Today we have sad news to report that Little Richard, the legendary, iconic, flamboyant and monstrously talented musician that rose to fame in the 1950s with his pioneering rock & roll sound, has died. Born as Richard Wayne Penniman, the singers death was confirmed to Rolling Stone by the singer’s song Danny Jones Penniman, who said that the cause of death was bone cancer. Little Richard was 87.
Over the course of nearly eight decades, Little Richard has been nearly synonymous with the early days of rock and roll with songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and more becoming tentpoles of the growing genre. The aforementioned “Tutti Frutti” was his first big hit in 1956 and his uptempo rhythms, pounding piano playing and charismatic, sexually-driven (and sometimes nonsensical) lyrics pioneering a sound that would be a major influence on literally millions of musicians over the subsequent half-century and beyond.
His main run of commerical success was during the ’50s and he never had a Top 10 single after 1958, which saw him take a venture into gospel music. His 1961 album King of the Gospel Singers was produced by legendary producer Quincy Jones, who remarked that Pennimans vocals were more impressive than any other artist hed worked with. After returning to secular music later in the 1960s, he opened for The Beatles when they performed in the United States. It was around this time that a little-known studio guitarist named Jimi Hendrix joined Little Richards band The Upsetters and joined him on tour.
It wasn’t just Little Richard’s singing and piano playing that were larger than life. He set the stage as one of rock music’s first outsized personalities, setting the stage for future stage stars like Prince, David Bowie, James Brown, Freddie Mercury and others. With his iconic pompador haircut, outlandish outfits and uninhibited performances, he was a true trailblazer in the world of popular music.
Penniman was born in Macon, GA on December 5, 1932 to Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Pennima, one of 12 children in the family. In addition to working as a bricklayer and church deacon, Penniman said his father sold bootleg liquor and ran a nightlcub called the Tip In Inn to make money on the side. He grew up in a religious household and attended a variety of southern churches during his childhood, enjoying the charismatic worship of the Pentacostal churches most.
He would sing at church, learned the alto sax in high school and would sing and play makeshift percussion instruments on his porch, which annoyed his neighbors but also likely played a big part in being discovered and making music a career.