Richard Wayne Penniman, “Little Richard” passed away this weekend. Little Richard’s hit song “Lucille” is No. 5 on my Jukebox R&B Top 100. He also hit the Top 100 with “The Girl Can’t Help It” at No. 17, and “Keep a Knockin” at No. 28.
Here’s some of Neil Shah’s obituary for Little Richard from The Wall Street Journal:
Little Richard, a rock ’n’ roll pioneer whose ecstatic performances, flamboyant showmanship and cacophony of shrieks, screams and shouts provided a blueprint for generations of soul, funk and rock artists from Otis Redding to Prince, died early Saturday morning at the age of 87.
The cause was cancer, according to his son, Dan Penniman. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932, Little Richard performed well into his 70s, having survived hip surgery and a heart attack, though he was confined to a wheelchair in recent years.
An innovator during rock ’n’ roll’s first wave, Little Richard merged fiery gospel vocals with R&B and boogie-woogie, whooping and hollering while pounding his piano—creating a boisterous racket that has given rock ’n’ roll one of its most identifiable sounds.
Raised in a religious family that frowned upon R&B, he sang and played saxophone early on, and started performing R&B professionally in the early 1950s, inspired by charismatic artists such as Billy Wright. A demo sent to Specialty Records in 1955 led to a recording session and—during a break at the Dew Drop Inn—Little Richard’s risqué ditty about sodomy, “Tutti Frutti,” which (after the lyrics were tweaked) became his first major hit.
That started a brief string of hits—“Long Tall Sally,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly”—that shaped the soul, funk and rock music of the 1960s and 1970s. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone covered his songs. Little Richard appeared in rock ’n’ roll movies, including “The Girl Can’t Help It.”
Little Richard’s rise to stardom marked a shift in American popular music: The raucous forces of rock ’n’ roll were taking over, opening pop music’s doors to outsiders like Little Richard—especially black artists.
Little Richard was among the first crossover artists, attracting a mix of white and black audiences—and he remained proud of his uphill climb through his career. “When I came out they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations,” he once said. He thanked Elvis Presley for paving the way.
Few live performers matched Little Richard. His electrifying vocals and freaky style made him a singular presence. If Elvis’s pelvic thrusts were a gimmick, Little Richard had his shrieks. What differentiated him from other R&B singers were his raw vocal sounds, which found admirers among Paul McCartney, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty and even Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. “I can sing anything,” Little Richard said in a 1972 interview. “I’m not just screaming. I know what I’m doing.”
Along with Chuck Berry’s tales of girls and cars, Little Richard’s nonsensical verbal acrobatics—“Awop-bop-aloobop alop-bam-boom!”—gave rock ’n’ roll a sense of uninhibited fun that would dissipate by the late 1950s.
Dressed in colorful suits, a six-inch-high pompadour and a pencil-thin mustache, Little Richard also cut a strange, effeminate figure—he was thought to be bisexual—anticipating the androgyny of future rock stars such as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Prince.
At the height of his fame, in 1957, Little Richard shocked the music business by quitting. He saw a ball of fire in the sky above a stadium while touring and decided he wanted to get right with God, give up secular music and study to become a minister. (The ball of fire turned out to be Sputnik, the Russian satellite. Little Richard’s changed plans did, however, keep him from boarding a flight that crashed into the Pacific Ocean.)
He virtually disappeared from the public, before returning as a gospel singer in early 1960s.
Prompted by a concert promoter, Little Richard began touring as a rock ‘n’ roller again, with support from first the Beatles and then the Rolling Stones, who idolized him. A minor hit, “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” followed in 1964; for a time, Jimi Hendrix was in his backing band, the Upsetters.
NPR’s Elizabeth Blair reviews more of Little Richard’s big life:
Little Richard, the self-described “king and queen” of rock and roll and an outsize influence on everyone from David Bowie to Prince, died Saturday in Tullahoma, Tenn. He was 87 years old.
Bill Sobel, a lawyer for Little Richard, tells NPR that the cause of death was bone cancer. Rolling Stone was the first to report on Little Richard’s death.
With his ferocious piano playing, growling and gospel-strong vocals, pancake makeup and outlandish costumes, Little Richard tore down barriers starting in the 1950s. That is no small feat for any artist — let alone a black, openly gay man who grew up in the South.
He was a force of nature who outlived many of the musicians he inspired, from Otis Redding to the late Prince and Michael Jackson. His peers James Brown and Otis Redding idolized him. Jimi Hendrix, who once played in Little Richard’s band, said he wanted his guitar to sound like Richard’s voice. The late David Bowie was 9 years old when he first saw Little Richard in a movie. “If it hadn’t have been for him, I probably wouldn’t have gone into music,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter magazine in 2003.
Bob Dylan took to Twitter on Saturday to remember Little Richard, writing “He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.”
Little Richard was an audacious showman in everything he did: movies like Down and Out In Beverly Hills, music for children and commercials. But above all, he was a pioneer of rock and roll, mixing gospel, country, vaudeville and blues into something all his own.
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga. He was one of 12 siblings. His father was a brick mason, a bootlegger and eventually a nightclub owner. When Richard was 19, his father was shot to death outside of his club: Charles Penniman died on Feb. 15, 1952.
Little Richard told NPR’s Morning Edition in 1984 that Macon was “a muddy little town.”
“A lot of mud and a lot of cows and a lot of chickens and a lot of pigs,” he recalled. “It was a beautiful place and I was singing all up and down the street loud as I can. Everybody hollering out there, ‘Shut up! Shut up! You’re making too much noise!’ But I was singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ even then. And playing ‘Lucille’ at the piano at that time.”
More on his life from National Review’s Dan McLaughlin:
If you were looking to build a Mount Rushmore of the founders of rock n’ roll, it would have to be Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. (A second tier would include Les Paul, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, and Bill Haley, to say nothing of the bluesmen who made rock thinkable.) And as much as Chuck Berry deserves credit as the foundational rock guitar god and Elvis as the man who did more than anyone to popularize the music, Little Richard’s place next to them should not be slighted. Nobody in the 1950s rocked harder than Little Richard, or did more to establish the flair and abandon that defined rock on stage. His death from cancer this morning at age 87 leaves Lewis as the last remaining survivor of the early rock immortals.
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