The musician behind hits including "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" was reported dead by his son, Danny Penniman. Richard passed away early this morning following a battle with bone cancer.
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, GA. He sang in a variety of churches from a young age, and, at age 14, was discovered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who invited him to open for her at a show at the Macon City Auditorium.
Discouraged by his religious family from singing R&B, considered "devil music," Richard left home in 1949 to work as a touring performer, occasionally performing in drag as Princess LaVonne and developing his flamboyant performance style. Following a series of short-term recording contracts, he earned acclaim in 1955 on Specialty Records with his single "Tutti Frutti," which hit No. 2 on the Billboard R&B charts, shortly followed by "Long Tall Sally" in 1956. Little Richard's live shows were noted for encouraging racially integrated audiences, a rarity at that time.
His success waned with the release of his first two albums, Here's Little Richard in 1957 and the non-charting Little Richard in 1958. He decided to leave the music industry and joined the ministry, studying theology at Oakwood College in Alabama and becoming a travelling preacher and a gospel artist for Mercury Records.
Richard returned to secular music in the early in 1960s and performed alongside the new wave of rock'n'roll acts his music helped pioneer, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix was a member of Little Richard's band, the Upsetters, in 1964 and 1965.
But the decade also found Little Richard struggling, unable to connect with conservative Black listeners due to his flamboyant appearance, and his insistence on performing to integrated audiences alienated supporters of burgeoning Black liberation movements in the wake of the Watts riots and the formation of the Black Panthers.
In the late 1960s, Little Richard experienced a resurgence in popularity after dialling up his flamboyant on-stage persona, as influenced by the rise of Hendrix. A series of notable live and TV performances, including a residency in Las Vegas, led to TV talk show appearances and the release of 1970 album The Rill Thing on Reprise, with "Freedom Blues" becoming his highest-charting single in years.
A series of poorly received live performances in the early '70s, followed by voice problems caused by drug addiction and alcoholism, led to Little Richard leaving rock'n'roll for gospel music again. A 1984 lawsuit against Specialty Records for unpaid royalties was settled out of court in 1986.
Little Richard returned to rock'n'roll again in 1986 following the success of his authorized biography, Quasar of Rock, but this time he reconciled his religious leanings with his rock music inclinations. Christian rock single "Great Gosh A'Mighty," a contribution to the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills in which Richard also starred, found success on the charts, and Little Richard continued to act and perform to acclaim.
In his later career, he collaborated with U2, B.B. King, Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi, and performed the theme song to children's TV show The Magic School Bus.
Since his death, he's been remembered by many, including Ringo Starr, Quincy Jones, Keith Richards and Michelle Obama. Scroll through select tributes below.
God bless little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family. 😎✌️🌟❤️🎵🎶💕☮️ pic.twitter.com/H2lzKbX3tm— #RingoStarr (@ringostarrmusic) May 9, 2020
MESSAGE FROM IGGY: „Dear Little Richard, thank you, RIP"— Iggy Pop (@IggyPop) May 9, 2020
Absolutely heartbroken this morning at also hearing the news of the passing of my bro & friend, the great Little Richard. From our connection through our mutual mentor, Bumps Blackwell, to recording "Money Is" & "Do It To It" for the $ soundtrack, to...https://t.co/jeHNYYobEP pic.twitter.com/aEJEQVuNN9— Quincy Jones (@QuincyDJones) May 9, 2020
"Wasn't I wonderful?!" — Little Richard, after telling him I loved his show when I met him in the '90s. Yes. Yes, you were. Long live Little Richard! pic.twitter.com/ziiVNo4Phh— Jeff Tweedy (@JeffTweedy) May 9, 2020
Dust To Digital is such a incredible site and curated dedication. Since we are in the era of social distancing please RT this as the ultimate tribute to The Quasar Of Rick and Roll!!! RT RT lets get a million RT on the Incredible Little Richard. My FTP lyric was a 1989 nod to him https://t.co/0ZL7V0z7kc— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) May 9, 2020
So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock'n Roll! pic.twitter.com/yU1EJmjejU— Keith Richards (@officialKeef) May 9, 2020
With his exuberance, his creativity, and his refusal to be anything other than himself, Little Richard laid the foundation for generations of artists to follow. We are so lucky to have had him. Sending all my love to his family and friends today.— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) May 9, 2020
Rest In Peace To One Of The True Creators Of Rock And Roll. This Is The Commercial I Directed With Little Richard And Michael Jordan, 1991. pic.twitter.com/51bEV1eYKB— Spike Lee (@SpikeLeeJoint) May 9, 2020
Little Richard was a performer so riveting, so extraordinary, that #JimiHendrix was his sideman and #JamesBrown his opening act. THANKYOU for everything. THANKYOU for rock n roll. https://t.co/9AiUcBaOhk— Tom Morello (@tmorello) May 9, 2020
I'm very sorry to hear about Little Richard. He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was a such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard's music will last forever.— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) May 9, 2020
Love & Mercy, Brian pic.twitter.com/kcak6Rf4Re
I served soul food brunch to Little Richard every Sunday for a year while waitressing at Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in LA. I was a college student. He tipped me a crisp $100 bill each week on a $75 breakfast with friends. This was 30 years ago. Helped me so much. God rest his soul. https://t.co/L0vo1tPdBv— Ava DuVernay (@ava) May 9, 2020
So sad Little Richard passed away. He married my husband and I. He was really one of the truely great rock and roll singers and one of the rock and roll pioneers. He will be missed💜🙏🏻🌷— Cyndi Lauper (@cyndilauper) May 9, 2020
The Originator. The innovator. The musician, performer who influenced generations of artists....has left. You were AWESOME #LittleRichard!!! Your talent will reverberate forever. Well done sir. Rest well❤ pic.twitter.com/PsFH4SOUZy— Viola Davis (@violadavis) May 9, 2020
In 1990 when I wrote the Young Guns record, I had the chance to ask some of my heroes to record with me - Elton John, Jeff Beck, and an all star cast came together to have fun and just make music.— Jon Bon Jovi (@jonbonjovi) May 9, 2020
One day, Danny Kortchmar, the famed producer said "who else do you know?" pic.twitter.com/BIUuW1MBnU