NASHVILLE, TN (CelebrityAccess) — Little Richard, an early pioneer of rock & roll, who scored a string of smash hits in the 1950s, and helped to break down color barriers in modern music, has died. He was 87.
His passing was announced by his son Danny Penniman, who said his father died at home.
A flamboyant performer, whose outsized personality and genderbending style helped to prefigure the shape of rock & roll for decades, generated an epic run of hits in the 1950s, including 14 top 10 R&B hits in a 2-year period from 1955 to 1957.
Born and raised in Macon, Georgia as Richard Wayne Penniman, he was the third of twelve children and raised in the city’s ‘s Pleasant Hill neighborhood. He took an interest in music at an early age and began singing with a local church choir and took early inspiration from gospel artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharp who, upon hearing a 14-year-old Penniman to open for her when she performed at Macon City Auditorium.
Penniman dropped out of high school before the 10th grade and began performing with traveling medicine shows touring on the minstrel circuit including as Princess LaVonne.
After relocating to Atlanta, Penniman became friends with the noted jump blues singer Billy Wright, who took Penniman under his wing, teaching him the ropes of performing and helped him to land his first recording contract with RCA Victor.
While he failed to record a breakout hit with RCA Victor, the B side of his debut on the label, “Every Hour”, proved to be a regional hit, but RCA Victor eventually dropped him after he failed to break through nationally.
He next signed with Peacock Records, recording eight singles with them but despite his growing reputation as a live performer, none of the records charted leading to his relationship with label owner Don Robey to sour.
In 1955, he sent a demo to Specialty Records, whose owner Art Rupe loaned Penniman enough money to buy out his remaining contract with Peacock.
His 1955 debut single on Specialty, “Tutti Frutti” proved to be a smash hit, No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers and making the jump to the pop charts in both the US, where it peaked at 21, and in the UK where it charted at 29, eventually selling more than a million copies.
“Tutti Frutti” also marked the start of an epic run on the charts for Little Richard, with hits that included “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Oohl My Soul” and others. His critically acclaimed debut album Here’s Little Richard (1957) peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Top LPs chart.
Despite his success, he walked away in 1957, enrolling at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology and later becoming a traveling preacher. He has since explained his religious re-awakening in multiple ways, suggesting he felt a calling but at other times, claiming that he was cut out of royalties from his releases on Specialty.
He also experimented with recording gospel music for several years on Mercury Records but failed to achieve notable chart success.
Little Richard returned to secular music in 1962 while on tour with Sam Cooke in Europe after being booed by fans for his gospel music. Brian Epstein, manager of the fledgling band The Beatles, arranged for the band to open on several dates for Little Richard after hearing of his return to rock.
However, the rise of The Beatles spelled trouble for Little Richard as tastes in music began to shift amid the British invasion era. Little Richard scored only minor hits in the 1960s, leading him to increasingly focus on live touring over recording.
Still a legendary live performer, Little Richard began performing in Las Vegas and at music festivals such as Atlantic City Pop Festival, where he upstaged headliner Janis Joplin, and the Toronto Pop Festival, where, during a frenetic 30-minute set, he stole the spotlight from Jonh Lennon.
During this period, Little Richard also signed a young guitarist Jimi Hendrix as part of his backing band. However, the two outsized personalities clashed over the spotlight, Hendrix’s tardiness, wardrobe, and according to Hendrix, a lack of payments, leading to Hendrix’s exit from the band.
By the 1970s, Little Richard was performing on the rock and roll revival circuit, but his live appearances became increasingly erratic and desultory. In 1972, he co-headlined the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium with Chuck Berry but was booed by the audience after he stopped singing mid-performance.
While he abstained from alcohol and drugs during the early part of his career, by the 1970s, he begun drinking heavily, and developed both a cocaine and heroin habit and was spending as much as $1,000 a day on drugs, according to his biographer Charles White.
In 1977, seemingly worn out, he quit rock & roll again and returned to religion.
In 1984, Penniman filed a $112 million lawsuit against his former label Specialty Records; Specialty’s Art Rupe and his publishing company, Venice Music; and ATV Music for not paying royalties after he left the label in 1959. The suit was eventually settled out of court with some reports suggesting that Michael Jackson later provided him monetary compensation when he co-owned some of Little Richards’ material with Sony/ATV.
The suit marked another return to pop music for Little Richard, and he returned to the charts again in 1986 with “Great Gosh A’Mighty! (It’s a Matter of Time)” as part of the soundtrack for the film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
In 2000, Little Richard’s early career was dramatized for the biographical film that included his 1950s chart run, as well as his religious conversion and eventual return to secular music. Penniman was played by Leon Robinson, who earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for his performance in this role.
Little Richard also toured extensively in the 2000s until declining health prompted him to retire in 2013.
“I am done, in a sense, because I don’t feel like doing anything right now.” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “I think my legacy should be that when I started in showbusiness there wasn’t no such thing as rock’n’roll. When I started with ‘Tutti Frutti’, that’s when rock really started rocking.”
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 1993, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.