He was, for a time, among the biggest stars in the world. And he is certainly one of the seminal figures in the development of rock and roll. Both flamboyant and charismatic, he set the bar for the showmanship and created a style that would be mimicked by artists for the next two generations. Today we say a sad goodbye to Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, at age 87.
Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia into a religious family, and he gravitated toward the music of the church. His first major public appearance was at the age of 14, when he performed onstage with the iconic Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
But after leaving home in the late 40s, he discovered secular music and soon began performing and recording. He also developed into a talented songwriter, and while working in a club in the mid-50s, wrote the risque song, “Tutti Frutti.”
The song was lyrically cleaned up a bit and released as a single in 1955. It went on to top the charts and turned Little Richard into a star. His newfound stardom gave him the opportunity to bring his entertaining, high-octane show to the masses. It featured unique lighting and a circus-like atmosphere, and his level of energy combined with his colorful dress demanded attention.
Little Richard rode his success through a dozen and a half hits over the next three years such as “Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” gathering fans of all colors and cultures.
Always torn between the spiritual and the secular, Little Richard retired from show business to become a minister in 1958. He recorded Gospel music for a few years before returning to rock and roll by the early 60s. He continued to record with some success into the early 70s and slowly developed into a popular oldies act for years after that, continuing to draw crowds to his dynamic performances.
His iconic style and look made him one of the most recognized stars in the world years after his final hit. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 2000, Penniman was the subject of the movie “Little Richard,” which chronicled his life. He continued to perform and to record even through his 80th birthday. He suffered a heart attack in 2013 and later a stroke, but appeared in public from time to time to promote charitable causes. He was wheelchair-bound for the last several years of his life.
Little Richard was a one-of-a-kind performer whose talent and individuality opened doors for out-of-the-box performers for years since his emergence over six decades ago.
May he rest in peace.
Chris Rizik is the publisher of Soul Tracks. He welcomes readers’ responses to email@example.com. We thank Soul Tracks for sharing this story with us.