Little Richard, rock'n'roll pioneer, dies aged 87
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Little Richard, the pompadoured preacher-turned-seminal rocker and an inestimable influence on musicians from the Beatles to Prince to Bruce Springsteen, died Saturday. He was 87.
The family was not releasing a cause of death, said Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of the legendary rocker.
The widely-imitated singer and pianist established rock ’n’ roll as a genre with just one rule — there are no rules. And his signature recordings, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Tutti Frutti,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” remain embedded in the core DNA of rock ’n’ roll more than a half-century later.
He was a member of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1986, an inductee of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and one of the artists who helped shatter the color line on the national music charts.
His acolytes ran the gamut from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Springsteen and Prince. And though his biggest hits were all recorded between 1956-58, the impact of his androgynous style and his raucous music stretched into the new millennium.
He even toured with both the Beatles and the Stones, with each serving as his opening acts during British tours in the early ’60s.
“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 first shot through the music scene in the mid-'50s,” tweeted Mick Jagger. “And he was always so generous with advice to me."
Jagger openly credited Little Richard’s stage presence for opening a new door in his own live performances. Neil Young, who first heard Little Richard as a kid in Canada, once recalled how he was immediately blown away. And Brian Wilson, the songwriting genius of California’s Beach Boys, offered his own eulogy for the late musician.
“He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll," Wilson tweeted. "He was such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever.”
Little Richard performs at Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, NY, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004.(ED BETZ/AP)
His wild stage show, with Richard pounding his piano and howling his lyrics like a banshee, became a template for artists from James Brown to Elton John. And Little Richard, no shrinking violet when it came to self-promotion, was happy to take the credit: “I am the architect of rock ’n’ roll. I am the creator, the originator.”
The seminal rocker, in a 1989 interview, even declared that Prince was “the Little Richard of his generation. I was wearing purple before (he) was wearing it!"
His short but hugely influential run of hit singles started with “Tutti Fruitti” in 1956, featuring his signature shout of “Womp-bomp-a-loo.” It was quickly followed by “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” — the latter a staple of Springsteen live shows for decades.
Paul McCartney copped Richard’s signature yelps — perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” from the hit single “She Loves You.” And ex-bandmate John Lennon covered Richard’s “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” on the 1975 “Rock and Roll” album.
While the artist sold more than 30 million records worldwide, his early songs were banned by many white-owned radio stations. White performers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley recorded cover versions of the hits that proved more palatable to prejudiced listeners.
Little Richard was also an Evangelist preacher, presiding over numerous celebrity weddings — including the nuptials of rockers Tom Petty and Van Zandt. He also delivered a eulogy for Ike Turner.
3rd August 1972: Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard in costume at an empty Wembley Stadium, during rehearsals for a concert.(Tim Graham/Getty Images)
The rock and roll original was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., the third child in a family of 12. His father was a bootlegger and his grandfather a preacher, the perfect illustration of the young man’s duality. He began singing in the Pentecostal church choir, where he would additionally dance and occasionally speak in tongues.
The young man’s tastes moved quickly from the sacred to the profane. At home, the effeminate Richard was subject to beatings from his father over his homosexuality. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade to join a traveling medicine show — occasionally donning a dress for their gigs.
He eventually landed at Specialty Records with the help of singer Lloyd Price and began recording his unique brand of pumping piano accompanied by howling vocals with lyrics that often veered toward gibberish. And the gay, black singer was suddenly a massive if improbable star in the white-bread Eisenhower era.
Musician Little Richard performs during the halftime show of the game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Boise State Broncos on December 31, 2004 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
But the good times came to an end in the 1970s when Richard struggled with a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit and swore off the music business. He worked as a Bible salesman and renounced his life as a gay man during a decade-long disappearance. His 1986 return, as might be expected, was explosive.
He was inducted into the rock hall of fame with fellow musicians Elvis Presley, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. He landed a role in the movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”, with his single “Great Gosh A’Mighty” from the soundtrack making the Billboard charts.
Once back in the limelight, Little Richard remained there. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and his hometown of Macon named a street in his honor. He did a soap opera guest spot on “The Young and the Restless,” and was featured in a Geico commercial and remained a presence even after retiring from live gigs in 2002.