Richard Wayne Penniman (born December 5, 1932), known as Little Richard, is an American musician, singer and songwriter.
An influential figure in popular music and culture for more than six decades, Little Richard’s most celebrated work dates from the mid-1950s, when his dynamic music and charismatic showmanship laid the foundation for rock and roll. His music also played a key role in the formation of other popular music genres, including soul and funk. Little Richard influenced numerous singers and musicians across musical genres from rock to hip hop; his music helped shape rhythm and blues for generations to come, and his performances and headline-making thrust his career right into the mix of American popular music.
Known for his flamboyant performances, Little Richard’s hit songs from the mid-1950s were defining moments in the development of rock ‘n’ roll.
IN THESE GROUPS
“God gives us the ability, but rock ‘n’ roll was created by men.”
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard helped define the early rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s with his driving, flamboyant sound. With his croons, wails and screams, he turned songs like “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” into huge hits and influenced such bands as the Beatles.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard was the third of 12 children. His father, Bud, was a stern man who made his living selling moonshine and didn’t do much to hide his disdain for his son’s early signs of homosexuality. At the age of 13 Richard was ordered to move out of the family home, and his relationship with his father was never repaired. When Richard was 19, his father was shot dead outside a local bar.
The childhood that Richard did manage to have was largely shaped by the church. Two of his uncles as well as his grandfather were preachers, and Richard was involved with the church as much as anyone in his family, singing gospel and eventually learning to play the piano.
Upon moving out of his family’s home, Richard was taken in by a white family who owned a club in Macon, where Richard eventually began performing and honing his talent.
In 1951 Richard caught his first major break when a performance at an Atlanta radio station yielded a record contract with RCA. But with a repertoire of mainly mild blues numbers that masked the searing vocals and piano that would come to define his rock music, Richard’s career failed to take off as he’d hoped it would.
In 1955 Richard hooked up with Specialty Records producer Art Rupe, who’d been hunting for a piano-pounding frontman to lead a group of musicians in New Orleans. In September, Richard stepped into the recording studio and pumped out “Tutti-Frutti,” an instant Billboard hit that reached No. 17.
Over the next year and a half, the musician churned out several more rock hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Send Me Some Lovin’.” With his blood-pumping piano playing and suggestive lyrics, Little Richard, along with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, established rock as a real musical form and inspired others, most notably the Beatles, to make a go of it. In addition to his records, Little Richard appeared in several early rock films, such as Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1957) and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll (1957).
But as his success soared, Little Richard, fueled by his earlier connections to the church, saw his doubts about rock deepen. In 1957 he abruptly and publicly quit performing rock and committed himself to the ministry and recording gospel songs. He recorded his debut religious album, God Is Real, in 1959.
In 1964, following the Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard plunged back into rock music. Over the ensuing decades Little Richard would continue to perform and record, but the public response failed to match the enthusiasm that greeted his earlier success.
Little Richard’s family had deep evangelical (Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)) Christian roots, including two uncles and a grandfather who were preachers. Little Richard also took part in Macon’s Pentecostal churches, which were his favorites mainly due to their music, charismatic praise, dancing in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. At age 10, influenced by Pentecostalism, Little Richard would go around saying he was a faith healer, singing gospel music to people who were feeling sick and touching them. He later recalled that they would often indicate that they felt better after he prayed for them and would sometimes give him money. Little Richard had aspirations of being a preacher due to the influence of singing evangelist Brother Joe May.
After he was born again in 1957, Little Richard enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, a mostly black Seventh-day Adventist college, to study theology. Little Richard returned to secular music in the early 1960s. He was eventually ordained a minister in 1970, and again resumed evangelical activities in 1977. Little Richard represented Memorial Bibles International and sold their Black Heritage Bible, which highlighted the Book’s many black characters. As a preacher, Little Richard evangelized in small churches and packed auditoriums of 20,000 or more. His preaching focused on uniting the races and bringing lost souls to repentance through God’s love. In 1984, Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, died following a period of illness. Only a few months prior to her death, Little Richard promised her that he would remain a Christian.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Little Richard officiated at celebrity weddings. In 2006, Little Richard wedded twenty couples who won a contest in one ceremony. The musician used his experience and knowledge as a minister and elder statesman of rock and roll to preach at funerals of musical friends such as Wilson Pickett and Ike Turner. At a benefit concert in 2009 to raise funds to help rebuild children’s playgrounds destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Little Richard asked guest of honor Fats Domino to pray with him and others. His assistants handed out inspirational booklets at the concert—a common practice at Little Richard’s shows. He somberly told a Howard Theatre, Washington, D.C. audience in June 2012, “I know this is not Church, but get close to the Lord. The world is getting close to the end. Get close to the Lord.” In 2013, Little Richard elaborated on his spiritual philosophies, stating “God talked to me the other night. He said He’s getting ready to come. The world’s getting ready to end and He’s coming, wrapped in flames of fire with a rainbow around his throne.” Rolling Stone reported his apocalyptic prophesies generated snickers from some audience members as well as cheers of support. Little Richard responded by stating: “When I talk to you about [Jesus], I’m not playing. I’m almost 81 years old. Without God, I wouldn’t be here.”
Still, his importance in the development of rock music has never been questioned. In 1986 Little Richard was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1993, and a year later the Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored him with its prestigious Pioneer Award.
In recent years, the once-dynamic performer has taken a break from the concert stage. He fell ill during a show in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2012. The following September, Little Richard suffered a heart attack. He described the incident to Cee Lo Green during an interview in Atlanta: “The other night, I didn’t know I was having a heart attack. I was coughing, and my right arm was aching.’
The singer took a baby aspirin, which his doctor credited with saving his life. The deeply religious music icon attributed his survival to a higher power: “Jesus had something for me. He brought me through.”
Relationships and family
In 1956, Little Richard began a romantic relationship with Audrey Robinson, a 16-year-old college student, originally from Savannah, Georgia.
According to Little Richard, he would invite other men to have sex with her in groups and once invited Buddy Holly to have sex with her; Robinson denied those claims. The relationship ended after Little Richard’s religious conversion in 1957. Robinson later became a stripper using the name Lee Angel. According to Robinson, Little Richard wanted to continue to see her but she felt uncomfortable seeing a preacher as a stripper. Described in GQ’s UK edition as a “lifelong soulmate”[which?], Robinson and Little Richard are occasionally in each other’s company.
Little Richard met his only wife, Ernestine Campbell, at an evangelical rally in October 1957. They began dating that year and wed in July 1959. According to Campbell, she and Little Richard initially enjoyed a happy marriage with “normal” sexual relations. Campbell claimed when the marriage ended in divorce in 1963, it was due to Little Richard’s celebrity status, noting that it had made life difficult for her. Little Richard claimed the marriage fell apart due to him being a neglectful husband and that she didn’t see him as gay because he was “such a pumper in those days”. While married, in 1962, Little Richard adopted a one-year-old boy, Danny Jones, from a late church associate. Little Richard and his son remain close, with Jones often acting as one of his bodyguards
Little Richard’s sexual orientation has long been a topic of debate. Little Richard claimed that as a child he felt feminine and played with girls, which was the source of jokes at his expense. Caught wearing his mother’s makeup and wardrobe at times, he was brutally punished by his father. Little Richard began having sexual encounters with both sexes by his early teens. Allegedly because of his effeminate mannerisms, Little Richard’s father kicked him out of their family home at 15. As Richard later explained in 2010, “my daddy put me out of the house. He said he wanted seven boys, and I had spoiled it, because I was gay.” Little Richard first became involved in voyeurism in his early twenties, when a female friend of his would drive him around and pick up men who would allow him to watch them have sex in the backseat of cars. Little Richard was once arrested after a gas station attendant in Macon reported sexual activity in a car featuring Little Richard and a couple. Cited on a sexual misconduct charge, Little Richard spent three days in jail and was temporarily banned from performing in Macon, Georgia.
During the early 1950s, Little Richard had appeared as a drag performer in various vaudeville groups. By the time he entered the Chitlin Circuit, he began using makeup regularly, influenced by Billy Wright, who recommended his brand of makeup to him, Pancake 31. Later, as he began experiencing success in the mid-1950s, Little Richard made members of his band use makeup as a means to gain entry into white clubs during performances. Little Richard later told a columnist, “I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful too.” Little Richard received female attention during the mid-1950s stating that female fans would give him naked photos of themselves and their phone numbers. In 2000, Little Richard stated: “I had girlfriends and a stack of women who followed me and traveled with me. I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to.”
While attending Oakwood College, Little Richard recalled a male student showed himself to him. After the incident was reported to the student’s father, Little Richard withdrew from the college. In 1962, Little Richard was again arrested after he was caught spying on men urinating at men’s toilets at a Trailways bus station in Long Beach, California. Little Richard returned to participating in sexual orgies after his return to secular music in the 1960s. In 1984, while he claimed homosexuality was “unnatural” and “contagious”, he would tell Charles White that he was “omnisexual” after he was asked about his sex life. In 1995, Little Richard told Penthouse that he always knew he was gay.
Drug and alcohol use
Little Richard was allegedly a heavy drinker and cigarette smoker during the mid-1960s. By 1972, he was using cocaine, developing an addiction to the drug. He later lamented during that period, “they should have called me Little Cocaine, I was sniffing so much of that stuff!” He got addicted to heroin and PCP around that same period. Of his drug experiences, he said “I lost my reasoning”. He said of his cocaine addiction that he did whatever he could to use cocaine. Little Richard admitted that his addiction to cocaine and heroin was costing him as much as $1,000 a day. In 1977, longtime friend Larry Williams once showed up with a gun and threatened to kill Little Richard for failing to pay his drug debt. Little Richard later mentioned that this was the most fearful moment of his life because Williams’s own drug addiction made him wildly unpredictable. Little Richard did, however, also acknowledge that he and Williams were “very close friends” and when reminiscing of the drug-fueled clash, he recalled thinking “I knew he loved me – I hoped he did.”
Within that same year, Little Richard had several devastating personal experiences, including his brother Tony’s death of a heart attack, the accidental shooting of his nephew that he loved like a son, and the murder of two close personal friends – one a valet at “the heroin man’s house.” The combination of these experiences convinced Little Richard to give up drugs and alcohol, along with rock and roll, and return to the ministry.