Inside Little Richard’s real-life story
Rock and roll trailblazer Little Richard died May 9, 2020, after a battle with bone cancer, according to Rolling Stone. He was 87.
Little Richard was best known for ’50s hits such as “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and his work has continued to influence countless artists, including Elton John, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Prince. As The Washington Post put it, the entertainer was “the self-described king, queen and architect of rock-and-roll,”
Richard was known not only for his vocals and piano skills but also for his electrifying personality and dazzling fashion sense, which included beaded costumes and pompadour hairstyles. But behind the performer’s eclectic and energetic on-stage persona was a multifaceted person who lived through many highs and lows. Let’s take a closer look inside Little Richard’s real-life story.
Little Richard endured a strained relationship with his dad
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga, Little Richard was the third of a dozen children born to Leva Mae Stewart and Charles Penniman. His father, known as “Bud” to some, was a brick mason, sold moonshine, and also eventually owned a club, according to NPR. The relationship between Richard and his father was a strained one. Bud reportedly strongly disagreed with his son’s early displays of sexuality and kicked Richard out of the house. Their relationship was also short-lived. Bud was shot and killed outside his club when Richard was only 19. Richard wound up working to support his family.
In a 1984 interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Richard spoke of those early years and described his hometown. “A lot of mud and a lot of cows and a lot of chickens and a lot of pigs,” he said. “It was a beautiful place and I was singing all up and down the street loud as I can. Everybody hollering out there, ‘Shut up! Shut up! You’re making too much noise!’ But I was singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ even then. And playing ‘Lucille’ at the piano at that time.”
Little Richard was 'ordained by God'
Little Richard grew up surrounded by the church. His uncles and grandfather were all preachers, and according to People, his mother reportedly sent Richard to the New Hope Baptist Church every Sunday in hopes of fixing his birth defect (He was born with a right leg that was three inches shorter than his left.)
It seems the church was also where Richard’s interest in music was born. It was there he began singing gospel and learned to play the piano. At just 10 years old, he reportedly began a group called the Tiny Tots Quartet that staged gospel music shows in churches and old peoples’ homes in exchange for sweet potatoes. “There wasn’t any rock and roll at that time,” he told People. “So we sang gospel. Everybody around us was singing gospel — the women hanging out the wash, the old men on the porches at night, everybody.”
His success, some say, was also fueled by faith. In 1957, after Richard’s roots in rock and roll had already taken hold, “he abruptly dropped from sight to study theology at Oakwood College in Alabama,” reported People. “He never got a degree, but, ‘ordained by God,’ he toured the South delivering a stock sermon called ‘Why I left show business.'”
Little Richard expressed fluid views on sexuality
Little Richard’s views on sexuality were never clearly defined, though they were routinely discussed in the press. Although his father allegedly kicked him out of the home because he showed signs of being gay at an early age, Little Richard oscillated on the subject of sexuality over the years.
In the biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, he seemingly distanced himself from speculation that he was a gay man, calling homosexuality “contagious” and “not something you’re born with,” per Rolling Stone. But in a 1987 interview with Playboy, he allegedly changed his tune. According to filmmaker John Waters (via The Guardian), Richard professed his “love” for gay people and called himself the “founder of gay.”
“I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders,” he allegedly said. “I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought.”
He later came out as omnisexual, which means he was attracted to all genders, but he may have offered a conflicting view in an interview with the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. “Jesus made men, men. He made women, women,” he said at the time. “And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live … He loves whatever you are. I don’t care what you are.”
Little Richard distanced himself from rock 'n' roll
As Little Richard’s religious convictions deepened later in life, he intentionally walked away from his mainstream roots. “When God touches your life, you don’t want none of that no more,” he told the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. “I don’t want to sing rock ‘n’ roll no more … I want to be holy like Jesus.”
That decision didn’t stop him from being recognized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In fact, he was one of the original ten artists to be inducted. He also received the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and earned the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. He also dabbled on screen, with appearances in movies including Down and Out in Beverly Hills and television shows such as Full House and Miami Vice.
Little Richard continued to perform periodically later in life, but a 2009 hip replacement surgery prevented him from living up to the energy of his old performances and limited him to playing the piano on stage. In 2012, he fell ill while performing on stage in Washington, D.C., and that same year, he suffered from a heart attack, per Biography. Through it all, he held fast to his faith. “Jesus had something for me,” he said. “He brought me through.”
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