May 9, 2020: Little Richard, Rock and Roll Legend, Dies

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Little Richard, the self-described “Architect of Rock and Roll,” died May 9, 2020, at age 87, in Tullahoma, Tenn. The musician’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death, of cancer, to Rolling Stone. His lawyer, Bill Sobel, told The New York Times that the cause of death was bone cancer.

Though the flamboyant performer only earned four Top 10 singles in his career–“Long Tall Sally,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin'” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly”–Little Richard‘s influence in the early days of rock and roll went far beyond the charts. Richard was an originator of rock and roll when he exploded into the American consciousness in the mid-’50s. With a single phrase from his 1955 single “Tutti Frutti”–“awop-bop-a-loo-bop-alop-bam-boom”–he helped lay the foundation and established the rules for a new musical form.

There was something almost alien-like about him; no one dared to look, act or sound like he did in the 1950s. That he created some of the most incendiary, primitive tunes of the early rock ’n’ roll era made him even more of an MVP. Upon learning of his passing, Mick Jagger called Little Richard “the biggest inspiration of my early teens.”

Related: Jagger and Keith Richards lead the tributes to “a true original”

Paul McCartney paid tribute, writing in part, “I thank him for all he taught me and the kindness he showed by letting me be his friend.”

Richard Wayne Penniman was born on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga., where he was raised, the third of 12 children. He began singing in his local church choir while still a youngster. He signed with RCA Records in 1951 after winning a talent contest and released two singles, neither receiving prominent notice.

Returning to his job washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station, Richard sent a demo to Specialty Records, a fledgling Los Angeles label. The song, “Tutti Frutti,” reached #17 in 1956 and became his catalyst for success, leading to a run of pop and R&B hits over the next three years that included “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin’” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” In the same period, he placed 14 songs in the Top 10 of the R&B chart.

Watch Little Richard mime “Tutti Frutti”

By 1968, Little Richard had sold a reported 32 million records worldwide. His hits influenced generations of rockers and were covered by the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many others.

A self-imposed hiatus, as he turned to religion, took Richard out of the industry spotlight throughout the ’70s and much of the ’80s, but never out of the consciousness of the legions of fans around the world who confidently awaited his return.

Watch him with Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show in 1986

In 1986, Richard charged back, earning rave reviews for his appearance in the box-office smash Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a film that also launched his return to the charts for the first time since 1970 with the single, “Great Gosh A Mighty.”

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, part of the first class of inductees with Elvis Presley, James Brown, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That launched into a pattern of work that was virtually non-stop, encompassing not only recordings but television, films, soundtracks and commercials: Martin, Full House, and Miami Vice, among other television guest spots; a duet with Philip Bailey for the hit film, Twins; background vocals on the hit single, “When Love Comes to Town”; the all-star benefit album and Showtime/PBS documentary special, A Vision Shared— A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly; and as an advertising pitchman for Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Revlon’s Charlie perfume, in which he starred with supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Watch Little Richard perform on American Bandstand

His performance of a rock ‘n’ roll version of the children’s tune, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” was included on the star-studded Disney Records’ benefit album, For Our Children. The record went gold and earned millions for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization he continued to support.

Richard was honored with a star on the world-renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990. Soon afterward, he returned to his hometown of Macon for the unveiling of Little Richard Penniman Boulevard. In 1993, he received the long-overdue Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy and performed at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton.

In 1994, Richard received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s prestigious Pioneer Award. He also appeared on Elton John’s hit Duets album and sang “Something Else” with Tanya Tucker.

Richard was presented with the prestigious Award of Merit by the 1997 American Music Awards, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2010, “Tutti Frutti” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording registry.

“Entertaining is a way to spread joy,” said Richard. “I’ve come to terms with that and with myself. You’ve got to do that before you can begin to help others.”

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6 Comments so far

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  1. Bob Sled
    #1 Bob Sled 9 May, 2020, 14:39

    Farewell to one of the original pioneers of Rock and Roll!

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  2. Tic Toc
    #2 Tic Toc 10 May, 2020, 01:12

    Little Richard did not write nor did he record that song while washing dishes at the greyhound bus station. Little Richard was indeed working at Ms. Ann’s Tic Toc Lounge as her dishwasher, where he wrote and performed nearly every single song within the restaurant during his early years. He and James Brown held private events for family and friends on the third floor of the Tic Toc Building. Today the Third floor servers was my personal residence, the second floor is our banquet room and the main floor is still The Tic Toc Room. Outside of my restaurant there are two plaques, one on each side of the main entrance, stating the Historical Musical value of my establishment with names Little Richard, James Brown and Oddis Redding engraved on them issued by the City of Macon and the State of Georgia.

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  3. Sharkfinn
    #3 Sharkfinn 10 May, 2020, 04:27

    Rock on, Forever.
    Little Richard’s exit from rock for his faith was one of the death knells of American Rock and Roll, along with a plane wreck with Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper, a military tour for Elvis, The Killer’s penchant for underage cousins and Freed’s persecution for payola. Reboot with the English knockoffs, Beatles, Stones, Roe and the rest. Backwards to go forward.

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  4. Jude
    #4 Jude 10 May, 2020, 04:55

    Forever remembered as one of the Best Rockin Rollers!

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  5. 122intheshade
    #5 122intheshade 10 May, 2022, 00:02

    For an eye-opening version of Richard’s career, find the book “The Quasar of Rock”. It’s as bold and outlandish as Richard himself. Especially his “encounter” backstage with Buddy Holly.

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  6. Da Mick
    #6 Da Mick 10 May, 2022, 08:21

    Not only was he R&R’s seminal pioneer, as if that weren’t enough, but, in terms of raw talent, he was one of the best R&R singers ever. Without Little Richard there is no Paul McCartney, as we know him. McCartney’s rock stylings, which are also some of the all-time bests in rock history, are essentially a tribute to Little Richard.

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