Rock & Roll Archetype, Little Richard, Dead at 87

UPDATE: In a statement, Little Richard’s agent revealed the musician died of complications with bone cancer.

The rock originator’s string of howling mid-50s hits was the blueprint for an entire generation of musicians.

Rock and roll archetype, Little Richard, has died. He was 87 years old.

According to Rolling Stone, the music legend’s death was confirmed by his son, Danny Jones Penniman, but a cause was not stated.

The second of 12 children, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia to a religious family on December 5th, 1932. He began singing in a local church, but was ousted from the household after his father accused him of being gay. At 13, he was taken in by a white family who owned a nearby nightclub in Macon. He’d perform there until getting signed to RCA in 1951, dropping his surname and picking up the trendy “little” tag so many musicians had adopted during that decade.

His climb was gradual, failing to chart until rock & roll had officially arrived. During this gestation, Richard worked as a bus station dishwasher, where he claimed to have come up with the notorious “Tutti Frutti” chorus.  In 1955, he recorded a clean version of the track, which went on to become the first in a string of hits. It peaked at No. 17 on Billboard’s Pop chart, but the follow-up, “Long Tall Sally,” eclipsed that mark, hitting No. 6 on the chart. Richard parlayed his success into appearances in early rock & roll films. In 1956, he was cast in Don’t Knock the Rock, and the following year, he hit the screen in The Girl Can’t Help It.

By the end of the decade, Little Richard was arguably the most recognizable entertainer on the planet; his music brimming with crossover appeal, his stage show a sight to behold. But in 1959, Richard capped the decade he defined by pivoting to a gospel career with the release of the album God is Real. Five years later he’d mount a comeback attempt in an industry then anchored by British and American r&b sensations. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and childhood friend, Otis Redding, had all risen to prominence in Richard’s absence, all openly touting the Macon musician as a primary influence.



Zo is a staff writer at Okayplayer where he covers music.

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