The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Little Richard, flamboyant star of early rock-and-roll, dies at 87

Little Richard, the "architect of rock 'n' roll" who built his ground-breaking sound with a blend of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel, died on May 9. (Video: Reuters)

In rock’s infancy, Little Richard was the unstoppable pacesetter, the pompadoured wild man whose flamboyant showmanship and incendiary spirit of abandon — “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” — would drive the music for generations.

He sang but more often shrieked with falsetto whoops and an electrifying gospel fervor. He pounded the piano with one leg in the air. He often climaxed his shows by climbing on top of the stage speakers, leaping offstage to run through the crowd or tossing articles of clothing to the audience — even stripping to his bare chest on one raucous tour in 1957.

Little Richard died May 9 at age 87 in Tullahoma, Tenn. The cause was bone cancer, according to his lawyer, William Sobel. He was widely regarded as a foundational figure in rock-and-roll, and he aggressively promoted his role in music history. “There’s only one originator, there’s only one architect: Little Richard,” he once told Playboy.

That’s not to say his assessment, however immodest, was inaccurate. In the span of three years — 1955 to 1958 — he poured out hit after definitive hit, including “Tutti-Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ ” and “Lucille.”

He had an incalculable influence on the frenetic attitude of rock music, long after his heyday and his extended forays into religious music. He saw his sound and its feeling of howling abandon as rock incarnate. As he often said, “My music made your liver quiver, your bladder splatter, your knees freeze — and your big toe shoot right up in your boot!”

Life is a scream: Remembering Little Richard, the self-described king, queen and architect of rock-and-roll

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones issued a statement on Instagram, calling Little Richard “the biggest inspiration of my early teens. . . . When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music.”

Little Richard’s road band, the Upsetters, lived up to their name, by outdoing the frantic rhythms on his records. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix — then calling himself Maurice James — was an Upsetter in 1964 and 1965, appearing on such records as “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got, But It’s Got Me.”

Soul men including James Brown, Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Don Covay all began their careers copying Little Richard’s harsh singing style, as did Paul McCartney, who once described Little Richard’s voice as “a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” (1970), borrowed its structure and melody from “Long Tall Sally.” Led Zeppelin, a band with yet another screaming singer, Robert Plant, used the pounding drum rhythms from Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’ ” as the basis of their 1972 hit “Rock and Roll.”

Later echoes of Little Richard’s unbridled style could be heard in the falsetto whoops of Prince in his song “Kiss” (1986) and in hip-hop duo Outkast’s up-tempo 2003 hit “Hey Ya!” Prince, Elton John and David Bowie also owed much of their stage demeanor to Little Richard’s outré sensibilities and androgynous sexuality.

The son of a Georgia church deacon who also sold moonshine, Little Richard spent his own career veering wildly between conflicting public images as he seesawed among the worlds of showboating rock-and-roller, staid evangelist and camp icon.

Little Richard reveled in an image of utter bravado and exhibitionism, from a tall tower of hair to mascara-coated eyelashes and other makeup. His exhortations onstage — “ooh, my soul!” at the finale of a song or “shuddup!” when someone laughed at his outrageous patter — were part of the role he played.

By the late 1960s, his stage attire included a vest made of mirrored glass, and he was often flanked onstage by a pair of stage hands dressed as British royal guardsmen. On national television, he proclaimed himself “the Bronze Liberace” and “the Georgia Peach.” He raved about his beauty and called himself “the founder of gay.” He spoke in worshipful tones about the pope — but only because of the Catholic leader’s fashion sense.

“I liked the pumps he wore,” he told filmmaker John Waters, who conducted the Playboy interview in 1987. “I think the pope really dresses!”

A tough childhood

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, and was the third of 12 siblings. He stood out in childhood, with his slight build and the way he sashayed when he walked because his right leg was slightly shorter than his left. Classmates taunted him mercilessly, and he also had a tumultuous relationship with his stern father.

He was 19 when his father was fatally shot outside a bar under mysterious circumstances. By that time, he had already run away from home at least once to hook up with a traveling medicine show, in which he performed in drag as “Princess Lavonne.”

He had learned to sing and play piano in church, but he said it was Esquerita, the stage name of pianist S.Q. Reeder Jr., who left an indelible mark on Little Richard’s piano style.

Little Richard recalled to biographer Charles White that Esquerita “had the biggest hands of anybody I’d ever seen. His hands was about the size of two of my hands put together. . . . I thought Esquerita was really crazy about me, you know. He was — and still is — one of the greatest pianists and that’s including Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder or anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Later, Esquerita followed Little Richard into a career as a rock-and-roll singer and the two would co-write songs.

While performing in Atlanta, Little Richard came under the influence of Billy Wright, a popular blues singer with a crying vocal style. Atlanta disc jockey Zenas Sears recommended Little Richard to RCA Records. His first record, “Every Hour” (1951), a slow blues, sold well locally but was eclipsed in popularity when Wright rerecorded it as “Every Evenin’.”

Little Richard toured nationally, as a soloist and briefly as lead singer of a vocal group, the Tempo Toppers, but the records didn’t sell. He was sending out demo recordings when Specialty Records, a Los Angeles concern, contacted him.

Label owner Art Rupe instructed producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell to find an artist in the mold of Ray Charles. Little Richard was working at the time in New Orleans, performing in a blues band that Blackwell found underwhelming. It was during a break that Little Richard broke into a frantic, up-tempo original, “Tutti-Frutti.”

Blackwell was floored and slated it for the next session but called on a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, to rewrite the song’s risque lyrics. “Tutti-Frutti, good booty” became “Tutti-Frutti, aw rooty.”

With nonsensical lyrics and driven by Little Richard’s pounding piano work, the disc hit No. 2 on the Billboard rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 17 on the Billboard pop chart in 1956. A tepid cover by crooner Pat Boone later landed on the pop charts at No. 12. That same year, Elvis Presley covered “Tutti-Frutti” and two other Little Richard hits, “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy.”

“They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids,” Little Richard told The Washington Post in 1984. “The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”

Even so, Hollywood beckoned, and Little Richard appeared in teen-centric B movies such as “Don’t Knock the Rock” (1956) and the music industry satire “The Girl Can’t Help It!” (1956), singing the title song in the latter while voluptuous actress Jayne Mansfield makes her entrance.

In 1957, at the height of his success, he quit performing after an outdoor performance in Sydney.

“That night Russia sent off that very first Sputnik. It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads,” he told biographer White. “I got up from the piano and said: ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’ ”

Little Richard pursued Bible studies at Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh-day Adventist institution in Huntsville, Ala., and married Ernestine Campbell, whom he met at a Washington, D.C., revival. The school suspended him after he was accused of propositioning a male student, and Campbell later filed for divorce when Little Richard was caught by police in a raid of a bus stop men’s room, according to the authorized White biography.

In 1961, he recorded a gospel album with arranger Quincy Jones. Two years later, Little Richard toured England with Sam Cooke as an opening act. Little Richard initially attempted an all-gospel show but feared being upstaged by Cooke and, in mid-tour, resumed playing rock-and-roll.

Organist and teen prodigy Billy Preston, later famed for his keyboard work on the Beatles’ recordings “The White Album” and “Let It Be,” accompanied Richard and Cooke. (The Beatles first met Preston when they opened for Little Richard in England.)

By the mid-1960s, Little Richard embraced the soul genre — a logical move since he’d already laid the groundwork for the genre by bringing the gospel vocal style into pop.

An appearance at a 1969 Toronto rock festival — he followed Janis Joplin — and several television appearances revitalized his career. However, he again quit performing in the late 1970s, while struggling with cocaine and alcohol addictions. This time, he sold Bibles door-to-door and preached against homosexual behavior.

He reemerged in director Paul Mazursky’s 1986 comedy film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” in the role of Orvis Goodnight, a black record producer unhappy with the racism of the suburbs. On the soundtrack, he sang the song “Great Gosh A’Mighty”

In more recent decades, as Little Richard performed rock-and-roll, a member of his entourage would hand out pamphlets with the entertainer’s religious testimony to the audience. After periods of financial struggle, he filled his coffers as a pitchman for Revlon, Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Geico. In 1992, he recorded a children’s album, “Shake It All About,” which included a freewheeling version of “The Hokey Pokey” and other kindergarten classics.

He often traveled in the company of Lee Angel, a female exotic dancer whom he sometimes introduced as his fiancee. Little Richard endured major health setbacks in recent years, including a broken hip in 2009 and a heart attack in 2013 that led to his retirement. He had lived in Tennessee in recent years.

His death was confirmed by the Rev. Bill Minson, a family friend. Survivors include a son, Danny Penniman, and a brother.

In 1986, Little Richard was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which called him a “living embodiment of the music’s roots in the Fifties.”

In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine listed its 100 Greatest Artists and placed Little Richard at No. 8. Most of the artists’ accompanying tributes were written by their peers, but Little Richard wrote his own.

“I appreciate being picked one of the top 100 performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because it won’t be who I think it should be,” he wrote.

“The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me.

“I fed them, I talked to them, and they’re going to always be in front of me.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Millie Small, Jamaican singer of pop and protest music, dies

Neil Peart, dynamic and influential rock drummer for Rush, dies at 67

Otis Rush, blues singer and guitarist with intensely emotional style, dies at 83