Rock and roll pioneer Little Richard died on May 9, 2023, after a battle with bone cancer, according to Rolling Stone. He was 87 years old.
Little Richard was best known for hits from the 1950s such as “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and his work has continued to influence countless artists, including Elton John, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Prince. In other words, the artist was “the self-styled king, queen, and architect of rock and roll.”
Richard was known not only for his vocal and piano skills but also for his electrifying personality and dazzling fashion sense, which included beaded costumes and pompadour hairstyles. But behind the eclectic and energetic person on the stage of the performer was a multifaceted person who experienced many ups and downs. Let’s take a closer look at Little Richard’s real-life story.
Little Richard endured a tense relationship with his father
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard was the third of a dozen children born to Leva Mae Stewart and Charles Penniman. According to some, his father, known as “Bud,” was a bricklayer, sold illegal alcohol, and eventually owned a club. The relationship between Richard and his father was tense. Bud reportedly disagreed with his son’s early manifestations of sexuality and kicked Richard out of the house. Their relationship was also short-lived. Bud was shot and killed outside his club when Richard was just 19 years old. Richard ended up working to support his family.
In a 1984 interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Richard spoke of those early years and described his hometown. “A lot of mud and many cows and many chickens and many pigs,” he said. “It was a beautiful place and I was singing as hard as I could down the street as hard as I could. They all shouted: “Shut up! Shut! You are making too much noise! But he was singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ even then. And he was playing ‘Lucille’ on the piano at the time.”
Little Richard was ‘ordained by God’
Little Richard grew up surrounded by the church. His uncles and grandfather were preachers, and, according to People, his mother reportedly sent Richard to New Hope Baptist Church every Sunday in hopes of correcting his birth defect (he was born with a right leg that was three inches shorter than the left).
It seems that the church was also where Richard’s interest in music was born. It was there that he began to sing gospel and learned to play the piano. At just 10 years old, a group called the Tiny Tots Quartet reportedly organized gospel music shows in churches and nursing homes in exchange for sweet potatoes. “There was no rock and roll at the time,” he said. “So we sing gospel. Everyone around us sang gospel: the women hanging their clothes, the old men on the porches at night, everyone.”
Its success, some say, was also faith-driven. In 1957, after Richard’s rock and roll roots had already been established, “he snapped out of sight to study theology at Oakwood College in Alabama,” People reported. “He never got a degree, but, ‘ordained by God,’ he scoured the south with a common sermon called ‘Why I Left Showbiz.'”
Little Richard expressed fluent views on sexuality
Little Richard’s views on sexuality were never clearly defined, although they were routinely discussed in the press. Although his father allegedly kicked him out of the house because he was showing signs of being gay at a young age, Little Richard addressed the issue of sexuality over the years.
In Little Richard’s life and times biography, he apparently distanced himself from speculation that he was a gay man, calling homosexuality “contagious” and “not something you’re born with,” according to Rolling Stone. But in a 1987 interview with Playboy, he allegedly changed his tone. According to filmmaker John Waters, Richard professed his “love” for gay people and called himself the “founder of gays.”
“I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders,” he supposedly said. “I was wearing makeup and eyelashes when no man was wearing it. It was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let someone know you were gay, you were in trouble, so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought”.
He later came out as omnisexual, meaning he was attracted to all genders, but may have offered a conflicting opinion in an interview with the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. “Jesus made men, men. He made women, women,” he said at the time. “And you have to live as God wants you to live… He loves what you are. I don’t care what you are”.
Little Richard distanced himself from rock ‘n’ roll
As Little Richard’s religious convictions deepened later in life, he intentionally strayed from his main roots. “When God touches your life, you don’t want any of that anymore,” he told the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. “I don’t want to sing rock ‘n’ roll anymore … I want to be holy like Jesus.”
That decision did not stop him from being recognized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In fact, he was one of the ten original artists to be inducted. He also received the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and earned the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. He also dabbled on screen, with appearances in movies including Down and Outside in Beverly Hills and television shows like Full House and Miami Vice.
Little Richard continued to perform periodically later in his life, but hip replacement surgery in 2009 prevented him from living with the energy of his old performances and limited him to playing the piano on stage. In 2012, he fell ill while performing on stage in Washington, DC, and that same year, he suffered a heart attack, by Biography. Despite everything, he clung to his faith. “Jesus had something for me,” he said. “He brought me”.