Flamboyant singer-instrumentalist Little Richard, whose high-voltage, keyboard-shattering R&B singles supplied lift-off for the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll revolution, has died. The musician, whose birth name was Richard Penniman, was 87, although some sources say he was older. His death was confirmed by his son, Danny Jones Penniman, who told the New York Times the cause was cancer.
Richard’s manic 45s for Los Angeles indie label Specialty Records — “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” — became major crossover hits in the pop sphere and influenced succeeding generations of rockers.
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Pompadoured, mustachioed, slathered with pancake makeup and popping his mascara-painted eyes — “Ooh my soul, I’m the prettiest man in rock ‘n’ roll,” he declaimed — and graced with an ego as outsized as his personality and his voice, the daringly androgynous musician established himself as the wildest performer of his musical era.
Writer Nik Cohn captured Richard’s hyperkinetic style in his 1969 history “Rock From the Beginning,” which was fittingly retitled “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom” (the nonsensical kickoff line of “Tutti Frutti”) in its 1996 edition.
“He played piano,” Cohn wrote, “and he’d stand knock-kneed at the keyboard, hammering away with two hands as if he wanted to bust the thing apart. At climactic moments, he’d lift one leg and rest it on the keys, banging away with his heel, and his trouser rims would billow like kites.
“He’d scream and scream and scream. He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar.”
Richard cut a dynamic figure with frenetic appearances in early big-screen opuses designed to cash in on the rock ‘n’ roll boom. He most famously made a splash in Frank Tashlin’s music-infused 1956 comedy “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which was acknowledged as a galvanizing influence by such future stars as John Lennon of the Beatles and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
An inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and a 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, he left his mark on notable white rockers who succeeded him. Elvis Presley covered four of Richard’s hits in his breakthrough year of 1956. The Beatles — who shared a stage with him on a 1962 U.K. tour — paid explicit homage to his style in performances like their cover of “Long Tall Sally” and their own homages, usually sung by Paul McCartney, like and “I’m Down.”
— BC the Beatles (@BCtheBeatles) May 9, 2020
In 1955, in the early days of his career, future R&B mega-star James Brown masqueraded as Little Richard, whom he had befriended in Georgia, at several dates booked by Brown’s manager in the South.
Richard’s career was discontinuous after the late ’50s. In 1957, at the height of his popularity, he quit rock ‘n’ roll, enrolled in theological school and undertook a new career as an evangelical minister and gospel singer. He made a splashy return to rock on his ’62 tour of England and cashed in on the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the ’60s and ’70s, but returned to religion again in 1977.
Another comeback ensued after the 1984 publication of Charles White’s authorized bio “The Life and Times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock.” This second renascence was highlighted by a thepian and musical appearance in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” director Paul Mazursky’s 1986 adaptation of Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved From Drowning.” “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” a rocker in the grand, gospelized Richard manner drawn from the soundtrack, became his last solo chart hit.
He was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga. The third-eldest of a dozen children, he was the son of a church deacon and sometime nightclub operator; his mother was a devout Baptist and sister in the Pentecostal church. His early vocal influences were gospel singers — Alex Bradford, Brother Joe May, Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones and, most importantly, Mahalia Jackson.
Nicknamed “Little Richard” as a boy because of his diminutive stature, he took up saxophone and piano, and played in the school marching band. After gospel singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard him performing her material outside the Macon City Auditorium, where he sang as he sold soft drinks to attendees, she invited him to appear onstage there during her concert.
Leaving home and school at the age of 15, he edged his way into secular music in traveling medicine shows and vaudeville units, and soon joined the Southern R&B “chitlin’ circuit.” His already larger-than-life stage style attracted the interest of R&B singer Billy Wright; Richard soon aped Wright’s towering pomaded hairdo and face makeup in his own act. Another over-the-top R&B singer, Esquerita, became a prominent teacher in the early ’50s.
His recording career took time to develop. In 1951, Wright’s manager Zenas Sears secured a deal for Richard at major RCA Records, but his four jump-blues singles, in the manner of Louis Jordan and Charles Brown, for the label failed to chart. Two other 45s for Don Robey’s Houston-based indie Peacock Records in 1953-54 likewise flopped.
Taking matters into his own hands at the suggestion of vocalist Lloyd Price, Richard began pulling the coat of Art Rupe, owner of L.A.-based Specialty Records. Rupe bought out the singer’s contract with Robey. In September 1955 Specialty A&R man Bumps Blackwell recorded Richard at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans, where Price had cut his 1952 smash “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
There, with a band including saxophonist Lee Allen and drummer Earl Palmer, he essayed a lascivious fixture of his club act that bore the key lyric, “Tutti frutti, good booty.” Sanitized by writer Dorothy LaBostrie, “Tutti Frutti” was released in late 1955. It reached No. 2 on the national R&B chart and No. 17 on the pop side. Pat Boone took a ludicrously sanitized cover of the song to No. 12 on the pop list in 1956.
For the next two years, Richard was a virtually unstoppable commercial force, with one hit following another: “Long Tall Sally” (No. 1 R&B, No. 6 pop), “Slippin’ and Slidin’” (No. 2 R&B, No. 33 pop), “Rip It Up” (No. 1 R&B, No. 17 pop) and “Lucille” (No. 1 R&B, No. 21 pop).
“The Girl Can’t Help It” (No. 7 R&B) served as the title song for Tashlin’s widescreen color comedy, which mocked rock ‘n’ roll and exploited it all at once; Richard performed “Ready Teddy” in a nightclub sequence. He also appeared prominently in two omnibus rock movies featuring DJ Alan Freed, “Don’t Knock the Rock” (1956) and “Mister Rock and Roll” (1957).
The R&B hits – “Send Me Some Lovin’” (No. 3), “Jenny Jenny” (No. 2), “Miss Ann” (No. 6) — and the occasional pop crossover — “Keep a Knockin’” (No. 2 R&B, No. 8 pop) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (No. 4 R&B, No. 10 pop) — continued into 1958. However, by that time, Richard had already withdrawn from secular music, spurred by what he took as a sign he witnessed during a show in Sydney, Australia, in October 1957.
He recalled to Charles White, “That night Russia sent off the very first Sputnik [satellite]. It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads. It shook my mind. It really shook my mind. I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’”
The apostate rock ‘n’ roller studied theology at an Alabama college and formed an evangelical ministry that toured the country; Richard now applied his stentorian style to preaching, and released two albums of sermons on George Goldner’s End Records. In 1959, he surprised many familiar with his libertine lifestyle, bisexuality and longtime relationship with stripper Lee Angel by marrying a secretary, Ernestine Campbell, whom he had met at an evangelical convention. (The couple divorced in 1963.) The self-proclaimed former “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” recorded the LP “The King of the Gospel Singers” for Mercury with producer Quincy Jones in 1962.
That year, U.K. promoter Don Arden booked a tour of England for Richard. Though he originally intended to perform only gospel material, he swiftly returned to his original repertoire after a first show in Doncaster, where he found himself having to top the night’s opener, Sam Cooke. Richard responded with a set of his own rock ‘n’ roll hits, and his career as a gospel singer was, for a time, over.
Richard successfully toured Great Britain with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as opening acts in 1962-63. A return to prominence in the U.S. was harder to achieve. A brief return to Specialty yielded no major hits. He moved to Chicago indie Vee-Jay Records in 1964. Again, hits were elusive, though he did manage a No. 12 R&B single with the Southern soul-styled “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me),” which featured his then-current guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.
In quick succession in the late ’60s, Richard was signed to the Modern, Okeh and Brunswick labels, and, while he could still make forceful records — such as the 1966 LP “The Explosive Little Richard,” produced by former Specialty label mate Larry Williams — they garnered only meager commercial returns. He fared better as a live performer (appearing alongside John Lennon at the Toronto Peace Festival in 1969) and as a talk show attraction (making riotous appearances with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett).
With the revival of interest in old-time rock ‘n’ roll in full swing at the turn of the decade, Richard inked a deal with Reprise Records in 1970. He issued three eclectic albums for the label, and scraped the pop charts with the singles “Freedom Road” and “Greenwood, Mississippi.” His profile was highest at oldies-oriented gigs for promoter Richard Nader and in such concert movies as “The London Rock & Roll Show” (1972) and “Let the Good Times Roll” (1973).
By 1977, the rock road had again taken its toll; Richard was reduced to re-recording his old hits for TV packager K-Tel, and consumed by escalating cocaine addiction. He again deserted the music business for the church, and issued a new gospel album, “God’s Beautiful City,” in 1979.
He returned to the pop public eye in 1986. That year, a multimillion-dollar suit he lodged against Art Rupe, Specialty Records and publisher ATV Music for unpaid royalties was settled out of court. He also appeared as Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler’s neighbor Orvis Goodnight in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”; “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” co-authored by Richard and his onetime accompanist Billy Preston, reached No. 42 on the pop chart. He went on to write the title song for the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito comedy vehicle “Twins” in 1988.
Beyond an appearance on the No. 11 1991 charity single “Voices That Care” and an album of children’s songs, “Shake It All About,” for Disney in 1992, Richard was represented in the marketplace during the later years of his life by repackagings of his old hits. He was portrayed by actor Leon in the 2000 biopic “Little Richard.” One of his last high-profile recordings was a duet version of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” on fellow rock ‘n’ roll survivor Jerry Lee Lewis’ 2006 release “Last Man Standing.”
He was plagued by poor health in later years. Sciatica and hip problems forced him to curtail his performing schedule after the turn of the millennium. He suffered a heart attack onstage at a performance in Las Vegas in June 2013; three months later, he announced his retirement in an interview with Rolling Stone.
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