Little Richard, Rock Pioneer Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead At 87

Little Richard, Rock Pioneer Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead At 87

Little Richard
Little Richard, a rock music pioneer who broke down musical barriers with hits like “Tutti Frutti,” has died at the age of 87. This Nov. 13, 1986 photo shows Little Richard in Los Angeles. The self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll,” his piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing R&B to white America. He died on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Avery, File)

There’s no other way to put it. Little Richard was a force of nature. The founding father of rock died on May 9 at the age of 87. Little Richard forever changed music and broke down barriers for Black artists to pursue genres they had been shut out of.

Little Richard looked different, sounded different, and though he was sometimes underrated, he demanded to be recognized for his contributions to the world of music. He was the pianist-singer behind “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Long Tall Sally” but he was so much more.

His son, Danny Jones Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was bone cancer, CNN reported.

Little Richard wore his hair piled on top of his head in a pompadour, was glammed out with makeup, robed in flamboyant outfits and he often broke out in high-pitched shrieks. Little Richard was gender-bending way before Prince or the term gender-bending was even uttered. In other words, when Little Richard hit the stage, he commanded attention. 

The musician was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia. He was one of 12 children and grew up around uncles who were preachers, Rolling Stone reported.

“I was born in the slums. My daddy sold whiskey — bootleg whiskey,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970

Like many music legends, Little Richard began by singing in his local church. But clashes with his father, who accused him of being gay, caused Little Richard to leave home at 13. He moved in with a white family in Macon, Rolling Stone reported. 

He continued to pursue his music and started performing around town. After doing a show at a popular night spot called Tick Tock Club in Macon and winning a local talent show, Little Richard landed his first record deal with RCA in 1951. 

“When I first came along, I never heard any rock & roll,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “When I started singing (rock & roll), I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”

Despite having a record contract, Little Richard was finding it hard to land a hit. In 1956 he was washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon and had done only one track under his contract — “Little Richard’s Boogie.” 

Little Richard decided to send a tape with a rough and naughty version of a song called “Tutti Frutti” to Specialty Records in Chicago. He said he came up with the song’s famed chorus — “a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom” — while washing dishes. 

In September 1955, Specialty Records released a cleaned-up version of “Tutti Frutti” and it became Little Richard’s first hit, peaking at No. 17 on the pop chart, Biography reported. It was a unique track for the time and was embraced by both Black and white music lovers.

 “’Tutti Frutti’ really started the races being together,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1990. “From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites.”

Next came “Long Tall Sally,” which hit No. 6. The hits continued after that, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” 

Other musicians started recording his hits. “The Beatles recorded several of his songs, including “Long Tall Sally,” and Paul McCartney’s singing on those tracks – and the Beatles’ own “I’m Down”– paid tribute to Little Richard’s shredded-throat style. His songs became part of the rock & roll canon, covered over the decades by everyone from the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions, Rolling Stone reported.

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For a brief period, Little Richard dabbled in Gospel music but in 1964 he returned to secular rock. In the 1970s, Little Richard was on the rock-oldies circuit. 

In the ’80s, he made guest appearances in movies including “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and in TV shows “Full House” and “Miami Vice.” 

In 1986, Little Richard was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. 

Once Little Richard entered the world of music, it was forever changed.

The “Architect of Rock and Roll” has left the building.