For decades, he delighted audiences with his catchy songs and flashy moves. Hailed as a “founding father of rock and roll” by Rolling Stone, Little Richard is rightly considered a rock ‘n’ 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, Georgia, 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 in Hollywood came in 1955, when he was signed to Specialty Records and recorded a risqué hit 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 from his now popular music, 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, Alabama, 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.) He also came out with “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958, driven by gospel music-influences with a pumping piano and strong vocals with sexually charged lyrics.
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.
Elton John also told Rolling Stone about the African American songwriter in 1973, “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it. I didn’t ever want to be anything else. I’m more of a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder.”
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.
Little Richard also claimed that the famous legendary musician Prince, was the “Little Richard of his generation,” as he told Joan Rivers in 1989. He then addressed Prince saying, “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!” The times of Little Richard were not going to easily slip away.
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.”
Then, on May 9, 2020, Little Richard died at 87-years-old from bone cancer. He was not only a music legend, but had also acted in movies, Don’t Knock the Rock in 1956 and The Girl Can’t Help It in 1957. He will forever be remembered as a staple in rock and roll.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on February 23, 2018.