For decades, he delighted audiences with his catchy songs and flashy moves. Little Richard is rightly considered a rock and roll pioneer and has influenced artists across several other genres, including funk, hip hop, and R&B.
Here are some fascinating facts you may not know about the music legend.
He was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga., the third of 12 children. As a boy, he was nicknamed Little Richard for his small, skinny frame.
Little Richard got his start in church choirs and counted gospel singers among his earliest influences. His love for performing was born when one of his idols, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, invited him onstage to sing during her October 1947 concert at Macon City Auditorium; Little Richard worked at the venue, selling Coca-Cola to patrons.
Within a few years, he began performing in Atlanta, where he caught the eye of fellow showman Billy Wright. Wright put Little Richard in touch with his manager, Zenas Sears, who helped him get a recording contract with RCA Victor. His first single, “Every Hour,” was a hit in Georgia, but he left RCA in 1952 after failing to chart elsewhere, then fell into poverty.
Little Richard’s big break came in 1955, when he was signed to Specialty Records and recorded a risqué song about sex. It was rewritten to make it more radio-friendly, dubbed “Tutti Frutti,” released in November, and hit No. 2 on the R&B charts. Little Richard’s follow-up single, “Long Tall Sally,” reached No. 1. Both songs also charted in the United Kingdom and sold a million copies. By late 1956, he was wealthy, with nine U.S. hits to his name.
However, he never forgot his childhood dream of joining the church. In 1957, he left the music business to enroll in Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, Ala., with the goal of becoming a minister. Then, the British Invasion — where U.K. bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Hollies, and the Yardbirds charted hit after hit in America — lured Little Richard back to rock and roll. (He did eventually earn his BA in Theological Studies and become a Seventh Day Adventist minister.)
Little Richard married Ernestine Harvin in July 1959. Three years later, they adopted a 1-year-old boy, Danny Jones, the son of a church friend who passed away. The couple divorced in 1963. It was Little Richard’s only marriage.
Questions of Little Richard’s sexuality have come up several times throughout his life, and his answers vary. In a 1995 interview, he claimed he’s been “gay all my life,” but a decade later, he described himself as “omnisexual,” saying, “Sex to me is like a smörgåsbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for.” His devotion to God and the church played a part in his struggle with his sexual identity.
In 1986, Little Richard and nine other music legends — including Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley — made up the inaugural class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, a car accident caused him to miss the induction ceremony.
President Bill Clinton is such a big fan, he invited Little Richard to perform at his 1993 inauguration. That same year, Little Richard received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Little Richard, a TV movie about his life, debuted on NBC in 2000. Its star, Leon, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for his portrayal of the musician.
Some now-legendary performers, such as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, began their careers working as backing musicians for Little Richard. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger described him as “my first idol.” And Bobby Zimmerman, a 1959 graduate of Hibbing High School in Hibbing, Minn., wrote in the school yearbook that his life’s goal was to “join Little Richard.” Today, Zimmerman is known to the world as Bob Dylan.
A botched hip surgery in 2009 left Little Richard confined to a wheelchair, but he still makes the occasional public appearance. In October 2017, at age 84, he told Three Angels Broadcasting Network that he intends to dedicate the rest of his life to God, saying, “I don’t want to sing rock and roll no more… I want to be holy like Jesus.”