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Little Richard, the pioneering artist who set the template for rock and roll, has died aged 87.
The musician’s son, Danny Penniman, confirmed to Rolling Stone that Little Richard had died but said the cause of his death was unknown.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Little Richard was the second of 12 children. His father, Bud, kicked him out as a teenager; he was taken in by a white family, who ran the club where he first performed.
“My daddy wanted seven boys, and I had spoiled it, because I was gay,” he told The South Bank Show in 1985.
He enjoyed a string of hits in the Fifties, beginning with the rollicking “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, and quickly became known for his outrageous, flamboyant style of performing and bright outfits, which were later emulated by Prince.
“Tutti Frutti”, a song originally written about anal sex, features the famous chorus – “awopbobalubobawopbambom” – that Little Richard came up with while washing dishes at the Greyhound bus station in Macon (a job he took to support his family after his father was murdered).
“Little Richard performs ‘Tutti Frutti’ in 1956 movie Don’t Knock The Rock”
The song was followed by “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up”, also in ‘56, followed a year later by “Lucille”, then “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958.
While the Fifties were widely considered as the most prolific and successful period of Little Richard’s career, his influence continued for decades after.
A number of his songs were covered by The Beatles, including “Long Tall Sally”. Other artists such as The Kinks, Elvis Costello and The Everly Brothers also covered his work, and a generation of British musicians, including The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and David Bowie, cited him as a major influence.
“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” Sir Paul McCartney once 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.”
AC/DC’s then-singer Brian Johnson told The Guardian in 2014 about the experience of 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,’” he recalled. “And it was this f***ing black guy with this f***ing ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was f***ing prettier than a woman. And it was ‘Tutti Frutti’…”
The band’s guitarist, Angus Young, said of Richard: “The way he plays and the way he sings, it’s art and science, everything together.”
Little Richard attempted to pursue a career as a gospel artist in the late Fifties after seeing fireball crossing the sky (actually the Sputnik 1 satellite) and interpreting it as a sign from God that he needed to change his ways. He became a preacher in 1958 but returned to secular music in 1962; the tussle between God and “the devil’s music” would remain a theme in Little Richard’s work for the rest of his life.
While he stated he was gay on a number of occasions, Little Richard also had relationships with women. He married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow Evangelical, in 1959, and later adopted a son, Danny.
“When I first came along, I never heard any rock & roll,” he told Rolling Stone in a 1990 interview, during which he called himself the “architect” of rock and roll. “When I started singing [rock & roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared.”
He was one of the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1993.
In a live review for The Independent of a 2005 performance at the Victoria Theatre in Halifax, critic Simon Price observed: “More than Presley, more than Cochran, more than Berry, more than Holly, Little Richard shaped rock’n’roll. Let there be no doubt: this man is the greatest of all.
“And now? He’s still as camp as Christmas, a black Liberace, spitting his catchphrase ‘Shut up!’ at any opportunity, and repeating that ‘I just made 72, and still beautiful’. Indeed, this show is very much An Audience With Little Richard, and when he isn’t bashing out the boogie-woogie hits with his freakishly long, manicured fingers, he’s spinning lengthy anecdotes.
“He rambles and gets confused, as old folks do, often in a world of his own, laughing at his own jokes (‘What do they do in Halifax? Send faxes?’), and there’s a bizarre altercation with photographers (‘I told you. No pictures till ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. Go back to your posts. I ain’t joking.’). He tells us that when he worked as a dishwasher in his teens, he came face to face with Governor Wallace, and screamed ‘Awopbopaloobop, alopbamboom!’ into his face. ‘He didn’t know what I meant… and neither did I.’ But we all knew. Richard’s ecstatic glossolalia, his yodelling in tongues, communicates more meaning than a thousand Bob Dylan albums.
“Tonight, he has to order the sound man to turn his vocals down (“When you’ve got talent, you don’t need that.”), and when he screams, he still needs to hold the microphone away from his mouth, to avoid feedback. When he sings “Lucille” and lets out a blood-curdling “woooh!”, I think I see the Holy Spirit.”
Founding father of rock Little Richard dies aged 87
“The genius who gave us A WOP BOP A LOO BOP A LOP BAM BOOM and plenty more is no more. RIP The Great Little Richard an indisputably unique entertainer,” wrote musician and lyricist Tim Rice.
The Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson tweeted: “I’m very sorry to hear about Little Richard. He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was a such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever.“
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg said: “If one image could claim to sum up the spirit of rock’n’roll, it’s this one. So long, Little Richard #Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom!”
US journalist and author Karen Hunter tweeted: “There’s no Beatles with Little Richard. (just to give a little perspective on his impact on music). There’s no Jimi Hendrix without Little Richard (he learned all of that showmanship from the greatest & was fired because he lacked discipline and the work ethic Richard required).”
Rapper Juicy J wrote: “RIP Rock & Roll Legend Little Richard.”
Jack White’s record label Third Man Records tweeted: “The Innovator, originator, the architect…. a Rock and Roll king! A god has left the earth. Rest in Power Little Richard.”
Music critic Simon Price said: “Little Richard was the firecracker who set it all off. Right there at rock’n’roll’s Big Bang, this ungovernable force transcending race, gender and sexuality. Literally a screaming queen. I met him once and it was like touching the hand of God. We owe him everything. RIP (it up).
“With no Little Richard you don’t get Hendrix, Iggy, Bowie, Bolan, Prince and so many others, right up to Janelle [Monae]. I honestly think he’s that important. Just immeasurably influential. The actual greatest.”
“The loss of a true giant. My sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends,” Nile Rodgers tweeted.”
UK believes coronavirus was passed from animals naturally