Little Richard, Rock ‘n’ Roll legend, Dead at 87

Little Richard Dead

little richard

Little Richard, the self-described “king and queen” of rock and roll and an outsize influence on everyone from David Bowie to Prince, died Saturday. He was 87 years old. Richard’s Son Danny Jones Penniman confirmed the news to Rolling stone. He said the cause of death was cancer.


Early Life

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga. He was a third of 12 children. His father was a brick mason, a bootlegger, and owned a nightclub called the Tip In Inn. An uncle, a cousin, and a grandfather were preachers, and as a boy, he attended Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, and Holiness churches and aspired to be a singing evangelist. When Richard was 19, his father was shot to death outside of his club: Charles Penniman died on Feb. 15, 1952.
Penniman’s initial musical influences were gospel performers such as Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and Marion Williams. May, a singing evangelist who was known as “the Thunderbolt of the Middle West” because of his phenomenal range and vocal power, inspired Penniman to become a preacher.


In 1950, Penniman joined his first band – Buster Brown’s Orchestra – where he received the moniker Little Richard.
Over the next few years (and a few singles released under RCA Victor), Richard went on to release one of his most recognizable singles, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ in 1955 and it became an instant hit in America and the UK.

little richard dead

In 1962 Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, asked Don Arden to allow his band to open for Penniman on some tour dates, to which he agreed. The first show for which the Beatles opened was at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom that October. The following month they, along with Swedish singer Jerry Williams and his band The Violence, opened for Penniman at the Star-Club in Hamburg.
In 1963, Penniman was called by a concert promoter to rescue a sagging tour featuring The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, and The Rolling Stones.
Little Richard was at the height of his fame when he left the United States in late September 1957 to begin a tour in Australia. As he told the story, he was exhausted, under intense pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, and furious at the low royalty rate he was receiving from Specialty. Without anyone to advise him, he had signed a contract that gave him half a cent for every record he sold. “Tutti Frutti” had sold half a million copies but had netted him only $25,000.

His live performances in this period of his career were known for being high-energy and for having the power to integrate an audience in an era known for segregated venues. “He’d just burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn’t be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience,” the record producer and arranger H.B. Barnum, who played saxophone with Little Richard early in his career, recalled in “The Life and Times of Little Richard” (1984), an authorized biography by Charles White

Little Richard was a man of extremes: A wild pop star and a deeply religious person known to carry his Bible everywhere and quote from it often. There were periods during his career when he left show business altogether to preach. He often said he wanted to be a minister, like others in his family.
Little Richard had a rough decade. He was drinking and consuming drugs daily, a habit that was costing him hundreds of dollars a day.


little richard
Little Richard ©CNN

The music he released throughout the 1950s and 60s had an indelible influence on other famous Georgia musicians like Otis Redding and James Brown, with Redding starting his professional career in Little Richard’s band, The Upsetters.

Bob Dylan also first performed covers of Penniman’s songs in high school and Jimi Hendrix was quoted as saying, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”

Other rock legends like Bob Seger and John Fogerty cited him as an influence, and Michael Jackson said his album ‘Off the Wall’ was inspired by Penniman.

It took someone like Little Richard — a fearless performer and gifted musician, to shape American music forward. He liked to remind people he was “the architect” of rock and roll.
Little Richard did not invent rock ’n’ roll. Other musicians had already been mining a similar vein by the time he recorded his first hit, but he was one of its most original designers.

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