Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard’s, told The Associated Press that Little Richard died Saturday morning.
Minson said he also spoke to Little Richard’s son and brother and added that the family is not releasing the cause of death.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard styled himself the originator of rock `n’ roll’ who helped shatter the colour line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream.
Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children.
He was ostracized because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.
The family was religious, and Richard sang in local churches with a group called the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock `n’ roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career.
Penniman was performing with bands by the age of 14, but there were problems at home over his sexual orientation. His father beat the boy and derided him as “half a son.”
Richard left home to join a minstrel show run by a man known as Sugarloaf Sam, occasionally appearing in drag.
In late 1955, Little Richard recorded the bawdy Tutti Frutti, with lyrics that were sanitized by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell 1 million records over the next year.
Richard’s hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and hairdo, made him an implausible sensation — a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.
He sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and his influence on other musicians was equally staggering, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie.
In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behaviour.
“Little Richard? That’s rock `n’ roll,” Neil Young, who heard Richard’s riffs on the radio in Canada, told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “Little Richard was great on every record.”
It was 1956 when his classic Tutti Frutti landed like a hand grenade in the Top 40, exploding from radios and off turntables across the country. It was highlighted by Richard’s memorable call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.”
A string of hits followed, providing the foundation of rock music: Lucille, Keep A Knockin‘, Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly. More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing Good Golly Miss Molly live
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature yelps — perhaps most notably in the “Wooooo!” from the hit She Loves You. Ex-bandmate John Lennon covered Richard’s Rip It Up and Ready Teddy on the 1975 Rock and Roll album.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the charter members with Elvis Presley, Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and others.
Few were quicker to acknowledge Little Richard’s seminal role than Richard himself. The flamboyant singer claimed he paved the way for Elvis, provided Mick Jagger with his stage moves and conducted vocal lessons for McCartney.
“I am the architect of rock `n’ roll!” Little Richard crowed at the 1988 Grammy Awards as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. “I am the originator!”
Some of the tributes:
James Brown got his big break as a Little Richard impersonator. Hendrix got his start playing guitar in Little Richard’s band. The Beatles formed around his work. Bob Dylan and Freddie Mercury began with his music. It’s impossible to overstate Little Richard’s influence.