Beatles, Bill Haley, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Cliff Richard, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Ernestine Harvin, Europe, evangelism, Florida, gospel, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, John Fogerty, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Las Vegas, Little Richard, Little Richard Evangelistic Team, long hair, Long Tall Sally, make-up, Mersey sound, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Otis Redding, Paul McCartney, Prince, Richard Wayne Penniman, rock 'n' roll, Rod Stewart, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Tutti Fruitti, UK, US
Little Richard, one of the original rock ‘n’ rollers, has died from bone cancer at age 87. Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t that little at 177 cm or close to 5 feet 10 inches, but he was small and skinny as a kid and his family called him Lil’ Richard. He shot to fame in 1955 with ‘Tutti Fruitti’ around the same time as other rock singers became famous including Elvis Presley, Billy Haley and Chuck Berry. Then came ‘Long Tall Sally’ in 1956 and then 15 hit singles in under three years. Imagine that today!
He was perhaps the first in the modern era to have long hair, something copied by others such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones by the mid 1960s. He was also perhaps the first to wear plenty of make-up, another thing copied by many who followed him. And he was openly gay. The Beatles were the support band for some Little Richard concerts around 1962 and he taught them how to sing his songs. Many bands recorded Little Richard songs including the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jimi Hendrix played in Little Richard’s band in 1964 and 1965.
Little Richard left rock ‘n’ roll in late 1957 and decided to become religious while on tour in Australia. He felt that angels had been holding up his plane when it developed engine problems and he had seen a fireball in the sky after a concert (later confirmed to be Sputnik 1). Back in the US, he enrolled in a theology course and travelled across the country with his Little Richard Evangelistic Team in 1958. Next year he married Ernestine Harvin. He became a very good gospel singer and some of his songs charted in the US and the UK. He was persuaded to tour Europe in 1962 and got booed when he sang gospel songs. Next night he launched into ‘Long Tall Sally’ and the crowd went mad. Little Richard was back as a rock ‘n’ roll singer.
He didn’t do as well second time around as pop music had changed direction with the Beatles and the Mersey sound, and he experienced plenty of ups and downs. By 1972 Little Richard was on the rock ‘n’ roll revival circuit but he suffered voice problems and was an alcoholic and a drug addict. In 1977, he went back to evangelism.
Reemerging in 1984, he became a successful actor and had some more songs in the hit parade. He continued to be quite active on television and in films, and kept singing, including his old classics at concerts and some children’s songs by the 1990s. In the 2000s he did a lot of recording, including work on a number of tribute albums, and touring. He had a hip replacement but continued to tour, being on stage for an hour and a half in Florida in 2012 aged 79, and headlining in a rockabilly weekend in Las Vegas in 2013. He retired in September of that year but still made the odd appearance on stage and television and at functions until 2019.
Bob Dylan’s ambition in 1959 was to join Little Richard. Jimi Hendrix said in 1966, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” Michael Jackson said he had been a huge influence. Paul McCartney idolised him, as did James Brown and Otis Redding. Others to be heavily influenced were John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elton John, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Cliff Richard, Rod Stewart, John Fogerty, Prince and many others. In 1969, Elvis Presley called him “the greatest”.