Little Richard, considered one of the founding fathers — if not the inventor — of rock 'n' roll, and a pivotal crossover figure instrumental in the integration of dance floors and concerts in the U.S., died Saturday at 87.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932, he was dubbed "Lil' Richard" for his small stature. He was bullied for having one leg shorter than the other, and for being effeminate, telling an interviewer later in life that he had been put out of the family home by his father for being gay. His family was deeply religious, and Richard was raised singing gospel music in choirs. Known for his over-the-top performances, he was discovered by his idol, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who gave him his first paid gig — at 14 — and who inspired him to pursue music as a profession.
Performing gospel, then R&B — of which his family deeply disapproved — he also donned drag and wore outrageous outfits, curating a subversive musical persona as early as the late '40s, prefiguring acts like Prince and David Bowie. In 1982, he told David Letterman, "Didn't nobody else have nerve enough to wear what I was wearin'. I believe a lot of people wanted to look like I looked, but they didn't know how to put it on... There was a lot of people that would love to have been flamboyant."
By the early '50s, Little Richard had recorded unsuccessfully for RCA Victor and had sung in several bands, but was on the verge of giving up when his demo caught fire at Specialty Records. During his first recording session, he sang a raunchy tune from his days on the minstrel circuit, a song with gay references that never would have been releasable. "Tutti Frutti" — once sanitized — was released in November 1955, becoming a smash that would influence generations of performers, and that became his signature tune. Its "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" became one of the most famous vocal riffs in music history.
"I don't believe it would've got started at all," Richard told Letterman of his significance in creating rock 'n' roll as a musical form.
While the piano-pounder's career exploded thanks to crowd-pleasing instant classics like "Long Tall Sally" (1956), "Keep A-Knockin'" (1957), and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (1958), he became deeply conflicted by the sexual nature of the form and at one point quit secular music to become a preacher.
He eventually returned to his roots, but his struggle between religiosity and hedonism informed much of his work, and played out in his outrageous public persona.
In 1986, by then an undisputed icon and carefully balancing his peacock rock with his faith, Little Richard very nearly hit the Top 40 one last time with his self-referential pop hit "Great Gosh A'Mighty (It's a Matter of Time)" from the "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" soundtrack. He continued to sing publicly until his final concert in 2014, when failing health caught up to him.
In 1986, Little Richard was among the first acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He never won a Grammy, but was given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.
Though Little Richard had been openly gay at various times, saying in 1995, "I've been gay my whole life," he publicly renounced homosexuality in 2017. "I started thinkin, I started just thinking about Jesus. I started thinking about the world is gonna end soon — all the trouble of the world," he told WSIL. "I made up my mind that I'd rather have Jesus than anything the world could afford today."
Little Richard's marriage to Ernestine Harvin ended in divorce nearly 60 years ago. During their union, they adopted a son, Danny, who survives him.