Fans around the world are still REELING at passing of the Architect of Rock & Roll, Little Richard.
His son Danny Penniman has revealed the cause of death.
Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman, was born in Macon, Georgia in December 1932. He had been in poor health for several years, suffering hip problems, a stroke and a heart attack.
Richard’s son, Danny Penniman, first confirmed the pioneer’s death. In a statement, Richard’s agent, Dick Alen, said: “Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville.
“He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say ‘I’m not well.’”
Richard’s career began when in the late 1940s but his early recordings with RCA Victor garnered little success. His breakthrough came when he signed to Specialty Records in 1955, releasing a run of wild and flamboyant singles – Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Keep A-Knockin’ and Good Golly, Miss Molly, among others – that made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
The biographer Charles White described the songs as “holy writs of rock’n’roll”.
Richard was known for his outrageous performance style at the piano – eyes lined with mascara, pompadour hair fixed with potato starch, ferocious eyes transfixing audiences – and infectious whoops, a style echoed by dozens of performers, Prince prominent among them. Richard had been a drag performer and by his own admission was involved in voyeurism, allowing men to have sex in the back seat of his car while he watched. He was arrested at least twice for lewd conduct.
His breakthrough single, Tutti Frutti, was originally about anal sex – “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy” – until producer Bumps Blackwell suggested it be cleaned up. The song bequeathed rock’n’roll its greatest expression of joy, whose exact syllables are still debated: “Awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom!”
Covered by Elvis Presley – who described Richard as “the greatest” – Tutti Frutti catapulted Richard to success.
In October 1957, however, during a tour of Australia, Richard saw a fireball crossing the sky. It was actually the Sputnik 1 satellite, but he took it as a sign from God that he needed to change his ways. In 1958 he became a preacher, before returning to secular music in 1962. The conflict between God and the devil’s music was a theme for much of the rest of his life. In old age, Richard renounced his omnisexuality, saying he had asked God to save him.
His Specialty singles exerted a profound influence. The Beatles performed Richard’s songs.
“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” Paul McCartney said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”