He rocked to the east, he rocked to the west, he was the entrepreneur and rock and roll legend we all love the most. On May 9, 2024, Rolling Stone reported that Little Richard, one of the founding fathers of American rock and roll, died of bone cancer at the age of 87.
Although he is best remembered for hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” he may also be remembered for his extravagance as a performer as well. Furthermore, he embraced gender nonconformity and queerness, which laid the foundation for the groundbreaking musicians who came after, setting the course for rock and roll history for all of us.
Despite his decades-long career and his intermittent ability to speak openly about his queerness, it may surprise many that Little Richard was once married to a woman. So what is the story behind his ex-wife? It is a little more complicated than you think.
Little Richard’s early years were filled with conflicts between religion and sexuality
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia Little Richard’s often stormy struggle with his sexuality and presentation when it came to his own expression of gender nonconformity continued to the end.
As a Billboard broadcast, it is clear that his music and life are closely intertwined with his battle to accept himself (for example even his hit “Tutti Frutti” was about a gay man before he revised it with the song that we know and love today). In fact, his flamboyant talent for androgyny set the stage for other rock icons, such as David Bowie and Prince, to thrive: “Their pompadours, androgynous makeup, and glass-beaded shirts – they also set the standard for rock and roll show performance,” Rolling Stone wrote about the founding rock artist.
Admittedly, as a queer person of color who came of age in mid-century America, the odds were against Little Richard when it came to his sexuality, race, and upward mobility in the social landscape. Compounding this was the musician’s deep relationship with Christianity, more specifically, within Baptist and Pentecostal churches, which have been historically and virulently homophobic, all of which ultimately created a life-long conflict for the musician.
Little Richard almost left the music for Sputnik and a religious revelation
A defining moment in his life, one that paved the way for Little Richard’s first and only marriage to a woman in 1959, occurred in 1957, while the rocker was on a world tour in Sydney, Australia. According to Australia Daily Telegraph – in the words of Jerry Lee Lewis: Little Richard spied on a “great ball of fire,” which became a religious revelation. In addition to the falling heavenly body, the musician said he saw “angels” in heaven.
Although the fireball was actually the recently launched Russian Sputnik satellite, it did nothing to deter Little Richard, who was already getting tired of the rock and roll lifestyle and was more apt to read pages of his Bible post-show than get up to any of his old hijinks (read: hyper-sexual activities, including orgies that would embarrass Mick Jagger).
After the sighting, according to the Daily Telegraph, there are reports that Little Richard “was on a ferry ‘leaving Sydney’, but another version says he was on the Stockton Ferry traveling to a show in Newcastle when he told his band that he was leaving the show and threw thousands of dollars in gold sounds in the river.”
This marked the beginning of a “dark age” in which he left the music industry for years, a period that also included his only marriage. Instead, he devoted himself to church-based gospel music and even went so far as to study ministry at a Bible college in Alabama, according to Rolling Stone.
Little Richard’s religion clashed more with his sexuality more often than not
In addition to his brief attempts to adhere to a heteronormative lifestyle, his father expelled Little Richard from his home after the ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ singer was found to have engaged in gender-nonconforming activities, such as wearing his mother’s clothes, and that he was attracted to members of the same sex, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Little Richard’s own opinion of his sexuality also seemed to evolve over the years. “I have been gay all my life and I know that God is a God of love, not hate,” said the rock star in a 1995 interview with Ático. However, years later in a 2012 interview with GQ Little Richard preferred to describe his sexual orientation as that of an “omnisexual”.
“We are all men and women,” said the pianist, apparently combining both his sexual orientation and gender identity in a personal and general term: “Sex is like a smörgåsbord to me. Whatever I feel like, I’m going for it.”
Unfortunately, some of the last words he gave publicly on the subject of his strangeness seemed to completely repudiate him: “Anyone who comes to show business is going to say that you’re gay or straight,” he said in a 2017 online interview. Christian. Transmission of three angels, in which he considered queerness and the LGBTQ community “unnatural”.
“God made men, men, and women, women,” he said during the segment. “You have to live as God wants you to live … he can save you.”
Little is known about Ernestine Campbell, Little Richard’s ex-wife
His lifelong struggles with his understanding of religion in relation to its rarity created a whirlwind that set the stage for his marriage to his first and only wife. So who was she?
Unfortunately, very little is known about Ernestine Campbell, the woman who called Little Richard her husband for three or four years (reports tend to vary), married in 1959, and divorced in the early 1960s. Campbell cited “her husband’s sexuality as one of the reasons for the separation.”
The only other piece of information about the only woman Little Richard married was that their home during their years together tended to be a party epicenter for celebrities, especially those who, like the couple, were people of color.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the house that Campbell and Little Richard shared in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of Los Angeles sold for $ 1.9 million in June 2019, a Spanish Renaissance mansion nicknamed the “Tutti Frutti” house, whose litany Iconic guests once included James Brown, Jackie Williams, and Etta James.
Ernestine Campbell wasn’t Little Richard’s only female lover
While Ernestine Campbell might have been the only person Little Richard had married, she was not his only cisgender female lover. Dancer Lee Angel (real name Audrey Robinson) also dated the irresistible demon playing the piano. Recalling her first meeting with Little Richard, who had an attendee approach her on the street to organize the meeting, Angel reminded LA weekly in 2018: “I said, ‘Does he know I’m a girl?'” One reference to the secret to voices of his sexuality.
“The curiosity started, as always, and I went into that room, took a look at Richard, and we’re still close 68 years later,” she added. Although Angel and Richard were reportedly in a relationship for a time, their union seemed to veer more on the side of creative collaborators than on romantic partners, and she left the musician for the opera training singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins soon after.
Despite Little Richard’s lifelong battle to accept his sexuality, or to find a balance between faith, God, and the people he romantically longed for, music and our culture, in general, would not be the same without him, and we would never they will be the same again.