Richard Wayne Penniman stood 5-foot-10 in his stocking feet. Despite the stage name, the artist known as Little Richard was a giant.
A native of Macon, Georgia, and the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard died Saturday, May 9, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, more than 70 miles southeast of Nashville. Reports on Saturday indicated the cause of death was bone cancer. He was 87.
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Among American icons, the Quasar of Rock stands as perhaps the most primal, the most fundamental, the man who taught pop music to scream.
“He was just one of the great originals,” said music historian Peter Guralnick, author of “Sweet Soul Music.”
The trappings of rock ‘n’ roll — the sweaty, maniacal, over-the-top performance, the voice driven to extremes, the wild clothing, wilder lyrics, careening tempos, Dionysian lifestyle — Little Richard appears to have invented them all.
Alan Walden, co-founder of Macon’s legendary Capricorn Records, said when he first met Little Richard, coming out of a cab on 3rd Street and Cherry, the singer was already famous, courtesy of his insane single “Tutti Frutti.” More importantly, the singer was famous in his own mind. He was wearing a flame-red suit, carried a bright-red parasol and had his hair conked up two inches above his head.
“Tutti Frutti!” hollered out Walden’s friend. Richard whirled: “Good booty!” he shot back, and continued down the street.
“His powerhouse voice and outlandish appearance gave rock a freer spirit,” wrote his biographer Charles White, “allowing later rock legends like Paul McCartney, Prince, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, (Mick) Jagger and David Bowie to do their own thing.”
Little Richard listened to his own muse, no matter how far outside the pale it took him. And he took his audience along for the ride.
The artist dealt with health problems in recent years, including a heart attack, hip replacement surgery and a stroke. Though his performances were few, he continued to make occasional appearances, including a 2013 event with CeeLo Green, hosted in Atlanta by the local chapter of the Recording Academy.
Green interviewed Little Richard on stage at the event, and confessed that the elder statesman was a big influence. “I’m going to refer to you as ‘father’ for the rest of the night,” Green said.
Richard Penniman grew up in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood of Macon, the son Leva Mae Penniman and Charles “Bud” Penniman. His father was a brickmason, and a good provider. “Our house was clean and at Christmas we had everything,” Richard told White.
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Macon was a town rich in music, and Richard enjoyed all of it, selling Cokes at the Macon City Auditorium and listening to Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway. He sang gospel with his brothers, and jumped on stage occasionally to perform with visiting acts.
Richard left high school to tour with various traveling shows, ending up in Atlanta where he met Billy Wright. Wright’s teased up hair, loud clothes and wild shoes made a big impression, and directly influenced Little Richard’s style.
In 1955 Little Richard traveled to New Orleans to record for Art Rupe’s Specialty label, breaking through to a larger audience with the single “Tutti Frutti,” and the irresistible refrain “A wop bop a loo mop, alop bomp bomp!”
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Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell recalled meeting Little Richard. “There was this cat in this loud shirt, with hair waved up six inches above his head,” he told Rolling Stone magazine’s writers. “He was talking wild, thinking up stuff just to be different, you know? I could tell he was a megapersonality.”
Racial politics of the time posed a stumbling block. “Tutti Frutti” rose to No. 17 on the pop chart, but a cover version by white crooner Pat Boone passed the original. It made Little Richard resolve to make the next tune even harder to copy, and he took “Long Tall Sally” at a blistering pace.
“He was a major influence on almost every rock and roll band at that time period, even the Beatles,” said Alan Walden.
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Richard followed those hits with “Rip it Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Slippin and Slidin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” scoring 18 hit singles in three years. After a tour of Australia in 1957, Little Richard announced he was joining the ministry.
He stopped singing rock and roll for a while, but would periodically come back to the stage, a pattern that continued into the new century.
In later years Little Richard turned his personality into an act. “When he was a talk show guest you could count on him, but it was about the wacky personality, not about the music,” said Bob Merlis, a former senior vice president at Warner Brothers records.
“I think in some ways he has caused himself to be underrated,” said Guralnick. “By devoting himself to the sustaining of his public persona, that doesn’t allow people to recognize his talent.”
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Little Richard’s career enjoyed a resurgence in 1986 when he appeared in a supporting role in the comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and contributed a song to the soundtrack, “Great Gosh a’Mighty.” That year he became one of the inaugural members inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1994 he teamed up with Tanya Tucker for a rollicking and suggestive version of the Eddie Cochran tune, “Somethin’ Else,” during a live performance at the CMA Awards.
Though his performances dwindled in later years, his legacy was secure, said Lisa Love, former executive director of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon.
“Years ago the light bulb went off in my head and I realized it’s all about Little Richard. He’s arguably one of the most important people in rock ‘n’ roll history. Unbridled wildness is his calling card.”
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