Richard Wayne Penniman, known by his stage name Little Richard, was one of the most innovative and influential singers that the rock music industry has seen. He was nicknamed ‘The Architect of Rock and Roll.’
His most celebrated work was performed and recorded from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, but his influence has covered a period of over 60 years.
His breakthrough single in 1955 was ‘Tutti Frutti’, a song so well known that most people would still recognise it today. It became an instant success in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the biggest music markets in the world. This was followed by ‘Long Tall Sally’ in 1956 and a succession of 15 more hit singles in less than three years. He was an early ‘crossover’ success with his performances attracting a mixed audience of black and white fans in the days of segregation in the US.
Born in the depression in 1932, he was brought up in a church-attending Christian family. Richard had his first musical training singing in the church gospel choir, and he also learned to play the saxophone at school. Richard’s wider family were members of various Baptist and Pentecostal churches, with some family members becoming ministers.
Make up and Theatrics
As a young child Richard spent most of his time with girls and even started wearing make up and girl’s clothing at times. He developed effeminate mannerisms and his father beat him mercilessly for what he saw as evil behaviour, but it didn’t stop him. Throughout his younger days Richard flirted with what he termed ‘omnisexuality’ and voyeurism, being arrested on numerous occasions for what was illegal at the time. However, his use of make-up was generally more theatrical than anything else, and he soon found that music promoters had fewer problems getting him in to play at the predominately white establishments if he wore make-up and played to his effeminate side. Coupled with his high-energy theatrical antics, which included climbing on top of his piano, jumping on and off the stage, and throwing his souvenirs to the audience, Richard also started to wear sequinned capes. He said,
“I didn’t want anyone to think I was after the white girls!”
After seven years of uninterrupted high level success, Little Richard had his first ‘epiphany’ (God experience) whilst on tour in Australia in 1962. He believed that God was speaking to him and telling him it was time to give up Rock and Roll music and to follow Him. There were three successive signs that shook him to the core. On a flight from Melbourne to Sydney, he felt that something was not right and kept his eyes focused on the engines which appeared to be red hot. He sensed that God was speaking to him and saying that things would be alright, but he was to give up Rock and Roll which had led him astray. After arriving at Sydney, he witnessed a comet flying across the sky, and he returning to the USA on an earlier flight than originally scheduled. Within a few days he learned that the flight he was originally booked on had crashed into the Atlantic, killing everyone on board. Despite the fact that the ‘comet’ turned out to be the launching of a satellite, these three signs were enough to get him to temporarily leave the music scene, attend Bible school, and take up work as a minister for a number of years.
However, alongside his ministry work, Richard was persuaded by British music promoter Don Arden to continue some secular music so that he could tour alongside the Beatles, who were just breaking through in the US in 1963. One of the Beatles’ live favourites was the Little Richard song ‘Long Tall Sally’, and during the tour he became friends with The Beatles and taught Paul McCartney some of his distinctive vocal inflections.
Richard spent the rest of his life in a kind of strained plurality where he was regularly unsure of whether God wanted him to continue performing Rock and Roll, or to stick with his commitment to be a Christian minister. This confusion plagued him, and he continued on and off to be sexually promiscuous. Only in his last few years did he really come to a place of peace.
The church and gospel music had a considerable underlying effect upon Little Richard throughout his life. He later recalled that in his youth people in his neighbourhood sang gospel songs throughout the day to keep a positive outlook. He said,
“There was so much poverty, so much prejudice in those days. People sang to feel their connection with God and to wash their trials and burdens away.”
Richard had a naturally loud voice with a high vocal range. He said that he was “always changing the key upwards” and that he was once stopped him from singing in church for “screaming and hollering” so loud! But it was that distinctive powerful voice that gave him his breakthrough in secular music.
In 2012, Little Richard has his second ‘epiphany’, fifty years after his first. In an interview with GQ Magazine he admitted his duplicitous lifestyle saying that he was renouncing his life of perversion, which had included orgies with both men and women.
In a further interview with Illinois-based Christian TV and radio network Three Angels Broadcasting, he said,
“You can’t live that way and go to heaven that way… When I first came in show business they wanted you to look like everybody but yourself, and anybody that come into show business, they gonna come at you and say you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re a homosexual or something. But God, Jesus, made men men, He made women women, and you’ve got to live the way God wants you [to] live… he can save you!”
Richard admitted that the temptations of the entertainment industry were great and that he had often fallen to temptation, but in his final years he opted to change his ways once and for all. He said,
“You know, all these things. So much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God. Don’t want no parts of Him.”
“I was talking to Michael Jackson’s mother Katherine and she said she believed in the Resurrection. I said I believed in the Resurrection too. But I believe you’ve got to live right now in Jesus. He’s a real Savior and the Prince of Life. Regardless of whatever you are, He loves you. I don’t care what you are. He loves you and He can save you. All you’ve got to do is say, ‘Lord, take me as I am. I’m a sinner.’ But we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The only holy, righteous person is Jesus and He wants us to be just like Him because, in order to go to Heaven, we’ve got to look like Him,“
Richard had a church upbringing, had sung in the choir, had released a number of gospel albums, and was regarded by many as a Christian. But despite all of that outward suggestion of a Christian faith, he finally admitted that he needed to surrender fully to Christ. He said that he asked God to save him and that God said to him,
“ ‘Richard, you’re singing Tutti Frutti. You’re singing Good Golly Miss Molly. You’re singing Long Tall Sally. You’re singing The Girl Can’t Help It and She’s Got It and all of these things.
I asked, ‘Lord, can I do this and still be saved?’
The Lord replied, ‘Richard, no man can serve two masters.’ “
Richard said that after that he retired from performing and recording. He chose to release everything and to serve God for the remainder of his years. He added,
“People want to go to heaven, but they don’t want to have to give up nothing, and in order to see Jesus, you’ve got to give up something.”
He said that in recent years a producer came to him, offering millions of dollars for a new television series entitled “Little Richard.” The producer told him that if he would allow the series to go forward, he would be the hottest thing on the planet. Confessing that the offer was tempting, Richard replied to the promoter,
“I don’t want to be hot in the fire. I don’t want to be hot in the flames! I want to do what God wants me to do. I don’t want to sing rock and roll no more …I want to be holy like Jesus. Give everything you’ve got to Jesus, and oh, you’ll feel so much better. I want to show the world that I know a man that created everything. I know a man that gave his life that I might have a right to the tree of life.”
Little Richard died on 9th May 2020 after a short battle with cancer. He was 87 years old.
His brother, sister, and son were with him at the time of his death. Tributes were received from a whole host of world famous performers including musicians Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Fogerty, Elton John, and Lenny Kravitz.
Story by Ralph Burden.
Photo courtesy of Arniep.