Richard Penniman, known around the world as Little Richard, who combined elements of the black church experience and the heavy sounds of the blues to create some of the world’s first and most influential rock ’n’ roll records, died on Saturday morning (May 9th) in Tullahoma, TN, of bone cancer. He was 87.
While Rock had been around for a quite bit, with the likes of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley making waves through the industry, by the time Richard came along, he still played the role of pioneer. His first hit, “Tutti Frutti” – a raucous song about sex, found its lyrics cleaned up but kept its meaning hard to miss. Recorded in 1955, the recording melded gospel, blues, rock and high-flying vocals to create a more bombastic version of the genre than anyone had seen before. As the rock historian Richie Unterberger put it, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.”
“Tutti Frutti” rocketed up the charts and was quickly followed by “Long Tall Sally” and other records now acknowledged as classics. Furthermore, his live performances were electrifying. One of his band members remembered “He’d be on the stage, he’d be off the stage, he’d be jumping and yelling, screaming, whipping the audience on.” On top of the antics, the Georgia native presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. While Elvis was the King of Rock, Richard dubbed himself the Queen. The look and sound he produced helped pave the way for more icons like James Brown and Prince.
By the time he stopped performing, Little Richard had been in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (he was inducted on the Hall’s first ballot) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and was made the recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. “Tutti Frutti” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2010.
While Little Richard has passed, his legacy has already impacted many artists and will continue to do so as music progresses.