Whose lips could utter such energetic words? None other than those of the incomparable Richard Wayne Penniman, one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, who is simply known to us as Little Richard. One whose music broke color barriers, Penniman paved the way for many. He departed this life on May 9, after a lengthy battle with bone cancer. He was 87.
Before captivating the world with his flamboyant stage persona, boisterous vocals, androgynous makeup and trademark pompadour hairstyle, Penniman was the third of twelve children, born Macon Georgia. Deriving from a religious family, with a father as a church deacon, Penniman honed his singing skills by singing in church at a very young age. In October 1947, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of his favorite singers overheard him singing her songs before a performance at the Macon City Auditorium. After being impressed with what she heard, She invited the then 14-year-old to open her show. After receiving his payment from Tharpe after the show, Penniman, became inspired to become a professional performer.
With every pro, came a few cons. Although Penniman sang in a nearby church, his father wasn’t supportive of his son’s music or musical tastes and even accused him of being gay. This resulted in Penniman leaving home at age 13 and moving in with a white family in his hometown of Macon, GA. Despite his father’s objections, Penniman retained his love of secular music. In 1949, while performing in Doctor Nubillo’s traveling show, Penniman’s fashion sense became more eclectic as he became inspired to wear capes and turbans.
After performing at Macon’s Tick Tock Club, and winning a local talent show, Penniman landed his first record deal, with RCA, in 1951. After growing tired of people mispronouncing his last name, it was soon dropped, and “Little Richard” was born. After years of performing, Penniman finally hit the big time in 1955 with the melodically rambunctious “Tutti Frutti”. Known as one of his signature songs, “Tutti Frutti became an instant hit, crossing over to the pop charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The hits didn’t stop there. The following year, Penniman scored his first number one hit with the equally energetic “Long Tall Sally”.
In less than three years later, fifteen more hit singles followed, with his performances resulting in one of the first integrated audiences. In 1962, Penniman briefly abandoned rock and roll music and became a born again Christian. Becoming an ordained a minister in 1959, he released another album the same year entitled God Is Real. Although he never scored more top ten hits after 1958, his songs became some of the greatest in rock & roll history, being covered over the years by everyone from the Beatles, to Elvis Presley, to Buddy Holly, to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Legends live forever.