Richard Wayne Penniman, the “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” better known as Little Richard, has died, according to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was bone cancer, the musician’s lawyer Bill Sobel told Rolling Stone. After surviving a heart attack in 2013, he retired and had largely remained out of the public eye.
When the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer flamboyantly burst on the scene in the 1950s sporting a mile-high pompadour, mascara-coated eyelashes and pancake foundation makeup, wailing with a gender-bending falsetto all while pounding the piano, Penniman was, indeed, unlike any performer who had ever been seen before. He was an expert at working adoring crowds into a frenzy and gave us such enduring classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.”
“Sexually ambiguous, loudmouthed and just plain noisy, Little Richard was like a visitor from another planet transported to the segregated South of the 1950s,” declared the Los Angeles Times in 2000.
Little Richard performing Tutti Frutti in 1955
Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on Dec. 5, 1932, and was one of 12 children. While his devout Seventh-Day Adventist family failed to support his musical interest, singing gospel and learning piano at their local church was all the succor Penniman needed.
At 15-years-old, his parents threw him out, he claimed, because he was a “sissy.” However, Ann and Johnny Johnson, the white couple who ran the Tick Tock Club in Macon, adopted Penniman.
In the late 1940s, he entered his adopted parent’s world of vaudeville. He performed in drag in a red evening gown as Princess Lavonne in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show. While Penniman always remained coy about his sexuality — he admitted to being attracted to both men and women — that vagueness was calculated. He once told a musician complaining about having to use makeup for their performance:
“You know how many coloreds play here? None. I am the first. I am the only. You want to call me a sissy, go ahead. Knock yourself out, boy. But you make sure to call me a rich sissy.”
Penniman achieved breakthrough success in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti,” which he wrote when he was working as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station in his hometown. In a later interview, he revealed how he came up with the song:
“I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots to me to wash,’ and I said, ‘Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom, take ’em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the kitchen, I wrote ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ in the kitchen, I wrote ‘Long Tall Sally’ in that kitchen.”
The song was a sanitized version of a dirty ditty — the original lyrics are “Tutti Frutti/ Good booty/If it don’t fit/Don’t force it/You can grease it/Make it easy” — cleaned up with the aim of drawing a white audience. He had often performed the original version for black audiences in the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of black-only nightclubs in the South where trailblazing musicians like Penniman, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, Lena Horne, Etta James and B.B. King got their start.
The more-wholesome adaptation sold more than a million copies — to both black and white teenaged fans, much to the chagrin of their scandalized parents. As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, Penniman helped to break down color barriers by attracting a mixed-race audience during a period of entrenched racial segregation.
Little Richard performing Good Golly, Miss Molly in 1958
“You have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”
Penniman’s crossover success was instrumental in spreading rock ‘n’ roll to white audiences. But his popularity only took him so far. “Elvis was paid $25,000 for doing three songs in a movie and I only got $5,000 for the same work, so if I didn’t break the ice, Elvis would have starved,” Penniman once observed.
Nonetheless, he remains one of the most influential figures in music across genres, inspiring artists like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Even Pat Boone, who released a cover of “Tutti Frutti,” gave Penniman his bona fides: “No one person has been imitated more than Little Richard.”