Richard Wayne Penniman
Richard Penniman, internationally known as the superstar Little Richard, is regarded as one of the pioneers in rock 'n' roll music, a hyper-kinetic rhythmic musical style that fused rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie beats, and a highly emotive gospel style of singing and shouting. The new music, which took shape during the 1950s, irreversibly altered the development and character of popular music.
Richard was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which like society at that time, looked askance at anything beyond the more conservative forms of church and popular music, regarding with alarm the influence certain types of more lively popular music might have on a person's life. Even so, by age nineteen musically gifted and creative Richard was recording music that was breaking new ground and going beyond the limits of the culture in which he had been raised.
At age 22, Penniman's fame skyrocketed with the release of "Tutti Frutti," his first big hit. Other mega hits followed, all featuring uninhibited vocals, edgy saxophone solos, and frenetic piano accompaniments.
Until the time of Penniman's first hit, white singers would immediately release a version (called a cover) of the same music, which would then outsell that released by the black performer. While that happened with a Pat Boone version of "Tutti Frutti," the next hit by Penniman, "Long Tall Sally," held its own, beating out Boone's cover on the pop music rating charts. It was a significant development, the breaking of a racial barrier for white listeners that was repeated with his subsequent releases and those of other black musicians.
Just two years into his new-found fame, Penniman began to have troubled thoughts about his music and life style while on a tour in Australia and became a born again Christian in 1957. He openly condemned rock music, asserting it was inspired by the Devil and not pleasing to God. He enrolled at Oakwood College, now University, an Adventist school, to prepare to be a minister and for the next five years recorded only gospel music.
He and Joyce Bryant, a recently converted nightclub singer, worked with E. E. Cleveland, famed black evangelist, in a twelve-week series in Washington, D.C. The write-up about that event in the September 11, 1958, Review and Herald, related the following:
The last night of the series will long be remembered by those in attendance. Two former stars of show business, Joyce Bryant and "Little Richard" Penniman, said to be the creator of rock and roll, boldly witnessed to the saving power of God.
As Miss Bryant, who has been billed at the nightspots of two continents, told of her struggles to get away from God, many felt the tears rolling down their cheeks. Two months ago her former booking agent offered her $200,000, tax free, if she would take the leading role in a picture to be made. In relating this experience Miss Bryant said, "Peace of mind, and the knowledge of working with God in saving the souls of men, bring more comfort and lasting joy than all the money and glamour."
The fond title “Little Richard,” a name Richard Penniman acquired when he began to sing as a small boy, still follows him. Tops in his field when he was twenty-four years of age, he gave a glowing account of God’s power to save him from sin. He explained that he had made as much as $10,000 a day, but was glad to lay it aside as nothing compared with what Jesus had done for him. . . . When the one-time rock-and-roller called his former fans from the audience to gather around the pulpit, more than 300 responded. He prayed a touching prayer for them.
Both Joyce Bryant and Richard Penniman have taken training at Oakwood College and are now engaged in soul-winning work.
In 1962 Penniman left the ministry during a tour in Europe and again began performing and recording secular music. The following year he toured in Europe with the Rolling Stones, at that time a new group, and with famous pop singers Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers. His fame and connections with pop music superstars continued for the rest of the decade and well into the next, although none of his recordings during this time achieved the status that those from 1955 to 1957 had enjoyed.
In 1977 Penniman was devastated by the tragic death of a nephew who was like a son to him. That event and a violent disagreement over a drug debt he owed to a friend brought about a return to the church and evangelism. For the next eight years he again condemned rock 'n' roll, asserting as he had earlier that it was not possible to perform it and serve God.
During the mid-1980s an authorized biography, The Life and Times of Little Richard, by Charles White, in which Penniman openly talked about his struggle with drugs and homosexuality, created a new wave of interest in the singer. This book, coupled with the 1986 honor of being included in the first group of seven inductees into the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, led to a comeback for him. In that same year, he personally reconciled his dual role as a minister and rock 'n' roll artist by recording music he referred to as "message music."
At that time, he also wrote a rock 'n' roll song with spiritual lyrics for the soundtrack of the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills and costarred in it. The song became a hit, and he received critical acclaim for his role in the movie.
Penniman promised his mother on her deathbed that he would "stay with the Lord and just travel around." As the 1980s ended, he began performing his original hits, now regarded as classic pop hits, while still evangelizing, singing gospel music in his earlier rock 'n' roll style.
The comeback for Penniman has continued unabated since that time. He has appeared on countless television shows and music videos, written and performed music for several movie soundtracks, and made guest appearances at numerous events. He also has appeared and performed with Jon Bon Jovi, Hank Williams, Jr., Elton John, Tanya Tucker, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other pop music superstars. Other legendary popular music legends have hailed him as the "architect of rock 'n' roll" and listed him as one of their "first rock 'n' roll influences."
In 1990 he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in 1993, with an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award; in 1994, with a Lifetime Achievement Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation; and in 2002, along with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, the first BMI Icon Awards. In that same year, he received the NAACP Image Award with a citation declaring him an "unparalleled musical genius" and a "unique and innovative performing artist."
In 2003 Penniman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in the following year Rolling Stone ranked him as number eight in a listing of I00 Artists of All Time. Two years later he was inducted into the Apollo Theater Legends Hall of Fame, and in 2007 his first big hit, "Tutti Frutti," topped Mojo's The Top 100 Records That Changed the World. In 2010 the same song was listed in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry as the beginning of a new era in popular music. He was formally inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
In spite of the acclaim, Penniman's dedication to the ministry has never been stronger and more overt than when he has spoken at funerals for fellow entertainers and members of their families. At a recent event honoring fellow entertainer Fats Domino, he led Domino and those who had gathered in prayer. And in June 2009, prior to performing in the grand finale at the Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he observed, "Although I sing rock 'n' roll, God still loves me. I am a rock 'n' roll singer, but I am still a Christian."
Sources: Review and Herald, 11 September 1958, 20; 28 February 1980; 23 September 1982, 2; Online references, including Wikipedia, a primary resource; Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard, 1986; personal knowledge.