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LITTLE RICHARD,
1932-2020

Little Richard, an architect of rock ‘n’ roll whose vivacious music and flamboyant style would influence everyone from The Beatles to Prince, has died at the age of 87.

His son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death on Saturday to Rolling Stone and the New York Times. The cause was cancer. 

Born Richard Penniman into a religious family, Little Richard was pure wildness: He pounded the piano, shrieked his way through songs, wore a sky-high pompadour and delivered songs in a sexually suggestive way that defied the demure mores of the 1950s.

Over the course of less than three years—October 1955 to May 1958—Little Richard released a dozen singles that would define the early years of rock & roll: “Tutti Fruitti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Lucille,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Keep A-Knockin’” among them. He had 14 songs go Top 10 R&B during that span.

His music would be covered by The Beatles, who opened shows for him in Europe in 1962,  the Everly Brothers, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Elvis Costello and others.

A native of Macon, Ga., he impressed Sister Rosetta Tharpe when he was 14 that led to him leaving school and working as a musician in various local and touring bands. He secured his first record deal with RCA in 1951 after winning a local talent show. He styled his stage persona and look on several musicians, among them Roy Brown, Billy Wright and Esquerita, the South Carolina pianist and singer who mixed a pumped-up gospel sound with outrageous lyrics and a look that included a pompadour, sunglasses and heavy makeupo.

After five years of making records for RCA and Peacock that went nowhere, he worked as a dishwasher while shopping for a new deal. Specialty Records founder Art Rupe heard the demo of “Tutti Frutti”—Lloyd Price had suggested that Richard sent it to him— and brought Little Richard to New Orleans to record. The song went Top20 on the pop chart.

The follow-up, “Long Tall Sally,” was his biggest hit, reaching #6. As the string of hits piled up, Little Richard was as steady a hitmaker as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.

Still, as popular as he was, radio targeted to white audiences skipped over his records to play Pat Boone’s covers of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” pushing those records higher up the charts than the originals.

Penniman gave upon rock & roll and turned to gospel music after a series of events had him convinced he should become a minister. He made his first gospel album, God Is Real, in 1959.

He bounced back and forth between rock & roll and gospel, making his first return to secular rock in 1964 as Beatlemania was gripping the world. In the 1970s, Little Richard was one of the first artists to do well financially working the oldies circuit while recording new music for Reprise; in the middle of the decade he returned to gospel.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Little Richard appeared in films and TV shows and toured, releasing his final album, Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, in 1992.

Little Richard was of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1993, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at The Grammys. He is also in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

 

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