Listen Live

Little Richard, The 'King And Queen' Of Rock And Roll, Dead At 87

May 9, 2020
Originally published on May 9, 2020 5:13 pm

Updated at 7:13 p.m. ET

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."

To develop his style, Little Richard borrowed a few things from the performers he admired, like a singer and pianist who went by the name of Esquerita. Esquerita was openly gay, and he wore make-up and loud clothing. He also taught Little Richard to play the piano.

Then there was gospel singer Marion Williams, from whom Little Richard said he got his trademark whoop.

Charles White, the author of an authorized biography called The Life And Times Of Little Richard, described his voice as "a fire blizzard across an arctic waste. I mean, every major rock singer tried to copy his voice."

In the 1950s, the music industry — like so much else in America — was segregated.

"Back at that time, the black records was considered race records," Little Richard told Morning Edition. "And black records was not played on white stations at the time."

YouTube

White artists like Pat Boone often scored big hits by covering Little Richard's songs. And Little Richard claimed that he didn't see "a dime" from some of those covers.

"I been knocking for years and they won't let me come in," he said. "I keep coming back, trying it again. Haven't got nothing. While I was slipping and sliding, they was keeping and hiding — putting my money in unknown banks."

YouTube

Eventually, Little Richard did make a lot of money from his recordings, movies and TV appearances. He toured the world. He was, in many ways, a living icon who was both respected and ridiculed.

Little Richard was a man of extremes: A wild pop star and a deeply religious person known to carry his Bible everywhere, and quote from it often. There were periods during his career when he left show business altogether to preach. He often said he wanted to be a minister, like others in his family.

The 1970s were rough for Little Richard. He was drinking and doing drugs daily, a habit that was costing him hundreds of dollars a day.

"I just started falling. I started sinking," he told NPR. "I just started getting out of it. I didn't want to make my engagements. I didn't want to do anything but just party hearty."

YouTube

His younger brother died around this time, and two of his friends were killed.

"And then I said, 'Well, God is trying to tell me something.' Then the thought came to me: 'What shall he profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' Or 'What shall a man give God in exchange for a soul?' And I decided I would give my life to God."

It took someone like Little Richard — a fearless performer and gifted musician — to move American music forward. He liked to remind people he was "the architect" of rock and roll. He didn't build the music by himself, but he was one of its most original designers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
YouTube

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Little Richard, the self-described king and queen of rock and roll, has died at the age of 87. His son told Rolling Stone that he died today, and his lawyer told NPR that the cause of death was bone cancer. Little Richard was an explosive performer who inspired generations of musicians from Otis Redding to the Beatles to the late David Bowie. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) A-bop-bop a-loo-mop, a-lop-bop-bop. Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy...

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With his ferocious piano playing, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy.

BLAIR: Jimi Hendrix, who once played in Little Richard's band, said he wanted his guitar to sound like Richard's voice. His peers, James Brown and Otis Redding, idolized him. Little Richard was an audacious showman in everything he did - movies like "Down And Out In Beverly Hills."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS")

LITTLE RICHARD: (As Orvis Goodnight) Black - I'm a black man. Ain't no black man supposed to live in Beverly Hills.

BLAIR: And commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I called Geico expecting to get a recording, but someone was there to help me.

LITTLE RICHARD: (As himself) Help me. Somebody help me.

BLAIR: Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Ga. He was one of 12 siblings. His father was a brick mason, a bootlegger and eventually a nightclub owner. Little Richard once told NPR Macon was a muddy little town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LITTLE RICHARD: Cows and a lot of chickens and pigs. It was a beautiful place, you know, and I was singing all up and down the street loud as I can, everybody hollering out their door, shut up, shut up - just making too much noise. But I was singing "Tutti Frutti" even then and playing "Lucille" on the piano at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCILLE")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Lucille, you won't do your sister's will. Lucille, you won't do your sister's will. You ran off and married, but I love you still.

BLAIR: To develop his style, Little Richard borrowed a few things from the performers he admired like a singer and pianist who went by the name of Esquerita.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' THE JOINT")

ESQUERITA: (Singing) Well, they were rockin' (ph) in the joint, and everybody was a-rockin' with me.

BLAIR: He too was openly gay and wore makeup and loud clothing. He also taught Little Richard to play the piano. Then there was gospel singer Marion Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACKIN' UP")

MARION WILLIAMS: (Singing) Getting ready - getting ready to go. I'm packing up, getting ready to go. Woo, packing up.

BLAIR: Little Richard said that's where he got his trademark woo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG TALL SALLY")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Woo, baby, having me some fun tonight, yeah.

CHARLES WHITE: It was the power of the music. He intensified the bass.

BLAIR: Charles White wrote an authorized biography of Little Richard.

WHITE: It was the voice that was like a fire blizzard across an Arctic waste. I mean, every major rock singer tried to copy his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIP IT UP")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Well, it's Saturday night, and I just got paid. Fool about my money, don't try to save. My heart says go, go, have a time 'cause it's Saturday night and I'm feeling fine. I'm going to rock it up.

BLAIR: In the 1950s, the music industry, like so much else in America, was segregated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLE RICHARD: Back at that time, the black records was considered as what you call race records. And black records was not played on white stations at the time.

BLAIR: White artists often scored big hits covering Little Richard's songs, like Pat Boone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

PAT BOONE: (Singing) Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh, Rudy.

BLAIR: Little Richard claimed he didn't see a dime from some of those covers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLE RICHARD: While I was slipping and sliding, they was keeping and hiding, putting my money in unknown banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIPPIN' AND SLIDIN'")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Slipping and sliding, peeping and a hiding, been told a long time ago.

BLAIR: Eventually Little Richard did make a lot of money from his recordings, movies and TV appearances. He toured the world. He was, in many ways, a living icon who was both respected and ridiculed. In the early 1990s, Jamie Fox impersonated Little Richard on the sketch comedy show "In Living Color."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN LIVING COLOR")

JAMIE FOXX: (As Little Richard) I know what you thinking, too, huh? You're thinking, did I get off six shots or five? Well, honey, in all this excitement, good golly, Ms. Molly, I kind of lost track myself.

BLAIR: Little Richard was a man of extremes - a wild pop star and a deeply religious person. There were periods during his career when he left showbiz altogether to preach. The 1970s were rough for Little Richard. He was drinking and doing drugs daily.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLE RICHARD: I got so I didn't want to make my engagements. I got so I didn't want to do anything but just party hardy.

BLAIR: His younger brother died around this time, and two of his friends were killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLE RICHARD: And then I said, well, God is trying to tell me something. Then the thought came to me, what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul? And then I decided that I would give my life to God.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW THE LORD")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Whoa, you know him, right? You know him. You know where I go, Lord. You know where I belong. You know all I do. You know my secret, too.

BLAIR: It took someone like Little Richard, a fearless performer and gifted musician, to help move American music forward. He liked to remind people he was the architect of rock 'n' roll. He didn't build the music by himself, but he was one of its most original designers. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW THE LORD")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) You know just what I need. It might be...

MARTIN: We want to note that we are also aware of the death of the influential hip-hop and R&B executive Andre Harrell, a former president of Motown and the founder of Uptown Records. And we will have more on his legacy tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.