Little Richard, the wild singer-pianist-songwriter who was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers, has died at age 87. His death was confirmed by his son, but the cause was not initially given.
Later in the morning, Little Richard’s agent Dick Alen told People that the rock icon died from bone cancer.
“Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. He was living with his brother in Nashville,” Alen said in a statement. “He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say ‘I’m not well.’ He’s been suffering for many years with various aches and pains. He just wouldn’t talk about it much.”
Little Richard’s catalog of hits is still performed by many bar bands to this day, and the songs were recorded by such acts as The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Kinks and the Everly Brothers, among many others. Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, his chart work includes such standards as “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up,” “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958.
All were driven by a flamboyant, screaming and intense style that was part church revival, part sexually charged performer. His androgynous look of bouffant hair, excessive makeup, and capes at a time when many acts wore suits also stood out, influencing a generation of future performers.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, GA, Little Richard was one of 12 children and was immediately immersed in the church, as several uncles were preachers.
His father Bud wasn’t supportive of his son’s music, accusing him of being gay and creating a miserable home life for the young man. That led to Little Richard leaving home at age 13 and moving in with a friend’s family in Macon.
After winning a local talent show, Penniman first recorded with RCA in 1951. His initial career went nowhere, but soon gravitated toward the primal beat of rock ‘n roll. While working as a dishwasher to support his extended family, he sent a tape to rhythm & blues label Specialty Records in Chicago. A song on the tape, Tutti Frutti, caught the label’s eye. He went on to record the rest of his major hits for them, propelled by Specialty’s inroads into the white music world at a time when rock ‘n roll was just emerging.
Little Richard became something of an unlikely teen idol. Beyond his radio hits, he was part of early rock and roll movies like Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1957).
But that era ended when a dream led Little Richard to abandon his music career and head to an Alabama Bible college, where he became an ordained minister. He returned to music with a 1959 gospel record, God is Real.
That genre proved to be far less commercially successful than his pop music career, so Little Richard, the rock ‘n’ roll star, returned to that first love in 1964. Although he never again achieved his early level of success, he became a touring attraction, and sustained his career throughout the decades built on that skill.
Little Richard struggled with his own persona, alternately claiming a gay identity and denouncing it in various interviews and books. None of the pingponging seemed damage his career in the pre-social media age, and as his stature as a music pioneer grew, he became a cultural institution. He appeared in movies like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and in TV shows like Full House and Miami Vice.
His crowning achievement came in 1986, when he became one of the 10 original inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1993.