Rock and roll pioneer Little Richard dies at 87
Little Richard, one of the foremost originators of rock and roll whose ecstatic, flamboyant performance style single-handedly paved the way for generations of popular music entertainers, died on Saturday. He was 87.
The legendary musician died after a years-long battle with bone cancer, his longtime agent Dick Alen confirmed to PEOPLE. "Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. He was living with his brother in Nashville," Alen said. "He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say 'I’m not well.' He’s been suffering for many years with various aches and pains. He just wouldn’t talk about it much.”
With his trailblazing run of singles for Specialty Records in the mid-'50s, which included hits like “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Slippin & Slidin,” and “Jenny, Jenny,” Little Richard helped establish the very core of rock and roll’s original American songbook, providing the genre with several of its first-ever bona fide standards.
The songs, rife with carnal desire, inner-turmoil, and adolescent angst, signaled Little Richard as one of the most unique songwriting voices in American popular music, a poet and prophet of narrative nonsense with an unparalleled knack for alliteration and rhyme whose insistence upon placing the physical body and desire at the center of the rock and roll experience would come to define the genre for decades to come.
“I created rock and roll,” Richard would later say, “didn’t even know what I was doing.”
As a musician, Little Richard also helped form the core ethos and technique of rock and roll piano, alongside contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, adopting an aggressive, rollicking style that borrowed from both the church tradition and from the New Orleans barrelhouse style that he learned from the pioneering gay songwriter-pianist named Esquerita, whom he met as a teenager.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, Little Richard grew up in Macon, Georgia as the third of 12 siblings. Despite growing up in a strictly devout household, as a teenager Little Richard explored the musical underworld of Macon and the American Southeast, where he would gradually develop his frenetic style of piano playing and would begin experimenting sexually with men and women. “The jazz and blues was really like school, and I was in class constantly,” he said in 1992. “But the carnival was an advance class in entertainment, and I was awakened.”
After having a falling out with his father over his homosexuality, Richard fled town as a teenager. “I didn’t like to sing like nobody else. I didn’t like to play like nobody else,” Richard once said of his Macon upbringing. “I was considered crazy and stupid and backwards.”
After getting a deal with Specialty Records in 1955, Richard recorded his breakthrough signature hit “Tutti Frutti” after improvising the song at an impromptu daytime performance at the infamous New Orleans nightclub the Dew Drop Inn. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-bam-boom,” sang Richard, who was initially reluctant to record the song due to its explicit imagery. “Tutti Frutti” became a Top 20 pop single, and would soon garner more sedate, and more popular, versions from white pop stars like Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, and, a few years later, The Beatles.
Starting with “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard became one of the central figures of rock and roll, scoring 13 Top Ten R&B hits, six of which reached the Top Twenty on the pop charts, over the course of little more than two years. “I’ve always thought that rock and roll brought the races together,” Little Richard said in the ‘80s. “Although I was black, the fans didn’t care. I used to feel good about that.”
In the fall of 1957, Little Richard quit secular music for the first time after witnessing the launch of Sputnik, which appeared to the singer as a great ball of fire exploding in the sky while on tour in Australia. The singer took the event as a sign from God, promptly quit his tour and would spend the next several years devoting himself to prayer and studying to become a minister.
By the time Little Richard returned to rock and roll in 1962, the singer was already revered as a pioneering legend and would go on to directly influence the next generation of revolutionary 60’s rockers. Over the next several years, he would take the Rolling Stones on tour, use the Beatles as an opening act, and hire a young Jimi Hendrix to play in his band.
“The most exciting moment of my life,” Keith Richards once said, “was appearing on the same stage as Little Richard.”
As the first-ever mainstream popular entertainer of his era to openly explore his gender identity and sexuality on stage, Little Richard became a singularly important figure in American popular music. The singer, whose musical origins began as a vaudeville singer performing in drag, directly influenced several generations of male entertainers, from Mick Jagger to Elton John to Prince to David Bowie, who all challenged traditional depictions of masculinity in their stage presentation. “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins, and energy,” Elton John once said, “I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock and roll piano player.”
Over the next several decades, Little Richard shifted between the worlds of secular and religious music, releasing several rock albums in the early ‘70s on Reprise records, only to return exclusively to gospel music by the end of the decade. In the early ‘90s, the singer enjoyed one of his biggest late-career resurgences when he recorded his successful 1992 children’s album Shake it All About.
Little Richard returned once again to touring and performing his ‘50s rock and roll in the mid-'80s, when the publication of a biography about the singer renewed interest in his career. Little Richard continued to thrill audiences worldwide with his ecstatic live shows for the next several decades, touring consistently up until 2013, when, faced with growing health problems, he retired entirely from touring at the age of 80.
In 1986, Little Richard was chosen as one of the inaugural inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1993, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame a decade later, in 2002.
“I never thought, even being the architect of rock-and-roll, that the music would last this long,” Little Richard said in 1992, during one of his many comebacks. “But it’s stronger than ever.”
As news of his death emerged, fellow musicians, including Jagger and Brian Wilson, shared touching dedications to the star on social media.