Little Richard, rock'n'roll pioneer, dies aged 87

His 1955 song Tutti Frutti, with the lyric ‘awopbopaloobop alopbamboom’, and a series of follow-up records helped establish the genre and influence a multitude of other musicians

Little Richard, one of the pioneers of the first wave of rock’n’roll, has died. He was 87.

Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman, was born in Macon, Georgia in December 1932. He had been in poor health for several years, suffering hip problems, a stroke and a heart attack.

Richard’s son, Danny Penniman, first confirmed the pioneer’s death. In a statement, Richard’s agent, Dick Alen, said: “Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville.

“He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say ‘I’m not well.’”

Richard’s career began when in the late 1940s but his early recordings with RCA Victor garnered little success. His breakthrough came when he signed to Specialty Records in 1955, releasing a run of wild and flamboyant singles – Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Keep A-Knockin’ and Good Golly, Miss Molly, among others – that made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

The biographer Charles White described the songs as “holy writs of rock’n’roll”.

Little Richard in concert.

Richard was known for his outrageous performance style at the piano – eyes lined with mascara, pompadour hair fixed with potato starch, ferocious eyes transfixing audiences – and infectious whoops, a style echoed by dozens of performers, Prince prominent among them. Richard had been a drag performer and by his own admission was involved in voyeurism, allowing men to have sex in the back seat of his car while he watched. He was arrested at least twice for lewd conduct.

His breakthrough single, Tutti Frutti, was originally about anal sex – “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy” – until producer Bumps Blackwell suggested it be cleaned up. The song bequeathed rock’n’roll its greatest expression of joy, whose exact syllables are still debated: “Awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom!”

Covered by Elvis Presley – who described Richard as “the greatest” – Tutti Frutti catapulted Richard to success.

In October 1957, however, during a tour of Australia, Richard saw a fireball crossing the sky. It was actually the Sputnik 1 satellite, but he took it as a sign from God that he needed to change his ways. In 1958 he became a preacher, before returning to secular music in 1962. The conflict between God and the devil’s music was a theme for much of the rest of his life. In old age, Richard renounced his omnisexuality, saying he had asked God to save him.

Richard’s conflict over the sacred and the profane, and which course to follow, was central to his sound, said writer Anthony DeCurtis.

“He left stardom at a very high point in the 50s to become a minister, He went back and forth on it, and it played a role in what he had to say about his sexuality,” said DeCurtis. “At points he talked about himself as always being gay, at other points he said God made a man to be a man and woman to be a woman. He talked about being bisexual, or omnisexual. That kind of struggle lent forth to his music, and that is part of what drove the madness of those early songs.”

His Specialty singles exerted a profound influence. The Beatles performed Richard’s songs.

“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” Paul McCartney said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”

On Saturday Bryan Ferry, the lead singer of Roxy Music, told the Guardian Richard “hit me and the rest of my generation like a bolt of lightning”.

Patti Smith guitarist and writer Lenny Kaye said the first time he heard Tutti Frutti, he “fell to the floor in uncontrollable laughter, inexplicable joy and unbridled release and madness.

“I have never forgotten his key to the kingdom, the outrageousness he personified, and the liberation he offered. He embraced the sin of rock’n’roll as well as its salvation, knowing that each needs the other, as the rock needs the roll.”

Smith herself said Tutti Frutti “exploded when I was eight years old, awakening a positive anarchy in a little girl’s heart. Nothing was the same after hearing his exciting and excitable voice … Farewell voice of an age; he commingles with the firmament now”.

In 2014, AC/DC’s then singer Brian Johnson told the Guardian about seeing Little Richard on television for the first time.

“It was a Saturday, it was one o’clock and it was sunny day. And this woman was going, ‘And now, from America, we have Little Richard.’ And it was this fucking black guy with this fucking ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was fucking prettier than a woman. And it was Tutti Frutti …” Johnson mimed slack-jawed amazement. “What the fuck? There was nothing, and then there was this.”

Despite not having a top 10 US hit after 1958, to Richard his claim to be the originator of rock‘n’roll was never in serious question.

“People have tried to claim mah throne,” he told reporters in London in 1972, as rendered by Nick Kent of the New Musical Express. “There are pretenders, brother. Lemme tell ya, I am the o-riginal. I’m not boastin’ and I’m not braggin’, ah am the rightful King of Rock n’ Roll.

“You see Alice Cooper and [Mick] Jagger wearing make-up – ah have bin wearin’ make-up for years. All dem fellas copped that stuff fro’ me an’ that’s no lie.”

On Saturday, tributes poured in. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said Richard “pioneered rock’n’roll”. Beach Boys lyricist Brian Wilson said “he was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock’n’roll”. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr tweeted that Richard was “one of my all-time musical heroes”.

Elvis Costello said: “Play Rip It Up. Very loud. Then play it again. There’s nothing anyone can say, that says it better.”

There was also praise from Keith Richards and from Jagger, who tweeted: “He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy … as it did when it was first shot through the music scene in the mid-50s.

“When we were on tour with him, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music.

“I will miss you Richard, God bless.”

Contributors

Michael Hann and Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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