Rock n' roll pioneer Little Richard died on Saturday, May 9th of bone cancer at the age of 87. Richard rocketed to stardom in the mid-1950's, when his black eyeliner, bouffant hairdo, and flamboyant performances were impossible to ignore. With genre-defining songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Little Richard — whose real name was Richard Penniman — earned his place in music history, and by 1968 he had sold an astonishing 32 million records worldwide.
He is survived by one son, Danny Jones, whom Richard and his only wife Ernestine Harvin, adopted in the early-1960's. The couple was divorced in 1964.
Paul McCartney, perhaps Little Richard's greatest acolyte, issued a statement, which reads: “From 'Tutti Frutti' to 'Long Tall Sally' to 'Good Golly, Miss Molly' to 'Lucille', Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager. I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, 'I taught Paul everything he knows'. I had to admit he was right. In the early days of The Beatles we played with Richard in Hamburg and got to know him. He would let us hang out in his dressing room and we were witness to his pre-show rituals, with his head under a towel over a bowl of steaming hot water. . . he would suddenly lift his head up to the mirror and say, 'I can’t help it cos I’m so beautiful'. And he was. A great man with a lovely sense of humour and someone who will be missed by the rock and roll community and many more. I thank him for all he taught me and the kindness he showed by letting me be his friend. Goodbye Richard and a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop.”
Ringo Starr posted the legendary October 12th 1962 shot of The Beatles and Little Richard together in Liverpool, England with the caption: “A night to remember little Richard and the boys. . . God bless Little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family.”
Bob Dylan said in a statement: “I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do. I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot. He was always generous, kind and humble. And still dynamite as a performer and a musician and you could still learn plenty from him. In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.”
Mick Jagger said: “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 first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s. 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.”
Keith Richards also saluted Richard: “So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock’n Roll!”
Former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement: “With his exuberance, his creativity, and his refusal to be anything other than himself, Little Richard laid the foundation for generations of artists to follow. We are so lucky to have had him. Sending all my love to his family and friends today.”
During a recent interview, Little Richard seemingly disavowed being gay. Vibe magazine reported the legend appeared without any makeup or his legendary wig, and talked candidly about his sexuality to Three Angels Broadcasting Network, revealing, “When I first came in show business, they wanted you to look like anybody but yourself. And anybody come in show business, they’re going to say you’re gay. Are you straight? Are you a homosexual, something? They’re going to say it. But God, Jesus made men, men. He made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. . . You know, all these things. So much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God. Don’t want no parts of him.”
Fans were confused about the sudden about face, especially in view of past comments by Richards, including his quote in the 1984 book The Life And Times Of Little Richard, when he said, “We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smorgasbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for. . . What kind of sexual am I? I am omnisexual!” During his 1995 Penthouse interview when he admitted: “I’ve been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate. How can I (put) down the fisherman when I’ve been fishing all my life?”
On May 8th, 2015, Little Richard — along with Eric Clapton and Tommy Brown — was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. The induction was held in conjunction with the 36th Annual Blues Music Awards on May 7th and the public Grand Opening of the bricks and mortar Blues Hall of Fame the following day.
Back in September 2014, Little Richard revealed that he suffered a heart attack. Richard spoke of the attack to Cee Lo Green in Atlanta during a Recording Academy fundraiser where the two were involved in a Q&A. Richard explained: “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.”
In August 2013, Little Richard spoke about his imminent retirement, telling Rolling Stone: “I am done, in a sense. I don't feel like doing anything right now.”
Since the beginning of his career, Little Richard was nothing if not outspoken about his contribution to music. He refers to himself as the “originator, emancipator, and the architect of rock n' roll,” and many musicians and historians agree. The list of musicians who have cited him as an influence includes the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Prince, Billy Joel, Buddy Holly, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, John Fogerty, and Michael Jackson, among others.
Richard was among the first group of artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986. In 1990, he earned a star on Hollywood's renowned Walk Of Fame, and in 1993 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy Of Recording Arts And Sciences.
Never one to be shy about his talents, Little Richard told us why nobody else could do what he does: “Y'know, I have a special type of voice that God's given me, and I haven't seen nobody look like me or sound like me, y'know? I have the biggest head in show business.”
Little Richard recalled that upon breaking on the national scene in the mid-'50s, he immediately raised a red flag for the raunchier elements on rock n' roll: “Uh, when I came out, they had me in the same bag that rock n' roll music. . . The radio stations wouldn’t play me. I would go to cities and they would have signs they didn’t want their kids to listen to me. They would have big signs — the churches and the groups would march with picket signs all out in front because I was considered as ‘smutty.’ They called it ‘smutty’ because I was saying ‘Tutti frutti, good booty,’ and then, ‘Good golly, Miss Molly, the house of blue light.’ 'That's prostitution,' they said; but I didn’t mean that — it wasn’t meant that way.”
Paul McCartney says that the birth of rock n' roll not only changed his life but the world at large: “It was America reawakening the world 'cause, y'know, we were into sort of other stuff then, and suddenly Elvis, Little Richard came screaming out of across the Atlantic, y'know, and it was just so exciting for us all. That is a very exciting time, so to remember it was very exciting, but also being a teenager at that time was a very exciting, interesting time.”
Richard's longtime friend Dion said that his vain public persona doesn't cross over into his personal life: “Little Richard, y'know he has an image as a kind of self-centered, self-serving — (laughs) but, you walk in the room, and he was just taken by who was in the room. It wouldn't be anything about him. Very, like, a selfless kind of thing, y'know?”
When we last caught up with Little Richard he told us that the studio doesn't hold much interest for him anymore: “I'm really not interested in recording. I don't sit down thinking about 'When can I record?' I like to work, I like to meet people, I like to talk to people, and I think that to come to see me is to see history alive. I am history alive!”
Little Richard admitted that when he hit the stage he still felt like it was 1958: “I love rock n' roll. When I play my dates in person, I sing 'Tutti Frutti' the same as I did when I recorded it years ago. I sing 'Long Tall Sally,' 'Slippin' And Slidin,'” 'Rip It Up,' 'Ready Teddy,' the same as I did many years back. And I don't sing it like it's something old — I sing it like it's a hit now.”
In May 2002, Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were honored with the first BMI Icon Awards.
Although basically retired, Little Richard continued to keep up a public profile. He recently played himself in a commercial for Geico car insurance.
In 2006 Richard recorded a duet of the Beatles' “I Saw Her Standing There” for Jerry Lee Lewis' Last Man Standing album. Sadly, of the inaugural 1986 class of inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only Lewis and Don Everly are still alive.
FRIENDS & FANS REMEMBER LITTLE RICHARD
Jerry Lee Lewis: “It is with a heavy heart that I ask for prayers for the family of my lifelong friend and fellow Rocker ‘Little Richard.’ He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly. God Bless his family and fans. Rest In Peace, my friend. Love Eternally, Jerry Lee Lewis”
Dion DiMucci: “Little Richard — my inspiration!!! A first generation rock ‘n’ roll original!!! But most of all a dear friend for over 60 years. Eternal rest my friend.”
Elton John: “Without a doubt — musically, vocally and visually – he was my biggest influence. Seeing him live in my teens was the most exciting event in my life at that point. Goosebumps, electricity and joy came from every pore. His records still sound fresh and the opening few seconds of 'Tutti Frutti' are the most explosive in music history. I was lucky enough to work with him for my Duets album in 1993. He was shy and funny and I was SO nervous. The track we recorded 'The Power' is a favourite in my catalogue. We also played live at the Beverly Hilton and I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. He influenced so many and is irreplaceable. A true legend, icon and a force of nature. #RIP Little Richard. Love, Elton x”
Jimmy Page: “RIP Little Richard, a very sad loss. My thoughts are with his loved ones. It’s Little Richard’s songs that pioneered rock’n’roll. I got to hear him and his band at the Newport Lounge in Miami and boy were they good.”
Brian Wilson: “I’m very sorry to hear about Little Richard. He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever. Love & Mercy, Brian”
Rod Stewart: “'The Girl Cant Help It' played a million times in my house when i was little kid in the Fifties, it was my big brothers 78. It laid out the Rock ‘n’ Roll road for me which I gladly followed. Thank you Richard. . . thank you.”
Bootsy Collins: “A friend, a Rock & the Institution, Mr. Richard Wayne Penniman (Dec 5, 1932 – May 9, 2020), better known as Little Richard. Share the love with his family & friends all around the world. We will never forget u & ur music. Bootsy baby!!!”
Quincy Jones: “Absolutely heartbroken this morning at also hearing the news of the passing of my bro & friend, the great Little Richard. From our connection through our mutual mentor, Bumps Blackwell, to recording “Money Is” & “Do It To It” for the $ soundtrack.”
Steven Van Zandt: “RIP Little Richard. The man who invented Rock and Roll. Elvis popularized it. Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype. Maureen and I were so honored being the first marriage he conducted. We were lucky to know him. He lives forever in the Underground Garage.”
Dave Davies: “He was so great, he looked crazy so perfect”
Gene Simmons: “Sadly, Little Richard passed away today. A founding Father of Rock And Roll, his contributions simply can’t be overstated. I had the honor of meeting Richard in his later years and was awed by his presence. He told me, 'I am the architect of Rock And Roll.' Amen! Rest In Peace.”
Paul Stanley: “LITTLE RICHARD Is A Cornerstone In The Very Foundation Of Rock & Roll. An Icon. A Songwriter And Performer With A Personality To Match. RIP Superstar”
Joan Jett: “Little Richard was one of the original rock 'n' rollers — He was THE ORIGINAL GLAM ROCKER, and he took a lot of abuse for being in the first wave. He forged a path for all of us who followed.”
Tom Jones: “To my dear Richard, You’re a true original, you broke all the rules and you weren’t afraid to show it. A magnificent talent and an inspiration to so many of us. My heart goes out to your loved ones, RIP my friend.”
Krist Novoselic: “In the late 1980s, I was walking down Hollywood Blvd, a black limo drove by slowly, Little Richard waved at us from the back window with a crazy look on his face. A giant in Rock and Roll music.”
Foo Fighters: “I was once asked, 'If u could meet one person, who would it be?' I always said Little Richard. Because, to me, he was rock & roll’s most joyous, rebellious innovator. Thank u for planting that seed, Richard. The world is a much happier place thanks to ur music”
Boy George: “God bless Little Richard. I loved him. I met him. Amazing! R.I.P “
Iggy Pop: “Dear Little Richard, thank you, RIP”
Cyndi Lauper: “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.”
Pat Boone: “Richard and I are brothers, musically and spiritually. I had million-selling records of his early R&B hits which weren’t known on Pop radio and he credited me with helping him cross over to the larger market — but way more than that, we knew we were Christian brothers and we celebrated that. I look forward to seeing him again before too long.”