Little Richard 1932 – 2020

By Scott Bernstein May 9, 2020 8:14 am PDT

Little Richard, a key figure in the early days of rock and one of the most influential musicians of the past century, has died at age 87. The pioneering artist’s death was confirmed by his son, Danny Jones Penniman to Rolling Stone. Danny Jones Penniman revealed his father succumbed to cancer.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia; Little Richard recorded a string of hits in the mid-1950s that included “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Lucille.” His flamboyant performance style laid the groundwork for many musicians who followed in his footsteps including James Brown, Prince, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and Lou Reed. Penniman also broke barriers of both race and genre throughout his legendary career. Penniman’s music ran the gamut from rock to soul to rhythm and blues and his imprint on hip-hop can be displayed by the dozens of tunes that include samples of “Tutti Fruitti,” Little Richard’s signature song.

Penniman gained the nickname “Little Richard” due to his stature in comparison to the other members of his huge family. One of his first big breaks came in 1947, when one of his influences — Sister Rosetta Sharpe — heard him singing and was so impressed, she invited him to open her show that night. He soon left home in the middle of high school and embarked on his eight-decade career that started with appearances in and out of drag on the minstrel show circuit. He was soon signed by RCA Victor, but the relationship only lasted a year. Little Richard was eventually signed by Speciality Records which put out “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.

“Tutti Frutti” showed off Penniman’s eclectic musical style and in 2007 was voted into the top slot on Mojo’s “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World” list. The song hit #2 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart and was followed by successful singles “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ & Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny” and “Keep-A-Knockin'” over the next two years. Little Richard then abandoned the world of popular music to focus on gospel before returning to rock in the early-1960s. Many British Invasion acts were inspired by Little Richard including The Beatles, who performed “Long Tall Sally,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” and other songs credited to Penniman.

Little Richard continued to perform and wow audience into the 2010s with his wild showmanship. He reached new audiences in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of appearances on television and in the movies as well as by recording an album for children. Penniman was among the first inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986. That was just one of many honors bestowed on Little Richard as he was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, Recording Academy and National Museum of African American Music. Penniman announced his retirement to Rolling Stone in 2013.

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