The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, May 10, 2020 1:00 am

Rock legend Little Richard dies

Charter member of Hall of Fame had bone cancer

Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 Saturday after battling bone cancer. He was 87.

Bill Sobel, Little Richard's attorney for more than three decades, told the AP in an email that the musician died at a family home in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock 'n' roll's founding fathers who helped shatter the color line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream.

Richard's hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and 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, 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 behavior and looks – mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache and glittery suits.

“Little Richard? That's rock 'n' roll,” Neil Young, who heard Richard's riffs on the radio in Canada, told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “Little Richard was great on every record.”

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.

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.

Mick Jagger called Little Richard “the biggest inspiration of my early teens” in a social media post 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.”

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracized because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.

In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy “Tutti Frutti,” with lyrics that were sanitized 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.

But his wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard quit the business in 1957 to enroll in a theological school and get married. 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.

By the mid-1970s, Richard 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.”


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