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Little Richard Dead at 87: Remembering the Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer
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Little Richard, the godfather of rock 'n' roll who entertained audiences for more than seven decades with hits that included “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Long Tall Sally," died on Saturday. He was 87.
"I can confirm that Little Richard passed away this morning in Tullahoma, Tennessee, of bone cancer. He was loved by his family and adored by millions," the musician's lawyer, Bill Sobel, told ET in a statement. "He was not only an iconic and legendary musician, but he was also a kind, empathetic, and insightful human being."
Born in Macon, Georgia, on Dec. 5, 1932, the music legend -- whose real name is Richard Penniman -- was one of 11 siblings raised with strict parents who only allowed the family to listen to gospel music. As a child, he sang in the church choir, joined his first band in grade school and performed with gospel legend Sister Rosetta Thorpe when he was 14 years old. He eventually dropped out of high school after his father kicked him out of the house for wearing his mother's makeup and clothes. He went on to join the Buster Brown Orchestra and took on the stage name "Little Richard," which was coined by Buster Brown.
Inspired by singer Billy Wright, Richard began rocking a pompadour hairstyle, heavy makeup and a pencil mustache. With Wright's help, he signed with RCA Victor in 1952 and recorded a string of songs including “Every Hour,” but left the label after the song failed to crack the charts. The time period was notably rocky for Richard, whose father was murdered in 1952. In addition, Richard found himself hopping from one record label to the next, and failed to score any major hits in the process. Discouraged, he moved back to Macon where he worked as a dishwasher before forming a new band and hitting the road once again. By 1955, Richard was determined to sign with Specialty Records and sent numerous demos to the label. The persistence finally paid off months later, which led to the recording session that produced “Tutti Fruiti.” Released in 1956, the piano-heavy rock 'n' roll tune shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart and No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart.
In “Tutti Fruiti” Richard found his first major hit among the seven singles that he released that year, with “Lucille” among the batch. He scored his first Top 10 single with 1957's “Keep A-Knockin,” along with debuting Here’s Little Richard, and a self-titled follow-up album that failed to impact the charts. The seesaw nature of the music business could have played a role in his love-hate relationship with rock 'n' roll, and the drug and alcohol addiction that he battled for years. Another contributor may have been his sexuality. Despite his open testing gender boundaries with glittery fashions and gender-bending looks, Richard grappled with his sexuality throughout much of his life. He was married only once, to Ernestine Harvin in 1957. The couple adopted a son, Danny Jones, prior to divorcing in 1964. Twenty years after his divorce, Richard openly discussed his attraction to men in the biography The Life and Times of Little Richard. Though he identified as pansexual at the time of the book's release, Richard revealed that he was gay in a 1995 interview, only to denounce homosexuality thereafter. He again bashed homosexuality in a 2017 interview with the Christian channel, Three Angels Broadcasting Network.
Seeded among the harmful bouts with addiction and struggles with accepting his sexuality were periods of deep religious devotion. During the 1950s, Richard announced a hiatus from secular music. He began studying religion and toured the country with his traveling evangelical group. Meanwhile, Speciality Records released "Good Golly Miss Molly" and a number of songs, even though he was no longer under the label. He went on to sign his royalties over to Speciality and kicked off what would be the first of many runs as a gospel artist. His debut faith-based album was the 1962 Quincy Jones-produced King of Gospel Singers.
Given his popularity in secular music, it wasn't always easy to get fans on board with his gospel sound. In 1962, an audience booed him during a European tour stop when he broke out into gospel songs. Sam Cooke, who was his show opener, supposedly influenced his return to rock 'n' roll after he witnessed the crowd's reaction to the "Cupid" crooner.
Cooke wasn't the only music legend to open for him early in their career. The Beatles were his opening act for multiple shows in Europe. Jimi Hendrix, with whom Richard collaborated on 1964's “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me), joined his band at one point, but the two bumped heads creatively and severed ties.
The latter half of the '60s were filled with more uncertain career patches, a short-lived record deal, backlash that he received for leaving gospel music and his decision to perform in front of integrated audiences amid racial unrest that birthed the Black Power Movement. Larry Williams, Richard's manager at the time, convinced him to focus on booking live gigs. One of his most memorable performances was at the 1969 Atlantic City Pop Festival featuring Janis Joplin, Bebe King and Frank Zappa on the bill. He closed out the three-day festival with an electric set, and made a similarly show-stopping appearance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival later that year.
In 1970, he released the comeback album The Rill Thing via Reprise Records. By the middle of the decade, Richard's career began to suffer due to heavy drinking and drug abuse. He subsequently quit rock 'n' roll once more and released another gospel effort, God’s Beautiful City, in 1979. During the '80s, he continued touring around the world and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also attempted to recoup royalties from his earlier recordings. He fled a $112 million lawsuit against Speciality Records, which was later settled for an undisclosed amount. Michael Jackson bought Speciality's catalog in the mid-'80s which included music from Richard and The Beatles.
As the ‘90s approached, Richard had transformed into a ubiquitous pop-culture figure making cameos in Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure, La Bamba, Martin and countless other films and TV shows where he typically played an exaggerated version of himself. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990, a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1993 and an American Music Award of Merit in 1997. He also sang the theme song for The Magic School Bus and recorded a rock 'n' roll version of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” the success of which led to Shake It All About, the first of his two children albums.
Richard's final official studio album, Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, was released in 1995. A decade later, Reprise Records released Southern Child, a previously shelved album that he recorded in the '70s. His life story was the subject of a biopic that aired on NBC in 2000.
Years of performing finally began to take a toll on Richard who battled sciatica in his left leg, which forced him into hip surgery in 2009. He announced his retirement in a 2013 Rolling Stone magazine interview stating, “I am done. I don’t feel like doing anything right now.”
The larger-than-life performer spent the majority of his final years in a wheelchair and mostly stayed out of the spotlight. One of his last public appearances was the 2019 Tennessee Governor's Arts Awards where he received the Distinguished Artist Award.