Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia in December 1932. He’s a bit famous for being a pioneer of rock ‘n roll. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
He claims to be “the architect of rock and roll,” and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer - save, perhaps, Elvis Presley, Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll. Onstage, he’d deliver wild, piano-pounding epistles while costumed in sequined vests, mascara, lipstick, and a pompadour that shook with every thundering beat. His road band, the Upsetters, has been credited by James Brown and others with first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat.
Little Richard started recording in 1951, although he didn’t gain great commercial success until 1955. “Tutti Frutti” was his break-out hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. Sixteen more top hits followed (three of which reached #1) in less than three years. Interestingly, in October 1957, when his fame was in its full glory, Richard quit the music industry and became a born-again Christian. From 1957 to 1962, Richard engaged in evangelical ministry work (such as helping people on skid row in Los Angeles) and attended a seminary in Huntsville, Alabama. He did not completely abandon music at this time but instead recorded gospel music.
In 1962, Little Richard went to Hamburg, Germany to teach his techniques to a little British band that was covering some of his songs in a club. Apparently things went well because Richard was then booked to tour England with this band (the Beatles!) as his opening act. Seriously – in 1962 the Beatles opened for Little Richard! Little Richard had originally intended to sing his gospel songs, but the crowd was begging for his classic rock ‘n roll tunes. He capitulated to the pressure and received a standing ovation when he was finished. I guess this began his return to secular music.
From 1962 to 1977 Little Richard was back in the recording and performing circuit. Although he continued to make gospel records, he also made new rock ‘n roll and experimented with country, blues, funk, and soul. Apparently, there’s almost no variety of popular music Little Richard didn’t try his hand at, which speaks well for his musical abilities.
In 1977, though, Richard again jumped ship and returned to Christianity. Like so many ‘60s and ‘70s musicians, he had been dabbling with drugs and was almost shot by a close friend (also addicted to drugs), who claimed Richard owed him money. Luckily, Richard happened to have enough money on him to satisfy the debt and his life was spared. Following that wake-up call, he went back to evangelizing. He even went so far as to claim that one could not serve God and perform rock ‘n roll music simultaneously. He has, however, since changed his tune.
Since 1984, Little Richard has managed to combine evangelical Christianity and rock ‘n roll. He promised his dying mother he would remain a Christian, so Little Richard has remained clean of drugs and had combined his faith with rock ‘n roll. One of the first results of this was the theme song for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, so his blend of faith and music has been successful.
Little Richard performed in various concerts throughout the 1980s. As in the early 19060s, he tried to stick with just singing his gospel songs, but he eventually gave in to the pressure to sing his old hits. In 1986 he was one of the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because of a broken leg. In the 1990s he appeared in several movies and made a number of cameo appearances on television. These included spots on: The Muppet Show, Full House (I’ve actually seen this episode; he plays the uncle of a friend of the girls, and she calls him “Uncle Little Richard”), Martin, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
As an ordained minister, Little Richard’s other big activity has been officiating at celebrity weddings. He married Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, as well as Cyndi Lauper, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and a buddy of Michael Jackson’s. Little Richard performed at a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims, had hip surgery, and performed at the 2011 “A Capital Fourth” in Washington, D.C. He currently resides in Tennessee.
Although Little Richard has been pretty mellow since 1977, he previously did have a little repenting to do. According to his authorized biography (so, yes, he gave the green light to the author sharing this information), Little Richard participated in quite a few orgies in the mid-1950s (I can’t believe people in the 1950s even knew what orgies were!). In 1956 he met a sixteen-year-old college student who became his girlfriend. Sometimes, though, he would invite attractive men back to his hotel room and watch them have sex with his girlfriend. Weird. Plus, there were all the drugs and hard living of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ahh, the life of a musician.
Little Richard’s sexuality is also up for some debate (not that I think that requires repenting, but he did at one point in his life). His father apparently kicked him out of the family home for having odd sexual mannerisms; the two started to reconcile after Richard began his recording career, but his father was fatally shot outside a bar not long thereafter. He has had sexual relationships with both men and women (he was even married from 1959 to 1963). He had a number of homosexual experiences in his younger days (so the 1950s), but he put the kibosh on that when he became born again. He told his biographer, however, that he was “omnisexual” (this was in 1984) and Penthouse (in 1995) that he was homosexual. He has been single for many years, though, and is sometimes seen in the company of his old girlfriend from the 1950s (the one who he watched have sex with other men). It seems that Little Richard could almost be a poster child for the problems of defining sexuality too narrowly. It sounds like “omnisexual” could be a good fit for him, although he seems not to be convinced (as shown by his 1995 interview). This really shows the problem with trying to fit sexuality into neat boxes: sexuality isn’t always neat and it doesn’t always like to be boxed in. I, however, digress. I am glad that Little Richard seems to have reconciled his evangelical Christianity with homosexuality enough to admit he was homosexual in 1995. Given the way he had bounced back and forth between “secular” and “religious” lifestyles, this was probably a big step.
Anyway, that’s the Reverend Little Richard. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop-a-lop-bam-boom!”
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