Obituary: Little Richard, flamboyant singer who was a rock’n’roll legend
Little Richard, one of the chief architects of rock’n’roll whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, died on Saturday after battling bone cancer. He was 87.
Bill Sobel, Little Richard’s attorney for more than three decades, said the musician died at a family home in Tullahoma, Tennessee. “He was not only an iconic and legendary musician, but he was also a kind, empathetic, and insightful human being,” Sobel said.
Little Richard was one of rock’n’roll’s founding fathers who helped shatter the colour barrier on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was called “race music” into the mainstream. Richard’s hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and mad hairdo, made him an implausible sensation – a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.
He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour and looks – mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache and glittery suits.
It was 1956 when his classic “Tutti Frutti” landed like a hand grenade in the Top 40, exploding from radios and off turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard’s memorable call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom”.
A string of hits followed, providing the foundation of rock music: “Lucille,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing “Good Golly Miss Molly” live.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature yelps – perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” from the hit “She Loves You”. Former bandmate John Lennon covered Richard’s “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” on his 1975 “Rock and Roll” album.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the charter members with Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and others.
Lewis, 84, said in a statement provided by his publicist: “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.” Mick Jagger called Little Richard “the biggest inspiration of my early teens” in a social media post on Saturday.
“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,” Jagger wrote. “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.”
Few were quicker to acknowledge Little Richard’s seminal role than Richard himself. The flamboyant singer claimed he paved the way for Elvis, provided Jagger with his stage moves and gave vocal lessons to McCartney. “I am the architect of rock’n’roll!”, Little Richard crowed at the 1988 Grammy Awards as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. “I am the originator!”
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracised because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.
The family was religious, and Richard sang in local churches with a group called the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock’n’roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career. Penniman was performing with bands by the age of 14, but there were problems at home over his sexual orientation. His father beat the boy and derided him as “half a son”.
Richard left home to join a minstrel show run by a man known as Sugarloaf Sam, occasionally appearing in drag. In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy “Tutti Frutti,” with lyrics that were sanitised by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell 1 million records over the next year.
When Little Richard’s hit was banned by many white-owned radio stations, white performers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley did cover versions that topped the charts.
Little Richard went Hollywood with an appearance in Don’t Knock the Rock. But his wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard quit the business in 1957 to enrol in a theological school and get married. He remained on the charts when his label released previously recorded material. And he recorded a gospel record, returning to his roots.
A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter with a man in a bus station restroom led to his divorce and return to performing. He mounted three tours of England between 1962 and 1964, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones serving as opening acts. Back in the States, he put together a band that included guitarist Jimi Hendrix – and later fired Hendrix when he was late for a bus.
In 1968, Richard hit Las Vegas and relaunched his career. Within two years, he had another hit single and made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. By the mid-1970s, he was battling a $1,000-a-day cocaine problem and once again abandoned his musical career. He returned to religion, selling Bibles and renouncing homosexuality. For more than a decade, he vanished.
“If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody,” Richard said.
But he returned, in 1986, in spectacular fashion. Little Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and appeared in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
A Little Richard song from the soundtrack, “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” even put him back on the charts for the first time in more than 15 years. Little Richard was back to stay, enjoying another dose of celebrity that he fully embraced. Macon named a street after its favourite son. And Little Richard was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2002, he announced his retirement from live performing. But he continued to appear frequently on television.
Richard had hip surgery in November 2009 at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, and asked fans at the time to pray for him.
KRISTIN M HALL
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