Little Richard, the flamboyant piano playing rock ‘n’ roll pioneer is dead at age 87. He died on May 9.
Little Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman – was suffering from a few different health problems for the last several years and had had a stroke and a heart attack, along with ongoing hip pain after a surgery that didn’t go well, according to The Guardian.
Little Richard’s life in music was a huge influence on many stars who came after him, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and more.
Known for his colorful costumes and outsized personality, the piano playing icon’s music is part of the fabric of rock n’ roll. There was no one else quite like him.
Here is what you need to know.
1. Little Richard Came Onto the Music Scene in the 1950s With a Lively, Influential Style
Little Richard was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932, the third child of what would eventually be 12 brothers and sisters. According to Biography, his father was a moonshiner who was openly hostile toward Little Richard’s “early signs of homosexuality.”
Little Richard left home by the time he was 13 and was taken in by a white family who owned a club in Macon. That’s where he started honing his craft and unique style as a performer. In 1951 he got his first record contract with RCA, but they stifled him by signing him to do low key blues songs where he was unable to use his trademark screams and wails.
In 1955 he found his success using his signature style when a producer from Specialty Records hired him on to be the frontman for a New Orleans group. That year his first hit, “Tutti-Frutti” made it to number 17 on the Billboard Charts. From there he followed up with other songs that became huge hits. “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Send Me Some Lovin'” have all stood the test of time.
2. Little Richard Struggled With his Sexuality & Playing Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Because of his Christian Faith
Little Richard had a strong faith in Christianity, yet he also said he knew that he was attracted to men, and the two didn’t jibe. In a 2017 interview with Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Little Richard said, “Anybody that comes in show business, they gon’ say you gay or straight,” he said. “God made men, men and women, women… You’ve got to live the way God wants you to live… He can save you.”
He also grappled with whether he should be playing rock ‘n’ roll music or gospel. In that interview he talked about praying over whether he should continue playing rock ‘n’ roll or not.
“I didn’t see no harm in serving God and serving the devil,” he told the interviewers. He was conflicted because he made a lot of money playing rock ‘n’ roll music even though the lifestyle that went with it was not always in accordance with the Bible’s teachings, and said he eventually came to the conclusion that he couldn’t serve two gods.
“At the very peak of his fame…he concluded that rock ‘n’ roll was the Devil’s work. He abandoned the music business, enrolled in Bible college, and became a traveling Evangelical preacher,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The New York Times says he was done with Rock ‘n’ Roll after an epiphany he had during a performance in Russia in the late 1950s, but he continued to be an icon for the rest of his life.
By the late 1970s Little Richard had left rock ‘n’ roll for gospel music full time, though he dabbled a little in rock in the 1980’s according to History of Rock. He sang back up on U2’s song with B.B. King, “When Love Comes to Town” in 1989.
3. In 1986 Little Richard was Inducted Into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Singer Roberta Flack inducted Little Richard into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. She said, “He has not only made an important contributions to our musical culture and our history…good music last forever and ever and Little Richard’s music has made such a strong impression on all of us. We dance to it; hum along with it. We’ve been affected by it. Little Richard’s art is honest and true and as such it cannot be denied.”
However Little Richard could not be there to accept the award as he’d been in a bad car crash in October of 1985 and could not walk at the time of the award ceremony. His brother-in-law Marvin Blackman accepted the award on his behalf.
That year Little Richard was inducted with other hugely influential musicians. Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were among the “class of 1986” inductees.
Then, in 1989 Little Richard inducted Otis Redding into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame saying, “he was such a great singer…he should’ve been placed in the Rock & Roll Hall of fame before me ’cause he’s gone, and he really contributed so much to the music world.” Little Richard sang little snippets of Redding’s songs during his induction speech several times, laughing and saying, “I feel good and I ain’t had nothin’ but water! Ooooo-weeee!”
4. Little Richard was in a Bad Car Crash in 1985 & Had Other Health Scares
Little Richard hit a telephone pole a little after midnight in October 1985. According to the L.A. Times there was no evidence of drug or alcohol involvement, but the singer was reportedly going 60mph in a 30mph zone.
He ended up with a broken right leg, bruised ribs and head and facial injuries. He was 52 at the time.
In 2013 Little Richard suffered a heart attack. He was on stage at a fundraiser when he told the crowd, “The other night, I didn’t know I was having a heart attack, I was coughing, and my right arm was aching. I told my son, ‘Make the room as cold as ice.’ So he turned the air conditioning on, and I took a baby aspirin. The doctor told me that saved my life. Jesus had something for me. He brought me through,” according Rolling Stone.
In 2016 rumors that Little Richard was near death started when Bootsy Collins tweeted, “A friend, a legend & some say the true King of Rock & Roll. Lil-Richard needs our love & understanding right now….,” according to Mercury News.
But Little Richard wasn’t having that. Rolling Stone reported that Little Richard’s long time attorney wanted him to get the word out that he was not, in fact, dying.
Attorney William Sobel told Rolling Stone that Little Richard told him, “You know, I want you to talk to [the press] because I’m really annoyed. This thing started on Facebook. Not only is my family not gathering around me because I’m ill, but I’m still singing. I don’t perform like I used to, but I have my singing voice, I walk around, I had hip surgery a while ago but I’m healthy.’”
5. Celebrities Shared Their Feelings & Memories at the Loss of Little Richard on Social Media
As an early influencer of Rock ‘n’ Roll artists to come along after him, the loss of Little Richard is a monumental one. Many celebrities and long time fans who knew the man are sharing their grief on social media.
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones wrote on Instagram, “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.”
Others took to Twitter to pay their respects.
Cyndi Lauper tweeted, “So sad Little Richard passed away. He married my husband and I. He was really one of the truly great rock and roll singers and one of the rock and roll pioneers. He will be missed.”
Senior Writer at Rolling Stone tweeted, “Little Richard was the only person in this special issue of @RollingStone who profiled himself. No need to explain why, but he did anyway in these classic first two lines: “A lot of people call me the architect of rock & roll. I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true.”
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