Little Richard, Genre-Bending Music Pioneer, Dead at 87
Little Richard, the flamboyant musician whose decades-long career spanned rock, R&B and gospel music, has died at the age of 87.
Rolling Stone reports that the legendary rock and roll pioneer's son, Danny Penniman. confirmed his death to the publication on Saturday (May 9), saying the cause of death is unknown.
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga., as one of 12 children. He grew up in poverty and was first exposed to music while singing in church. Rolling Stone reports that he moved in with a white family at the age of 13 after his father accused him of being gay; he began performing in local clubs in Macon by the age of 15 and won a local talent show, taking on the name Little Richard because nobody could pronounce his real name properly.
Little Richard landed a record deal with RCA in 1951, but his career advanced slowly until 1956, when he hit the charts with a groundbreaking single called "Tutti Frutti," which he wrote in his head while working a job washing dishes. That song introduced his unique style and flamboyant persona to audiences everywhere, and he quickly followed up with a string of hits that would become classics, including “Rip It Up," “Lucille” and “Good Golly Miss Molly."
His over-the-top persona, wailing vocal delivery, piano skills and high-energy live shows made him into one of rock's biggest early pioneers and superstars right alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other white performers of the era. Little Richard is often credited with helping black performers garner acceptance from mainstream white audiences.
The entertainer struggled with his sexual identity throughout much of his life, and he abandoned his rock music career in 1957 to attend Bible school and become an ordained minister after he became convinced he would be condemned. He switched his focus to gospel music for a period before returning to his rock roots, and he would thereafter pursue gospel music off and on and espouse Christianity, while alternately describing himself as gay, attracted to both sexes or condemning homosexuality outright.
Though his career never again attained the heights of his fiery early years, Little Richard went on to become a cultural icon whose influence was reflected in generations of artists including the Beatles, Elton John, Prince and many more. He was one of the first ten artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.
The music icon continued to perform sporadically in his later years. Funeral plans have not been announced publicly.
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