Little Richard, one of the pioneers of the first wave of rock’n’roll, has died. He was 87.
Richard – whose real name was Richard Penniman – had been in poor health for several years, suffering hip problems, a stroke and a heart attack.
Rolling Stone magazine said Richard’s son, Danny Penniman, “confirmed the pioneer’s death … but said the cause of death was unknown”.
In a post on Instagram, band member Kelvin Holly said: “Rest in peace, Richard. This one really stings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all my bandmates and fans all over the world. Richard truly was the king!”
The sheriff’s department for Macon, Georgia, where Richard was born and lived, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Richard’s performing career began when he was in mid-teens, in the late 40s, but his early recordings with the RCA Victor label garnered little success.
The breakthrough came when he signed to Specialty Records in 1955, releasing a run of singles that were among the wildest and most flamboyant of the rock’n’roll era – Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Keep A-Knockin’ and Good Golly, Miss Molly, among others – and that made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
He was known for his outrageous performance style – eyes lined with mascara, brightly coloured clothes – which was echoed later by Prince. He had been a drag performer before the rock’n’roll boom and by his own admission was involved in voyeurism, allowing men to have sex in the back seat of his car while he watched. He was arrested at least twice for lewd conduct.
Richard’s breakthrough single, Tutti Frutti, was originally a song about anal sex – “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy,” he sang – until the producer Bumps Blackwell suggested it be cleaned up. The song bequeathed rock’n’roll its greatest nonsensical expression of joy, whose exact syllables are still debated: “Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!”
In October 1957, during a tour of Australia, Richard saw a fireball crossing the sky – actually the Sputnik 1 satellite – and took it as a sign from God that he needed to change his ways, and in 1958 he became a preacher, only to return to secular music in 1962. The conflict between God and the devil’s music was a theme for much of the rest of his life.
The Specialty singles exerted a profound influence on a later generation of musicians – Paul McCartney was a huge fan, and the Beatles performed Richard’s songs in concert.
“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” McCartney said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”
In 2014, AC/DC’s then singer Brian Johnson told the Guardian about the experience of seeing Little Richard on television for the first time: “It was a Saturday, it was one o’clock and it was sunny day. And this woman was going, ‘And now, from America, we have Little Richard.’ And it was this f***ing black guy with this f***ing ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was f***ing prettier than a woman. And it was Tutti Frutti …”
At this point, Johnson mimed slack-jawed amazement. “What the f***? There was nothing, and then there was this.”
The band’s guitarist, Angus Young, said of Richard: “The way he plays and the way he sings, it’s art and science, everything together.”