Remembering Little Richard

The SHOF was saddened to learn of the passing of 2003 inductee Richard Wayne Penniman, p/k/a LIttle Richard.

Born and raised in Macon, Georgia, the third of twelve children, Little Richard began singing in his local church choir while still a youngster. He signed with RCA Records in 1951 after winning a talent contest and released two singles, neither receiving prominent notice.

Returning to his job washing dishes in a Greyhound bus station, Richard sent a demo to Specialty Records, a fledgling Los Angeles label. The song, "Tutti Frutti," was his catalyst for success and led to an uninterrupted run of smash hits: "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "Lucille," "Jenny, Jenny," "Keep A Knockin"', "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Ooh, My Soul." By 1968, Little Richard had sold over 32 million records internationally.  Combining the sacred shouts of the black church and the profane sounds of the blues, he created some of the world’s first and most influential rock ’n’ roll records. His live performances were electrifying, not only for being gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high and his face aglow with cinematic makeup, but for his very dynamic, completely uninhibited, unpredictable, wild performances. 

When, at the peak of his career, Little Richard left the industry spotlight for a self-imposed hiatus, legions of fans worldwide confidently awaited his return. In 1985, he charged back with rave reviews for a memorable appearance in the box-office smash Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which also launched his hit single, "Great Gosh A Mighty."

Richard was honored with a star on the world-renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 and soon afterward returned to his hometown of Macon for the unveiling of "Little Richard Penniman Boulevard." In 1993, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the following year accepted the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's prestigious Pioneer Award. In 1997, in recognition of his contributions to music history, Richard was presented with the American Music Award's distinguished Award of Merit. Most recently, he was inducted into the NAACP Image Awards' Hall of Fame.

Musical legends Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston toured as members of Richard's band early in their careers, and entertainers ranging from The Beatles and Elvis Presley to David Bowie and Keith Richards have cited Richard as their inspiration. Contemporary performers continue to pay homage to this trailblazing performer who contributed so much to music history.  “A lot of people call me the architect of rock ’n’ roll,” he once said. “I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true.”