Little Richard, who helped shape rock ‘n’ roll as we know it when he burst into popular music in the late 1950s with songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and his flamboyant showmanship, died at 87 on Saturday of bone cancer in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Tutti Frutti,” released in October 1955, was Little Richard’s breakout single, opening with the outburst: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”
In 2007, Mojo magazine called the song “the sound of the birth of rock and roll,” placing it first on its list of “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World.”
Little Richard's Crossover Success
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, the singer and pianist started out by singing gospel and became Little Richard when he was about 15, according to Rolling Stone. He was a crossover artist, popular with both black and white listeners in the segregated 1950s and playing to integrated audiences.
The Beatles opened for Little Richard early in their career, and he was an influence on Paul McCartney. Jimi Hendrix was a guitarist in Little Richard’s band, the Upsetters, in the mid-1960s. His songs were covered widely.
Known for his pompadour, makeup, sequined outfits and energetic performing style, banging his leg and jumping on the piano, Richard recorded and performed both gospel and secular music in his career and came and went from the ministry.
He had relationships with both men and women and gave conflicting answers about his sexuality throughout his life. His onstage style was reportedly influenced by the gay 1950s R&B pianist Esquerita.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger Remember Little Richard
Little Richard’s peers and the rock legends for which he paved the way were remembering him Saturday.
Producer, songwriter and musician Quincy Jones, who worked with Little Richard on the soundtrack for the film “Dollars,” called him “my brother and friend” in a Facebook post Saturday.
“Every moment in Richard’s company was a thrill,” Jones said, calling him “an innovator whose influence spans America’s musical diaspora from gospel, the blues and R&B to rock & roll and hip hop. There will never, ever, ever be another Little Richard.”
Fellow rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis asked in a Facebook post for prayers for Richard’s family.
“He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly.”
Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger said in a statement posted on Twitter that Little Richard was “the biggest inspiration of my early teens” and said 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 ‘50s.” Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards called Little Richard “the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll” in a separate tweet.
Little Richard was Bob Dylan’s “shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy,” the singer-songwriter said in a tweet Saturday. “His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.”
Elton John said that “without a doubt — musically, vocally and visually — he was my biggest influence” in a series of tweets.
“Seeing him live in my teens was the most exciting event in my life at that point. Goosebumps, electricity and joy came from every pore.”
Little Richard was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of its inaugural class in 1986. He continued performing live until 2014, struggling with sciatica in his later years.
In 2013, Little Richard told Rolling Stone “there wasn’t no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll” when he started.
“When I started with ‘Tutti Frutti,’ that’s when rock really started rocking.”
Photo by Robbie Drexhage via Wikimedia.