Richard Penniman has departed the stage! Known as Little Richard, with his self-proclaimed moniker “The Architect of Rock ’n’ Roll,” another pioneer has left us. Along with recording artists, both black and white, including Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, whose respective songs and rhythms graced our lives, Little Richard left us with some great visual and musical memories.
Rooted in Southern gospel and R&B, the sound Little Richard helped pioneer transitioned into what was known as “race music” and eventually evolved into rock & roll. Little Richard brought to it a flair for the flamboyant. With his “Boston Blackie” pencil-thin mustache, large pompadour, outlandish costuming and physical gyrations on the piano, he “shocked and awed” his audience.
Where Elvis Presley, with his choreographed hip-shake, was the distant storm observed off the coast, Little Richard had already made landfall with hurricane strength, bringing his sweat and sexuality to the stage. He was a “dangerous” man! His influence was undeniable. Many recording artists acknowledged “borrowing” from him. One only has to look to the 1960s, with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Sly and the Family Stone; to the ’70s, with Elton John, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen; and to the ’80s, with Prince. Neil Young stated, “Little Richard? That’s rock & roll.”
He was not without his demons. Raised in a religious environment, he suffered; unable to reconcile his music, his “effeminate” behavior—especially during the 1950s—and being a black man in the South. Drug usage also took its toll and caused him to take extended time away from the stage, to perhaps reflect and again seek solace in his religion. He became a preacher for a while.
But, like the true artist with all the contradictions, Little Richard eventually returned to his true calling and learned to rise above and hopefully accept his place in the universe.
We certainly did!