Little Richard, the Architect of Rock and Roll, Dies at 87

Little Richard brought energy, style, and an almost-inimitable scream to rock and roll.

Little Richard
Photo: Echoes/Redferns (Getty Images)

Little Richard Penniman, whose boogie woogie blues piano laid the foundation for rock and roll, died Saturday, May 9, at 87, according to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was unknown.

Little Richard, along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Delta Cats, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Elvis Presley, wed blues with gospel and country for a new music genre which changed the world and how we hear it. “Tutti Frutti, “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” all pounded out in 1956, got jukeboxes jumping, made senses reel and gave parents fits. “All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls” swarmed the dance floors, while budding musicians around the world took notice.

Little Richard’s influence is almost beyond measure. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Elton John, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Lemmy Kilmister, and his own contemporaries, like Presley, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley and fellow piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis, sung his praises, and occasionally his songs. His energy inspired James Brown and Michael Jackson to move gracefully and frenetically across live stages. Little Richard’s personal style and flamboyance kicked open doors which would free sexual expression.

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on Dec. 5, 1932. He was one of 12 children. Taught to play piano by an entertainer named Esquerta, Little Richard first performed in his local church. His family did not allow R&B, which they considered “devil music,” to be played at home. His father Bud, who was a deacon and a bootlegger, did not support his son’s music or suspected sexuality. Penniman left home at 13 and moved in with a white family. Soul legend Otis Redding was one of his childhood friends.

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Penniman was exposed to blues and country music while working at a concession stand at the Macon City Auditorium. Sister Rosetta Tharpe overheard him singing before a performance at the auditorium in October 1947, and invited the 14-year-old amateur to open her show. Tharpe paid him and he went pro. He started performing in Doctor Nubillo’s traveling show. He got the idea to wear turbans and capes from Nubillo, whose shows also carried an exhibit called “the devil’s child,” the dried-up body of a baby with claw feet and a horned head. Nubillo predicted Penniman would be famous.

Penniman learned his first secular R&B song, Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” when he joined Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show in 1949. During this period, Penniman also performed in drag under the name “Princess LaVonne.” He got his professional name when he joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra. After moving to Atlanta, Little Richard signed as a rhythm and blues singer with Zenas Sears. The DJ recorded Penniman at his radio station, backed by musicians from Billy Wright’s band, who Little Richard befriended after seeing him perform at Atlanta’s Harlem Theater and the Royal Peacock. The recordings led to a contract with RCA Victor, which brought forth his first hit single with the blues ballad “Every Hour,” which came out in 1951. He fronted Perry Welch and His Orchestra for club and army bases gigs for $100 a week.

Penniman left RCA in February 1952, and soon signed Clint Brantley as his manager, moved to Houston, and formed the Tempo Toppers, which played blues package tours. He signed with Peacock Records in February 1953, recording eight songs but none hit the charts. He moved back to Macon in 1954 and washed dishes while forming the Upsetters, a harder hitting band which included drummer Charles Connor and saxophonist Wilbert “Lee Diamond” Smith.

Penniman signed with Specialty Records in September 1955, at the suggestion of singer Lloyd Price. Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell thought Little Richard would be Specialty’s answer to Ray Charles, but the singer said he was geared more towards the sounds he heard from Fats Domino and did sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios in New Orleans. After recording with some of Domino’s musicians, like drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen, Little Richard pounded out a fast blues number he wrote called “Tutti Frutti” at the Dew Drop Inn nightclub. Blackwell heard his hit, and hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to tone down the sexual lyrics. The song was recorded in three takes in September 1955. It was released as a single in November and hit Number 17 on the Billboard charts.

“Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Send Me Some Lovin’” followed in 1956, giving Little Richard star power comparable to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He also appeared in the rock and roll movies Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1957), and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll (1957).

After seeing the Sputnik rocket over Australia in 1957, Little Richard enrolled in theological school and became an evangelical minister and gospel singer, eventually releasing two albums of sermons on George Goldner’s End Records. In 1959, he married Ernestine Campbell (their marriage ended in 1963). He recorded The King of the Gospel Singers album, produced by Quincy Jones, for Mercury Records in 1962.

He returned to rock and roll in 1962, toured England, schooled Paul McCartney on his scream, and continued recording and playing, but never achieved the heights he’d reached in his golden period. Still, he continued to play rock and roll revival shows in the 1960s and 1970s. He returned to his spiritual practice in 1977, but played intermittent shows for decades, until announcing his retirement following a heart attack after a 2013 Las Vegas show.

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He also acted, playing Orvis Goodnight, the neighbor of Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler’s characters in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. He returned to the charts with “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” co-written with Billy Preston, and also wrote the title song for the 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito comedy Twins. In 2006, Little Richard paired with Jerry Lee Lewis for a duet version of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”

Little Richard was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class of inductees in 1986. In 1992, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and played at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. “Tutti Frutti” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2010.