Over the weekend we lost three musical icons — Little Richard, Andre Harrell and Betty Wright. Little Richard, the flamboyant rock and roll pioneer who influenced future generations of rock stars with such timeless classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin'” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” — died Saturday morning, May 9 in Tullahoma, TN. Richard, whose birth name was Richard Penniman, was reportedly 87. His death was confirmed by his son, Danny Penniman, who told the New York Times the cause was bone cancer.
In his excellent Variety remembrance of Little Richard, Chris Morris perfectly described his persona — “Pompadoured, mustachioed, slathered with pancake makeup and popping his mascara-painted eyes — ‘Ooh my soul, I’m the prettiest man in rock ‘n’ roll,’ he declaimed — and graced with an ego as outsized as his personality and his voice, the daringly androgynous musician established himself as the wildest performer of his musical era.” As the Washington Post reports, Richard wasn’t exactly shy about aggressively promoting his foundational role in rock and roll’s history, as he once told Playboy, “There’s only one originator, there’s only one architect: Little Richard.”
Little Richard’s influence on other rock stars was notable — Elvis Presley covered four of Richard’s hits in his breakthrough year of 1956. The Beatles — who shared a stage with him on a 1962 U.K. tour — paid tribute to his style in their cover of “Long Tall Sally” and their own homages, like “I’m Down.” In 1957, at the height of his popularity, Little Richard quit the music business, enrolled in theological school and undertook a new career as an evangelical minister and gospel singer. He made a splashy return to his rock roots on his 1962 tour of England and cashed in on the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the ’60s and ’70s, but returned to religion again in 1977.
An inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and a 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, Richard was plagued by poor health in his later years. He suffered a heart attack onstage in Las Vegas in June 2013; three months later, he announced his retirement in an interview with Rolling Stone.