Little Richard, a founding father of rock and roll whose fervent shrieks, flamboyant garb, and joyful, gender-bending persona embodied the spirit and sound of that new art form, died Saturday. He was 87. The musician’s son, Danny Jones Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that the cause of death was cancer.
Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard cut a series of unstoppable hits – “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” that same year, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958 – driven by his simple, pumping piano, gospel-influenced vocal exclamations and sexually charged (often gibberish) lyrics. Although he never hit the top 10 again after 1958, Little Richard’s influence was massive. The Beatles recorded several of his songs, including “Long Tall Sally,” and Paul McCartney’s singing on those tracks – and the Beatles’ own “I’m Down” – paid tribute to Little Richard’s shredded-throat style. His songs became part of the rock and roll canon, covered over the decades by everyone from the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions.
Little Richard’s stage persona – his pompadours, androgynous makeup and glass-bead shirts – also set the standard for rock and roll showmanship; Prince, to cite one obvious example, owed a sizable debt to the musician. Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5th, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he was one of 12 children and grew up around uncles who were preachers. “I was born in the slums. My daddy sold whiskey, bootleg whiskey,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. Although he sang in a nearby church, his father Bud wasn’t supportive of his son’s music and accused him of being gay, resulting in Penniman leaving home at 13 and moving in with a white family in Macon. But music stayed with him: One of his boyhood friends was Otis Redding, and Penniman heard R&B, blues and country while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium.
After what he interpreted as signs – a plane engine that seemed to be on fire and a dream about the end of the world and his own damnation – Penniman gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was eventually ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, the result was a gospel set called God Is Real. His gospel music career floundering, Little Richard returned to secular rock in 1964. Although none of the albums and singles he cut over the next decade for a variety of labels sold well, he was welcomed back by a new generation of rockers. By the 1970s, Little Richard was making a respectable living on the rock oldies circuit but during this time, he also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine while, at the same time, returning to his gospel roots.
In the 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard (written with his cooperation), he denounced homosexuality as “contagious … It’s not something you’re born with.” (Eleven years later, he said in an interview with Penthouse that he had been “gay all my life.”) Later in life, he described himself as “omnisexual,” attracted to both men and women. But during an interview with the Christian-tied Three Angels Broadcasting Group in 2017, he suddenly denounced gay and trans lifestyles. In the 1980s, he appeared in movies like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and in TV shows like Full House and Miami Vice. In 1986, he was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. In the years before his death, Little Richard, who was by then based in Nashville, still performed periodically.