Richard Wayne Penniman, better known to the musical world as jubilant, innovating rock star Little Richard, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87 after succumbing to cancer. One of 12 children born to a moonshine selling, club owning Georgia deacon, Richard would go on to be one of the most recognizable pioneers of the early days of Rock and Roll.
Instantly recognizable by his flamboyant piano playing and voice that vacillated between raspy and high pitched, he would score hits with songs such as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, and Good Golly Miss Molly would become an enduring voice in the days when rock and roll was in it’s infancy and often blurred cultural and racial barriers. His persona spanned across the entire music spectrum, with bands as varied as The Beatles, The Ramones and Elton John counting him as an influence.
Richard’s music borrowed heavily from church choirs, jazz, and the blues. His musical career started at 15, but without much initial success, he would take on menial work to pay the bills and support his family. At the behest of a friend, he sent his demo to Specialty Records in Chicago, who would help buy him out of a previous record deal so he could record under that umbrella. It was there that his raw, sometimes sexual lyrics were toned down into the rollicking, wild music that would make him a star.
Even at an early age, Little Richard showed a flare for originality in his looks and playing style. His large pompadour, bright colors, and makeup gave him the ability to stand out alongside his music. There was a purpose to this. When hitting is stride in popularity, Richard and acts such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were still black musicians playing in heavily segregated towns in the south. There was a fear among southern whites that rock and roll was the devils music and having black people performing was a test by the devil to persuade the youth of america into a life of deviance. Little Richard dressed flamboyantly to give off a vibe to the south that they shouldn’t have any fear that he would take away their daughters, or in his words “so nobody would think I was after the white girls.”
Over a five year span between 1955-1959, Little Richard recorded nine Top 40 Pop Singles and 17!! Top 40 R&B singles. While his biggest hits all occured in the 50’s, he would continue to tour, counting both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones as opening acts as he traveled the world. For a time, both Billy Preston and Jimi Hendrix were touring band members of his. While his popularity wained in the United States, he was incredibly popular and influential in England, where he would continue to sell out shows for many years.
Even in an era of music where people were more buttoned down and living in a single mold, Little Richard was unapologetically his own person. His music felt risque even when it was cleaned up. It was embraced by white culture even though it’s roots were heavily influenced by black Baptist churches in the South. He was Prince before anyone knew it was alright to be Prince. He was a crossover star not only in music, but in pop culture in general. His flaws were on display.
Even as popular as Little Richard was in his day, he would have been an icon if he was performing today. his sexually androgynous nature leaked off the stage and into real life. His sexual appetite could be known as eclectic, and in 1984 he referred to himself as “omnisexual” in his biography. While living his truth was something of a taboo in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it would have been embraced as an enlightened lifestyle in today’s world.
Richard was in the inaugural class to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Tutti Frutti is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Little Richard leaves this world as one of the most influential artists in the history of music. Without him, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash to build the foundation, Rock and Roll might never have found the widespread influence and acceptance to become anything more than a niche act. He was idealized and idolized generations of musicians who would come after him. His incredibly enthusiastic, catchy music was a harbinger for social change in the South.
His performing career spanned across eight decades. In that time, he inspired James Brown, David Bowie, Queen, Outkast, Audioslave, and hundreds of bands in between. He was a science experiment, pushing the boundaries of what a rock star could be. The music and the persona were one in the same, as one might have never had the same influence without the other. He was so far ahead of his time that what he did in his era couldn’t possibly be judged in the moment. While so many others in that era would play a character onstage while simultaneously playing by the rules of entertainment, Little Richard set out to create his own rule,s and in doing so, created an entire genre of music that endures to this day.