Music Legend Little Richard Dies At 87


Founding Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame member Little Richard died at age 87 on Saturday (May 9) in Middle Tennessee.

The legendary performer began and ended his career in the region, and several of his career highlights were tied to Music City. Born Richard Penniman, he rose to local fame in his native Macon, Georgia, in the early 1950s. After being jailed on a morals charge, he was exiled from Macon. The clubs of North Nashville soon became the flamboyant performer’s most profitable performing venues.

Little Richard was performing in a nightspot in Fayetteville, Tennessee, when he was summoned to New Orleans for his debut recording session for Specialty Records. Among the songs he recorded was “Tutti Frutti.” Nashville’s 50,000-watt broadcasting titan WLAC blasted the song and its performer to stardom in late 1955.

He continued to headline at the New Era Club, the Club Baron and other Nashville nightclubs as “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin,’” “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” solidified his stardom in 1956.

By 1957, he was starring on national and international rock ‘n’ roll tours and appearing in such early rock films as The Girl Can’t Help It, Don’t Knock the Rock and Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll. The hits continued with such 1957-58 singles as “Lucille,” “Send Me Some Lovin,’” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep a Knockin,’” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Oooh My Soul.”

His charismatic showmanship included frenetic piano pounding, hoarsely shouted vocals, onstage prancing, flashy costuming, wild gyrations, bug-eyed facial contortions and ebullient outbursts. Little Richard pioneered male rock stars wearing mascara and heavy makeup, as well as exhibiting fluid sexuality. He was also notable as one of the early rockers who broke down barriers by attracting both black and white teen fans to his shows.

Nashville’s Pat Boone infamously toned down Little Richard’s outrageous personality for his bland cover of “Tutti Frutti.” But other Nashville recording artists at the time saluted Little Richard’s overwhelming influence by recording songs from his repertoire. These included Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Little Richard renounced rock to become a gospel artist in 1958. He recorded a religious LP with producer Quincy Jones, but in 1962 returned to rock ‘n’ roll touring. His comeback rock hit was 1964’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo.”

During one Music City sojourn, Little Richard had been backed by future rock superstar Jimi Hendrix. The guitarist joined Little Richard’s band The Upsetters in 1964-65.

Little Richard appeared at several of the rock mass gatherings of the late 1960s, including the Toronto Pop Festival and the Atlantic City Pop Festival. His larger-than-life personality also made him a TV talk-show favorite during this era.

In 1970, his “Greenwood, Mississippi” single made an impression on some regional country charts. He was prominently featured on the 1972 Canned Heat pop hit “Rockin’ with the King.” Little Richard began recording in Muscle Shoals and Nashville around this same time.

He returned to Music City in 1976 to re-record his hits for K-Tel Records. These Nashville sessions at Jack Clement’s studio included Paul Worley on guitar and Eddie Bayers on drums. A gospel album for World Records was recorded in Music City in 1979. It was titled God’s Beautiful City.

By the 1980s, a who’s-who of rock superstars had cited Little Richard as a pioneering influence, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and John Fogerty. Just about every piano-playing showman has acknowledged a debt to him—Elton John, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Michael McDonald, Ronnie Milsap, Billy Preston, and Leon Russell.

Little Richard published his autobiography in 1984. He reemerged on the charts in 1986 with “Great Gosh A-Mighty.” The song was recorded for the soundtrack of the hit movie Down & Out in Beverly Hills, in which Little Richard had a prominent role. This led to several other film appearances, as well as bookings on such 1990s TV series as Full House, Columbo, Miami Vice and Baywatch.

He was one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame when it was launched in 1986. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.

He was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti,” and “Lucille” are all in the Grammy Hall of Fame, as is his 1957 debut LP Here’s Little Richard.

He reconnected with Nashville in 1994 by recording “Somethin’ Else” with Tanya Tucker on the all-star album Rhythm, Country & Blues. The pair performed it on the CMA Awards, where he also memorably smooched Mary Chapin Carpenter during her performance of “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Little Richard moved to the Nashville area around 2000. He lived in the penthouse of the downtown Hilton and also settled with his brother’s family in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. Little Richard was presented with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in 2008. Also in Nashville, he was saluted by the National Museum of African American Music in 2015. The state honored him in 2019 with a Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award.

His death was announced by his son, Danny Jones Penniman. Richard Penniman passed away in Tullahoma from bone cancer on Saturday morning (May 9). Further family and funeral information is unknown.


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Category: Artist, Featured, Obituary

About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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