Little Richard, 'architect of rock and roll,' dies at 87

By Zach Harper

Little Richard, the rock and roll legend who helped create and popularize the genre and influenced countless others from John Lennon to Mick Jagger, has died at age 87.

The man born Richard Penniman passed away on May 9, his son, Danny Penniman, confirmed to the media. The star's cause of death wasn't revealed at press time.

Little Richard was born in Macon, Ga. in 1932. He was the son of a brick mason who came from a family of preachers. His evangelical upbringing was to heavily influence both his music and his life.

By the time he burst onto the scene with his first hit," Tutti Frutti," in 1956, he already had a track record of shocking people with his performances. He had been singing in drag on stage since the 1940s.

Little Richard circa 1956. Photo: © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There were definitely others had become rock stars before him, such as Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. But his influence on rock music continues to this day because the way he was creating music and performing it was unparalleled. It still is.

His use of flamboyant, colourful costumes and makeup immediately set him apart from other rock and rollers. The way he played his piano was also markedly different from anyone else at the time.

In 2010, when the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress included "Tutti Frutti," it said the song's "unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music." Who can forget its incredible exclamation, "Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!"? It's never been matched.

Little Richard circa 1956. Photo: © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"I didn't ever want to be anything else," he told Rolling Stone in 1973. "Jerry Lee [Lewis] is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder."

He mixed gospel with rock in a way that thrilled teens and people coming of age in the mid-'50s. The star also didn't hide his sexual orientation, and openly admitted his attraction to other men – he called himself "omnisexual." He also advocated the equality of all people – when he played to segregated audiences in the American south, his shows would often end with black and white people all dancing together.

His attitude and vocal frills were often adopted and imitated by others such as The Beatles, Elton John, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Prince... the list really is endless. If you pick anyone in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Little Richard has influenced them in some way.

He followed "Tutti Frutti" with "Long Tall Sally" and "Rip It Up" the same year. The Beatles went on to cover the former track. "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" were then both released and became hits in 1957 and 1958, respectively.

George Harrison speaks with Little Richard at the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Photo: © Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Little Richard's career seemed to come to a close just as soon as it started. Just two years after "Tutti Frutti" was released, he left music and became a preacher and tried to have a career recording gospel music.

But in 1962, he began performing rock and roll again, just before The Beatles began to take off up the charts with their mix of skiffle and rock music heavily influenced by his songs. John, Paul, George and Ringo actually opened for him when they were gigging in Hamburg, back when The Beatles were struggling for their big break.

"I could do Little Richard's voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing," Paul McCartney told author Barry Miles in his Many Years from Now biography. "It's like an out-of-body experience. 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."

Little Richard continued taking breaks from performing and did so again in the late '70s after having battled alcohol and drug addiction. He returned to performing in the 1980s and continued thrilling audiences on and off until 2012. In his later years, he dealt with a stroke, heart attack and had a hip replacement.

Prior to that, though, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and won a Lifetime Achievement Award GRAMMY in 1993. He even appeared on Sesame Street. The Hall of Fame rightly calls him one of the architects of rock and roll. Any rock song you hear today has been influenced by him. May he rest in peace.

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