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Obituary: Little Richard

Founding father of rock, and only one to ever claim to be 'the king and queen of rock 'n' roll, who set the template


LITTLE RICHARD: Influential rock and roll pioneer

LITTLE RICHARD: Influential rock and roll pioneer


LITTLE RICHARD: Influential rock and roll pioneer

Little Richard, who has died aged 87, inspired generations of musicians from Elvis Presley, the Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson and Prince, with his outrageous, sexually charged music - a blend of rhythm and blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll, howled in a wild, falsetto shriek and accompanied by his explosive piano playing; he was also the only man ever to claim to be "the King and Queen of rock 'n' roll".

His stage performances could, as he put it, make "your liver quiver, your bladder splatter and your knees freeze". While not everyone experienced all these symptoms during his extraordinary live shows (Richard's androgynous poses, with pompadour and exaggerated eye make-up, alienated some among his potential audience), in the fiercely competitive atmosphere of the 1950s he seemed able to produce classic hit singles such as Lucille, Long Tall Sally and Good Golly, Miss Molly almost at will.

Tutti Frutti, in particular, became an anthem of teenage rebellion with its powerful, if semantically challenging, opening line: "Awop-bopa-loobop Alop-bamboom!"

Despite his gifts as a singer of blues and gospel, Richard's characteristic vocal style, and that most appreciated by his fans, was his frenzied falsetto. Although not the most fastidious of pianists where technique and phrasing were concerned, he was undoubtedly the fastest - and the loudest (on several occasions beating the keyboard with such ferocity as to break 80 gauge piano strings).

The element of screaming camp in his performances - never understated, even in his early years - became increasingly pronounced with age. At one time his stage clothes included outfits which were, in Little Richard's view at least, approximations of the formal costume of the Pope and of Queen Elizabeth. In the late 1960s he preferred to be carried into theatres and restaurants in an ornately decorated sedan chair.

Richard had the rare gift of being able to transmit his own wildness to the watching and listening public, and was the first rock performer to produce full-blown schoolgirl hysteria on a regular basis; in this he paved the way for his most distinguished admirers, The Beatles, whom he also influenced musically to a considerable degree (not least by teaching them to sing "ooooooooooh!").

Richard Wayne Penniman was born on December 5, 1932 at Macon, Georgia, the third of 12 children of Bud Penniman, a stonemason and moonshine liquor dealer, and his wife Leva Mae. Richard would later tell his biographer that he was "born deformed" with a disproportionately large head and right limbs shorter than the left.

Like most Southern rock and rollers of his time, Richard began by singing gospel music. His robust vocal style, however, was not best suited to numbers like Precious Lord, and Peace in the Valley, and Richard was expelled from the family group, the Penniman Singers, as a result of his wild, screaming contributions to their church performances.

At Hudson High School, in Macon, he played the alto saxophone with the school band and he also learnt the piano. In his early teens he got a job at the Macon City Auditorium selling soft drinks; this seemingly unpromising occupation gave him access to concerts by performers such as Cab Calloway and led him to make his first major public appearance when Sister Rosetta Tharpe invited him to sing on stage with her.

Richard's sexual orientation had been complicated from an early age; he would later reveal that as a child he felt feminine and after being caught wearing his mother's clothes and make-up, he was punished by his father. By the time he was a teenager, he was having romantic encounters with both sexes and he also developed a penchant for voyeurism.

When he was 14, gossip about him reached his parents and after being told by his father he was "half a son", Richard left home and attached himself to various touring troupes; with B Brown and his Orchestra he was billed for the first time as 'Little Richard', and with Sugarfoot Sam he performed for the first time as a woman, calling himself 'Princess Lavonne'.

During this period he also acquired the image with which he would forever be associated: a huge lacquered pompadour, heavily kohled eyes and thick pancake make-up. By the early 1950s he had established a reputation as a performer on the circuit of Georgia drag clubs. In 1951 he had a local hit with Every Hour and, in the same year, met the infamous piano player Esquerita, an encounter which inspired the singer to include the piano in his act. His career plans took a blow the following year when his father was shot dead in an argument over firecrackers, and Richard was obliged to take a job washing dishes at the local bus station.

By the mid-1950s, he was becoming influenced by performers such as BB King and Little Walter, and in 1955 he sent an audition tape to Speciality Records in Hollywood. The company had built its reputation on black gospel and R & B, with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silverstones; yet it was here that Richard recorded his first major success - a bowdlerised version of Tutti Frutti, which he had been playing to local club audiences for several years. The song, which was reportedly recorded in three takes, was to change his life.

Despite this hit (in 1955), Little Richard - as he now styled himself - was irked that his triumph was somewhat eclipsed by the success of inferior cover versions by white artists more acceptable to a mass white audience, notably the clean-living Nashville schoolteacher Pat Boone.

"White kids would put my record under the table and Pat Boone's on the table," Little Richard recalled in 2010. "We were in the same house but in different locations. I was the first artist to break the race barrier."

His most enduring relationship, despite his admission in 1995 that "I've been gay all my life", was with a stripper called Lee Angel, whom he met in 1956 when she was 16. Little Richard adopted a son, Danny Jones.

Little Richard died on May 9, 2020.

Sunday Independent