Little Richard dead at 87: The rock and roll king who scared — and changed — America

Little Richard threatened the cultural status quo — straight, white culture, especially — in a way that none of his contemporaries did.
"Mister Rock And Roll" Film Still
Little Richard performs with his band in a scene from the movie "Mister Rock And Roll" in 1957.Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
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By Jeff Slate

He was black, sexually fluid and playing the devil's music. Little Richard terrified America in the mid-1950s, but he was the real king of rock 'n' roll.

Sure, Elvis claims the crown, and he was no doubt an astonishing talent, but his style combined Southern charm, and he was more than willing to play the show biz game. Chuck Berry was clearly a new kind of star when he broke through, but his performances, while red hot, were almost cerebral, built on his remarkable lyrics and signature guitar licks. And Jerry Lee Lewis was explosive and menacing, but he didn't have the long string of hits — nor the hurdles Richard had to overcome as a one of the most famous African American artists of his era.

He flaunted convention long before The Beatles or the Stones, and redefined showmanship before Jimi Hendrix or Prince.

Little Richard threatened the cultural status quo — straight, white culture, especially — in a way that none of his contemporaries did. He flouted convention long before the Beatles or the Stones, and he redefined showmanship before Jimi Hendrix or Prince had stepped on a stage. In so many ways, Little Richard invented the role of the rock star before the term even existed.

Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman in rural Georgia, died today at 87. The world feels a bit less wild for the loss. He had a distinctive and colorful style, undeniable gifts as a performer and an uncompromising artistic and personal nature that allowed him to stand out among those iconic early rock 'n' rollers — all of whom, except for Lewis, he outlived.

Just listen to Richard's first singles for Specialty Records. "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Rip It Up" and, of course, "Tutti Frutti," the song recorded in 15 minutes that changed music forever, were nothing short of explosive on vinyl. They practically leapt off the turntable in a way that records — certainly in 1955 — never had before. They helped create an enduring template for rock 'n' roll, but they also influenced hip hop and rewrote the rule book for R&B.

I think I first saw Richard when he performed on Mike Douglas' daytime variety show. By that point in his career he'd already gone through several transformations, notably leaving behind his stardom for a religious awakening (reportedly inspired, remarkably, after seeing Sputnik in the sky over a concert in Australia and mistaking it for a sign from God). But now he was mounting a comeback, as the first wave of rock 'n' rollers found a new audience at the dawn of the 1970s.

I was transfixed. He was unlike anything I'd seen before. He pounded the piano like he was trying to beat it into submission. His singing was boisterous and thunderous and yet perfectly pitched. His eyes and smile sparkled, and his appearance was unlike anything I'd seen before. My grandfather, sitting in an armchair behind me, grunted in what I imagine was disgust. But this was before remote controls, and he was too lazy to get up, I guess, so we watched as Richard sang "Chain of Fools." I instantly became a fan for life.

Not everyone greeted my fandom with enthusiasm. For some, his time had come and gone. To others, he still represented everything that was threatening about show business, and rock 'n' roll in particular.

I waited impatiently for Richard's subsequent appearances on Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore and laughed with my friends as he smiled slyly into the camera when we saw him later in documentaries about the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

The way Richard expressed himself — his coy, winking responses to questions about his lifestyle — is one of the most important aspects of his legacy. He paved the way for artists like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Prince, who taught us that we should accept ourselves as we are, not as others want us to be. He certainly instilled in me that self-acceptance is admirable, no matter the disapproval you face. In fact, if that's all he gave a middle-class white kid from Connecticut and the many other fans out there like me, that's no small thing.

This legacy is complicated by the fact that although he seemed fearlessly unique, he grappled with his own identity his entire life. And indeed, in a 2017 interview, he stated that he believed homosexuality was "unnatural."

He paved the way for artists like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Prince, who taught us that we should accept ourselves as we are, not as others want us to be.

But flamboyant identity aside, it was Richard's music that sealed the deal. My first Little Richard record was a fake stereo copy of a greatest hits compilation. It didn't matter that the quality was terrible. I couldn't believe how fantastic every song was. They were short and powerful and sexy, even if I wasn't sure exactly why when I first discovered them.

By the time I joined my first band at 13, I insisted that we play "Rip It Up" and "Long Tall Sally." My band mates thought my love of the Beatles was the reason. But it really stemmed from a different obsession.

A few years later, I saw Prince in Providence, Rhode Island, on his "1999" tour. It was an astonishing show in so many ways, but at its core, I saw Richard.

I finally saw Richard in person about 20 years ago at a small club in New York City. He was an old man by then, and his performing powers were, of course, diminished. But he was still Little Richard. His voice still had that remarkable power, and his charisma made him seem almost as though he was glowing.

His showmanship, too, was intact. He commanded the stage; it was intense. He'd crack a joke and then yell at the crowd during the same story. Then he'd pound out yet another hit and the club would be transported by his unique power.

You'll be seeing a lot of tributes to Little Richard in the coming days and weeks and hearing more than a few unbelievably outrageous stories. He deserves every accolade and more than likely lived every public adventure, and then some. Along the way he changed the face of popular culture in innumerable ways, earning just about every accolade, despite his conflicted relationships with entertainment culture and the music industry. To say that he was the real deal — and the true architect of rock 'n' roll — seems beside the point. But it's true.