Richard Wayne Penniman, who became known to the world as Little Richard and is frequently credited as “the architect of rock ‘n roll,” passed away this morning, May 9, 2020. He was 87.
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1932, he helped lay the foundation for rock ‘n roll, soul music, funk, and more. He banged on instruments (and pots and pans) a lot as a child and sang in churches. He began performing publicly at age 15 in 1947, after his dad kicked him out of the house. His style fused gospel and blues with the boogie-woogie shuffle rhythm to help create the 1950s sound that became rock ‘n roll. His showmanship and vocals, which increasingly added loud shouts, wails and scream, helped him stand out from other singers. His influential hits in the mid- and late 1950s laid the groundwork for artists including Otis Redding, Elvis, Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruno Mars, and The Beatles (several of The Beatles’ early hits were, in fact, covers of Little Richard songs) and became one of the first big “crossover” artists, shattering color lines – especially in the South – and thrusting his new style of music onto a much wider audience across the country and the world.
His 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti” helped form the basis of the standard rock beat, which was soon used as the foundation for music from artists like Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. The song “Tutti Frutti” was ranked the #1 on Mojo‘s list of The Top 100 Records That Changed The World, calling the song “the birth of rock ‘n roll.” Two years later, “Lucille” added the heavy bassline, stonger rock beat, and a slightly slower tempo that helped lead to popular rock styles of the 1960s. James Brown credited Little Richard and his band, The Upsetters, with being the first musician to “put the funk in the rock beat.”
His look, which incorporated a pompadour, sparkling outfits, and exaggerated motions while playing piano, inspired countless artists including Elton John, Prince, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Bruno Mars, and let’s just say thousands more.
He was one of the original inductees into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1986. While unable to attend because he was recovering from a car accident, he did send a recorded video message for the ceremony. Later that year, he appeared and performed in the Richard Dreyfuss/Bette Midler/Nick Nolte comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990, won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1993, was inducted into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame in 2006, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2015, and just last year it was announced his childhood home was being preserved for showcase and a statue of him would be erected in his honor in his original hometown of Macon, Georgia. He also has over 20 movie credits, the last one of which is a voice credit on The Simpsons in 2002. When he turned 80 in 2012, Rolling Stone did this piece on him, calling him “rock’s first unstoppable force.”
Here’s a clip of Little Richard performing “Long Tall Sally” in 1957, in color (which was quite rare then):
Here’s Little Richard and his band The Upsetters in black and white, performing “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti” from the film Don’t Knock the Rock in 1956:
Here’s Little Richard in 1986 during the film Down & Out in Beverly Hills, where he performed what would be his final Top 40 hit, “Great Gosh A’mighty,” in the film. Then, his live performance at the “Legends of Rock ‘n Roll” show, filmed in Rome in 1989 where he was introduced by none other than another legend, Ray Charles.
RIP to Little Richard, one of the Greatest.