saw Richard land on any charts. The country had not yet been introduced to this new style of music, and Richard wasn’t ready to be the one to break the news.
“When I first came along, I never heard any rock & roll,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”
Richard eventually returned to his job washing dishes at the Greyhound station in Macon, and one day spitballed the lyrics “a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom” while hunched over the sink. Those lyrics would later become “Tutti Frutti”, a throw-away song Richard eventually recorded and sent to Specialty Records in Chicago. From there, Richard’s career took off as the label chose his trademark howl to record a series of songs in New Orleans.
The proceeding years saw Richard shoot to the top with other hits that would inspire the next generation of rock musicians. At the top of his game in 1957, however, Richard stepped away from music to become a minister. This move was only temporary, as he would return to rock n’ roll in 1964, at which point all of the musicians he had inspired were topping the charts. Those people were good to him, no matter how he had suffered commercially from his absence, and welcomed him back with open arms. When he played the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, The Beatles opened for him.
As the tide of rock music began to turn, Richard carved out a comfortable living playing the oldies circuit in the 1970s. The 1980s saw Richard return as a nostalgia act with TV guest spots on Full House and Miami Vice. 1986 saw Little Richard inducted in the first-ever class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1993, Richard was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s.
In his later years, Richard would still sporadically perform. Due to hip replacement surgery in 2009, he was confined to seated performances, but he never lost his charm.
“I’m sorry I can’t do it like it’s supposed to be done,” he told one audience in 2012. After the audience screamed back in encouragement, he said—in his trademark squeal— “Oh, you gonna make me scream like a white girl!”
[H/T Rolling Stone]