Little Richard, one of the pioneers of the first wave of rock’n’roll, has died. He was 87.
Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman, was born in Macon, Georgia in December 1932. He had been in poor health for several years, suffering hip problems, a stroke and a heart attack.
Rolling Stone magazine said Richard’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death, “but said the cause of death was unknown”. Penniman also confirmed the news to the New York Times. The Macon sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Instagram, band member Kelvin Holly said: “Rest in peace, Richard. This one really stings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all my bandmates and fans all over the world. Richard truly was the king!”
Richard’s career began when in the late 1940s but his early recordings with the RCA Victor label garnered little success. His breakthrough came when he signed to Specialty Records in 1955, releasing a run of wild and flamboyant singles – Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Keep A-Knockin’ and Good Golly, Miss Molly, among others – that made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
The biographer Charles White described the songs as “holy writs of rock’n’roll”.
Richard was known for his outrageous performance style at the piano – eyes lined with mascara, pompadour hair fixed with potato starch, ferocious eyes transfixing audiences – and infectious whoops, a style echoed by dozens of performers, Prince prominent among them. Richard had been a drag performer and by his own admission was involved in voyeurism, allowing men to have sex in the back seat of his car while he watched. He was arrested at least twice for lewd conduct.
His breakthrough single, Tutti Frutti, was originally about anal sex – “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy” – until producer Bumps Blackwell suggested it be cleaned up. The song bequeathed rock’n’roll its greatest expression of joy, whose exact syllables are still debated: “Awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom!”
Covered by Elvis Presley – who described Richard as “the greatest” – Tutti Frutti catapulted Richard to success.
In October 1957, however, during a tour of Australia, Richard saw a fireball crossing the sky. It was actually the Sputnik 1 satellite, but he took it as a sign from God that he needed to change his ways. In 1958 he became a preacher, before returning to secular music in 1962. The conflict between God and the devil’s music was a theme for much of the rest of his life.
In later life, Richard renounced his omnisexuality, explaining he had asked God to save him. “Lord, can I do this and still be saved?” he said he asked, to be told: “Richard, no man can serve two masters.”
His Specialty singles exerted a profound influence on a later generation of musicians. Paul McCartney was a huge fan, and the Beatles performed Richard’s songs in concert.
“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” McCartney said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”
On Saturday the singer Patti Smith said Tutti Frutti “exploded when I was eight years old, awakening a positive anarchy in a little girl’s heart. Nothing was the same after hearing his exciting and excitable voice … Farewell voice of an age; he commingles with the firmament now”.
The guitarist, Patti Smith band member and writer Lenny Kaye told the Guardian the first time he heard Tutti Frutti, the song caused him “to fall to the floor in uncontrollable laughter, inexplicable joy and unbridled release and madness.
“I have never forgotten his key to the kingdom, the outrageousness he personified, and the liberation he offered. He embraced the sin of rock’n’roll as well as its salvation, knowing that each needs the other, as the rock needs the roll.”
In 2014, AC/DC’s then singer Brian Johnson told the Guardian about seeing Little Richard on television for the first time.
“It was a Saturday, it was one o’clock and it was sunny day. And this woman was going, ‘And now, from America, we have Little Richard.’ And it was this fucking black guy with this fucking ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was fucking prettier than a woman. And it was Tutti Frutti …” Johnson mimed slack-jawed amazement. “What the fuck? There was nothing, and then there was this.”
Despite not having a top 10 US hit after 1958, to Richard, at least, his claim to be the originator of rock‘n’roll was never in serious question.
“People have tried to claim mah throne,” he told a press conference before a show at Wembley in 1972, as rendered by Nick Kent of the New Musical Express. “There are pretenders, brother. Lemme tell ya, I am the o-riginal. I’m not boastin’ and I’m not braggin’, ah am the rightful King of Rock n’ Roll.
“You see Alice Cooper and [Mick] Jagger wearing make-up – ah have bin wearin’ make-up for years. All dem fellas copped that stuff fro’ me an’ that’s no lie.”
On Saturday, tributes poured in.
The guitarist Stevie van Zandt said Richard was “the man who invented rock’n’roll. Elvis popularised it. Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype.”
The former Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, tweeted: “God bless Little Richard, one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family.”
There was also a paean of praise from a Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger tweeted: “I’m so saddened to hear about the passing of Little Richard. He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it was first shot through the music scene in the mid 50s.
“When we were on tour with him, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me.
“He contributed so much to popular music. I will miss you Richard, God bless.”
To producer Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, pop music was simply mourning the “loss of a true giant”.