FILE - In this July 22, 2001 file photo, Little Richard performs at the 93rd birthday and 88th year in show business gala celebration for Milton Berle, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died Saturday, May 9, 2020. (AP Photo/John Hayes, File)

FILE - In this July 22, 2001 file photo, Little Richard performs at the 93rd birthday and 88th year in show business gala celebration for Milton Berle, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died Saturday, May 9, 2020. (AP Photo/John Hayes, File)

Little Richard, flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dead at 87

He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering

Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died Saturday. He was 87.

Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard’s, told The Associated Press that Little Richard died Saturday morning. Minson said he also spoke to Little Richard’s son and brother.

Minson added that the family is not releasing the cause of death.

Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers who helped shatter the colour line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream. Richard’s hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and hairdo, made him an implausible sensation — a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.

He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour.

“Little Richard? That’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Neil Young, who heard Richard’s riffs on the radio in Canada, told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “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 off turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard’s memorable call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.”

A string of hits followed, providing the foundation of rock music: “Lucille,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing “Good Golly Miss Molly” live.

The Beatles’ Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature yelps — perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” from the hit “She Loves You.” Ex-bandmate John Lennon covered Richard’s “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” on the 1975 “Rock and Roll” album.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the charter members with Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and others.

Few were quicker to acknowledge Little Richard’s seminal 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 ‘n’ roll!” Little Richard crowed at the 1988 Grammy Awards as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. “I am the originator!”

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 the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock ‘n’ roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career.

Penniman was performing with bands by the age of 14, but there were problems at home over his sexual orientation. His father beat the boy and derided him as “half a son.”

Richard left home to join a minstrel show run by a man known as Sugarloaf Sam, occasionally appearing in drag.

In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy “Tutti Frutti,” with lyrics that were sanitized by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell 1 million records over the next year.

When Little Richard’s hit was banned by many white-owned radio stations, white performers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley did cover versions that topped the charts.

Little Richard went Hollywood with an appearance in “Don’t Knock the Rock.” But his wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard quit the business in 1957 to enrol in a theological school and get married.

Richard remained on the charts when his label released previously recorded material. And he recorded a gospel record, returning to his roots.

A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter with a man in a bus station restroom led to his divorce and return to performing.

He mounted three tours of England between 1962 and 1964, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones serving as opening acts. Back in the States, he put together a band that included guitarist Jimi Hendrix — and later fired Hendrix when he was late for a bus.

In 1968, Richard hit Las Vegas and relaunched his career. Within two years, he had another hit single and made the cover of Rolling Stone.

By the mid-1970s, Richard was battling a $1,000-a-day cocaine problem and once again abandoned his musical career. He returned to religion, selling Bibles and renouncing homosexuality. For more than a decade, he vanished.

“If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody,” Richard said.

But he returned, in 1986, in spectacular fashion. 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 him back on the charts for the first time in more than 15 years. Little Richard was back to stay, enjoying another dose of celebrity that he fully embraced.

Macon, Georgia, named a street after its favourite son. And Little Richard was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2002, he announced his retirement from live performing. But he continued to appear frequently on television, including a humorous appearance on a 2006 commercial for GEICO insurance.

Richard had hip surgery in November 2009 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and asked fans at the time to pray for him. He lived in the Nashville area at the time.

Kristin M. Hall, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Music

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Artist Jim Holyoak’s installation “Quagmire.” Holyoak will be the first speaker for the Artist Talk Online Winter 2021 series. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
North Island College Artist Talk goes online for winter 2021

The series invites contemporary Canadian artists to speak about their professional practice

Colin J.D. Crooks has published his debut novel, a fantasy titled “The Shards of Etherious: Arisen.” (headshot photo courtesy Joslyn Kilborn Photography)
Cumberland author delves into fantasy world with debut novel

The Shards of Etherious: Arisen is the first book of a five-book series

Cathy Browne is very proud of her new front door. All the new doors are lovely and create an individual look for each room. Photo submitted
Courtenay’s Glacier View Lodge dressing up its doorways for residents

Glacier View Lodge’s vision of ‘feels like home’ has been enhanced this… Continue reading

Ginette Matthews shows off some of the wares at The Local Refillery. Photo by Femke Overmaat
Pandemic meant going digital quickly for Courtenay’s Local Refillery

Owner Ginette Matthews says system keep business open in its early months

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

The sky above Mt. Benson in Nanaimo is illuminated by flares as search and rescuers help an injured hiker down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Search and Rescue)
Search plane lights up Nanaimo mountain with flares during icy rope rescue

Rescuers got injured hiker down Mt. Benson to a waiting ambulance Saturday night

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

Most Read