Little Richard, the self-described “king and queen” of rock ‘n’ roll, died Saturday at the age of 87 in Tullahoma, Tenn.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard would become a pioneering powerhouse, inspiring generations of musicians like Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Otis Redding, and Elvis Costello. His songs would become far-reaching rock canon, covered by acts such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Kinks, and the Scorpions.
An energetic pop star and deeply religious person, Richard was known to carry his Bible and quote from it often, leaving show business for long stretches during his career to return to preaching but always coming back to music. Over the years, he would struggle with religion, fame, and eventually drug abuse, but his struggle with sexuality was more about being accepted by others. Little Richard knew exactly who he was, and he derived his fiery onstage presence from that knowledge.
Richard’s most famous work began in the mid-1950s, where he smashed his way into the heavily segregated music industry of the era. That’s no small feat for any artist, let alone an openly gay black man who grew up in the American South. Armed with his signature charismatic showmanship — the signature piano-pounding, gospel-influenced vocals, excited hollers, and sexually charged sometimes-nonsense lyrics — he generated a long string of unstoppable hits beginning with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” (1956), “Lucille” (1957), and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (1958).
He was prone to colorful costumes throughout his decades-spanning career; turbans, capes, and suits studded with multi-colored precious stones and sequins, a look borrowed from performers he admired like Esquerita, an openly gay singer and pianist who wore make-up and loud clothing, and also taught Little Richard to play the piano.
Little Richard was absolutely “The Architect of Rock and Roll.” He didn’t build the house by himself, but he damn sure drafted the blueprints. RIP.