Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard)
1932 - 2020
Richard Penniman, internationally known as the superstar Little Richard, was 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.
He was born in Macon, Georgia, on December5, 1932, the third of twelve children of Charles (Bud) and Leva Mae Stewart Penniman. He was born with his right leg shorter than his left, which altered his walk. This, coupled with his effeminate nature, led to him being cruelly taunted as a child.
He was raised in the Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist churches, which like much of society at that time, looked askance at anything beyond the more conservative forms of church and popular music. Even so, by age nineteen, following the death of his father, 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 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. The Russian satellite Sputnik appeared overhead during an outdoor concert in Sydney which he mistakenly regarded as a "great ball of fire," an omen from God. He became a born again Christian at that moment and openly condemned rock music, asserting it was inspired by the Devil and not pleasing to God. He enrolled at Oakwood College, now University, a Seventh-day 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 who was also attending Oakwood, worked with E. E. Cleveland, famed black SDA evangelist, in a twelve-week series in Washington, D.C. According to a write-up about that event in the September 11, 1958, Review and Herald:
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.
Richard married Ernestine Harvin, whom he had met at a Washington, D.C. revival, on July 12, 1959 in California. They adopted a one-year-old boy who would later serve as one of his bodygaurds and eventually be a caregiver for his father in his final years. She filed for divorce in 1964 and married McDonald Campbell in 1975.
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 Beatles, who opened his concerts and were influenced by him; Rolling Stones, at that time another 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 of those from 1955 to 1957.
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; he was featured in an evangelistic series led by G.H. Rainey in Jamaica in 1980, where 956 persons were baptized. During the eight years following his nephew's death 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, which he could not attend because of multiple injuries he had suffered in a car accident in late 1985, led to a comeback for him. In that same year, he personally reconciled his dual role as a lay 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 and singing gospel music in his earlier rock 'n' roll style.
The comeback for Penniman continued unabated unti his eighties. He appeared on countless television shows and music videos, wrote and performed music for several movie soundtracks, and made guest appearances at numerous events. He also 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 in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in the following year Rolling Stone ranked him as as number eight in a listing of 100 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.
Despite the acclaim, Penniman's dedication to the ministry never waned but instead became even stronger and even more overt at his secular concerts and when he has spoken at funerals for fellow entertainers and members of their families. At an 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."
Penniman was plagued with health problems in his eighties, complicated by a hip and back operation in 2009 that left him confined to a wheelchair. He was living in Tullahoma, Tennessee, when he died of bone cancer on May 9, 2020. He was survived by his adopted son, Danny Jones Penniman, and a brother. He is buried at Oakwood University's Oakwood Memorial Gardens.
Sources: Richard Penniman Family Tree, Ancestry.com; David Ramsey, "Prayers for Richard," Points South, an Oxford American Podcast, Issue 91, Winter 2015; Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard, 1986; Terence McArdle, "Little Richard, flamboyant star of early Rock and Roll, dies at 87," The Washington Post May 9, 2020; Review and Herald, 11 September 1958, 20; 28 February 1980; 23 September 1982, 2; Online references, including Wikipedia; Adventist Today, May 17, 2000, atoday.org; personal knowledge.