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Little Richard, rock 'n' roll pioneer, dies

Hell-raising and genre-busting musician passes away at age 87

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Little Richard in 2009

Little Richard in 2009

AP

Little Richard in 2009

Little Richard, the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll" whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, died yesterday. He was 87.

Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard's, told reporters he died yesterday morning. His son, Danny Jones Penniman, also confirmed his father's death, which was first reported by Rolling Stone, saying his father had cancer.

Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock' n' roll's founding fathers who helped shatter the colour line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called 'race music' into the mainstream. Richard's hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and hairdo, made him an implausible sensation - a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.

He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour and looks - mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin moustache and glittery suits.

"Elvis may have been the king of rock 'n' roll but I am the queen," he once proclaimed.

"Little Richard? That's rock 'n' roll," Neil Young, who heard Richard's riffs on the radio in Canada, told biographer Jimmy McDonough. "Little Richard was great on every record."

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Little Richard in the 1950s

Little Richard in the 1950s

Little Richard in the 1950s

It was 1956 when his classic Tutti Frutti landed like a hand grenade in the Top 40, exploding from radios and off turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard's memorable call of "wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom".

A string of hits followed, providing the foundation of rock music: Lucille, Keep a Knockin, Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly. More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing Good Golly Miss Molly live.

The Beatles' Paul McCartney imitated Richard's signature yelps - perhaps most notably in the "Wooooo!" from the hit She Loves You. Ex-bandmate John Lennon covered Richard's Rip it Up and Ready Teddy on the 1975 Rock and Roll album.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the charter members with Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and others.

"It is with a heavy heart that I ask for prayers for the family of my lifelong friend and fellow rocker Little Richard," said Lewis (84), in a statement provided by his publicist. "He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly. God bless his family and fans."

Few were quicker to acknowledge Little Richard's seminal role than Richard himself. The flamboyant singer claimed he paved the way for Elvis, provided Mick Jagger with his stage moves and conducted vocal lessons for McCartney.

"I am the architect of rock 'n' roll!" Little Richard crowed at the 1988 Grammy Awards as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. "I am the originator!"

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracised because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.

The family was religious, and Richard sang in local churches with a group called the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock 'n' roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career.

Penniman was performing with bands by the age of 14, but there were problems at home over his sexual orientation. His father beat the boy and derided him as "half a son".

Richard left home to join a minstrel show run by a man known as Sugarloaf Sam, occasionally appearing in drag. In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy Tutti Frutti, with lyrics that were sanitised by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell one million records over the next year.

When Little Richard's hit was banned by many white-owned radio stations, white performers like Pat Boone and Elvis did cover versions that topped the charts.

"I've always thought that rock 'n' roll brought the races together," Richard once told an interviewer. "Although I was black, the fans didn't care. I used to feel good about that."

Little Richard went Hollywood with an appearance in Don't Knock the Rock. But his wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith and Richard's career took a turn in 1957 when he decided to abandon rock in the middle of a two-week tour of Australia.

Richard told a biographer that he saw a fireball shoot across the sky during an outdoor performance in Sydney and took it as a sign from God to change his life. He said he later determined the fireball was the launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite.

A few months later, however, Richard was a student at a Bible college in Alabama. For a while he played only gospel music but slipped back into rock 'n' roll - sharing a bill with the young Beatles in Hamburg in 1962.

It was a pattern that persisted for years as Little Richard moved between rock 'n' roll, alcohol, cocaine and heroin abuse and Christianity and gospel music. He would go on to become an ordained Seventh Day Adventist minister and eventually worked both gospel and rock into his shows, along with a little preaching.

A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter with a man in a bus station toilet led to his divorce and return to performing.

He mounted three tours of England between 1962 and 1964, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones serving as opening acts.

Rolling Stones singer Jagger yesterday tweeted: "I'm so saddened to hear about the passing of Little Richard, he was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it was first shot through the music scene in the mid-50s.

"When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me."

Back in the States in the mid-Sixties, Little Richard put together a band that included guitarist Jimi Hendrix - but later fired Hendrix when he was late for a bus. Hendrix said he wanted to use his guitar the way Richard used his voice.

In 1968, Richard hit Las Vegas and relaunched his career. Within two years, he had another hit single and made the cover of Rolling Stone.

By the mid-1970s, Richard was battling a $1,000-a-day cocaine problem and once again abandoned his musical career. He returned to religion, selling Bibles and renouncing homosexuality. For more than a decade, he vanished.

"If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody," Richard said.

But he returned, in 1986, in spectacular fashion. Little Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and appeared in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

A Little Richard song from the soundtrack Great Gosh A'Mighty even put him back on the charts for the first time in more than 15 years. Little Richard was back to stay, enjoying another dose of celebrity that he fully embraced.

As a minister, Richard officiated at weddings for Bruce Springsteen, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities.

Macon, Georgia, named a street after its favourite son. And Little Richard was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2002, he announced his retirement from live performing. But he continued to appear frequently on TV.

Richard had hip surgery in November 2009 at the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, and asked fans at the time to pray for him. He lived in the Nashville area at the time.

In a post on Instagram yesterday, his longtime guitarist Kelvin Holly said: "Rest in peace, Richard. This one really stings."

©Associated Press

Sunday Independent