Little Richard “The Architect of Rock and Roll” Is Dead at the Age of 87

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On May 9th, 2020, the world said its final goodbye to one of its greatest musical heroes.  The death of Rock and Roll legend Richard Wayne Penniman known to the world as “Little Richard” occurred on May 9th, 2020, in Nashville Tennessee, from complications of Bone Cancer. His friend and longtime agent Dick Allen said that he “was battling his disease for many years with aches and pains,” which are a direct result of this disease. Little Richard was 87 years old at the time of his passing.

If Elvis Presley was the King of Rock and Roll, Little Richard would be considered one of Rock and Roll’s crowned Princes. Along with legendary greats Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry they started altering the culture. Little Richard ultimately became the architect of a Rock and Roll music. Influencing the legends coming after him and his contemporary peers as well. Elvis Presley recorded many of his songs early on. Elvis recorded Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally, which would become his signature songs at his concerts. Those recordings highlighted Little Richard’s early career.

Humble Beginnings – A Rags to Riches Story

Little Richard is an example of the American dream come true. The son of a poor black laborer he went on to legendary triumphs. His father was a bricklayer.

Richard was born in Macon Georgia. The third of Twelve children, Richard was born with a right leg three inches shorter than his left. His mother wanted a better life for her son, and it would alter his life. His mother sent him to New Hope Baptist church every Sunday and prayed for him and his future. There he would learn he had an unbelievable talent for singing.

At the age of 14, in the ninth grade, he dropped out of school.  He worked as a dishwasher, and a janitor peddling his talent.  In 1956 he had his first hit with the song Tutti Frutti.  A succession of number one hits would follow and he would dominate the top of the charts.  He was writing and singing songs that became instant hits. He gave us Reddy Teddy, Send me some Lovin’, Ooh my Soul, and Kansas City; Little Richard’s music became ingrained in the minds of America’s youth. These songs defined early Rock and Roll music. Elvis Presley would record early songs written by Little Richard. In 1956, Elvis called Little Richard the “friend he had never met” These instant hits recorded by the leading Rock and Roll artist of the time added to his notoriety.

Stopping at the Top of His Career

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol limited his future. At the height of his popularity in 1959. Little Richard abruptly stopped recording and touring. Throwing his $10,000 jewelry into the river to study theology at Oakwood College in Alabama.  In 1963 he returned to touring using his popularity to sell gospel records. The influence of The Beatles and others promoting his music. Ultimately, Little Richard returned to entertaining and star billing as he began to tour again. He never quite regained the prominence and momentum he had enjoyed before he quit. He would continue to tour unabated for the next 50 years. His last live appearance was in 2016,with Jon Bonjovi

Rock and Roll Changed the World for the Better

It can be debated that Rock and Roll music changed the course of the world.. Many believe that Rock and Roll music would help to usher in the civil rights movement. Rock and Roll transcended color lines, and people began to listen to black artists. People were listening to songs and not looking at the color of an artist’s skin. A change in listening occurred almost overnight. A change solely based on the quality and sound of the music. Altering how people looked and listened to each other. “I’ve always thought that rock ‘n’ roll brought the races together,” Richard once told an interviewer. “Although I was black, the fans didn’t care. I used to feel good about that.”

Rock and Roll’s beginnings focused primarily on a specific demographic. Initially called “race music”, Rock and Roll was played by predominantly black artists. That changed almost overnight after Elvis Presley came on the scene. Venues closed to some of the greatest musicians in the world, solely based on skin color.opened up to the world. The entire country, and ultimately the world people demanded it. As Little Richard said in a 1970  interview . “I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?” Rock and Roll music opened doors to everyone. It was a catalyst to the changes that were about to occur in our society.”

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Rock and Roll Music: A Bridge to Bringing the World together

In my book, “Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll”, I describe how the world was forever changed by the music we call Rock and Roll. In the 1950’s Rock and Roll music altered societal norms. Music was the way the world was becoming integrated. It started with radio playlists. Almost overnight segregation and separation were altered by the entrance of music into the equation. Homes would play the music and people would recognize the greatness of the sound. Who could not forget the first time they heard the words “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom!” Words that had no meaning except to the fans of Little Richard. The youth began dancing and listening to this new music called Rock and Roll. People began listening to music and sound coming from different artists. People began listening to songs played, regardless of an artist’s skin color.

Little Richard created music that would become a bridge to the entire world. Many who had never known or associated with people of color, became fans of their music. Dewey Phillips named in my book as the “Midwife of Rock and Roll™”, would introduce his listeners in Memphis, and as far as Lubbock Texas (e a predominantly white audience) to his music. Ultimately, introducing the world, to a sound that permeated from streets of the deep south.

Influencing the World

Rock and Roll would catch on to the ears of American youth, The music had such style and power, that it could never be stopped. Rock and Roll music of the early 1950s was only heard by a few people. Starting in a few small spots in the southern United States, within 10 years it would encompass every region and corner of the world. Rock and Roll music would reach people in Europe and the far east. Rock and roll altered the world. A world that was never to be the same again.

Publicly acknowledged for his contribution, he was hailed by Rock and Roll Legends for his contribution. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, James Brown, Elton John and Otis Redding, not only recorded Little Richard’s music, they emulated his flamboyant and often raucous style. Jimmy Hendricks was quoted as saying he wanted to” use his guitar the way Little Richard used his voice.”

Little Richard Influencing Three Generations and the Future

Little Richard’s influence grew into subsequent generations. The next crop of legends were Elton John. and David Bowie. Continuing to work for the next 50 years and well into his 80’s Little Richard would headline with artists of the past and the present. It is impossible to name all of the artists emulating his style. Musical legends publicly point to his songs and methodology as an influence to their lives. He is a musical great, an architect and an entertainer.

Saying Goodbye to a Legend

The death of Little Richard will leave a large hole in the heart of Rock and Roll. History will fondly remember his contribution as the “architect of Rock and Roll music.” He will forever be known for a trailblazing life, his enigmatic style. His stage antics were far ahead of their time.

If Elvis Presley added shaking, rattling, and rolling to the presentation of Rock and Roll music, It was Little Richard’s flamboyant style that would kick and blow open the door to its future. Rock and Roll music transformed the world. With style and power, Little Richard influenced 4 generations; and generations not even born.

God Speed Richard – and I know tonight you have joined the greatest choir and you are singing with them tonight.

Frank D'Onofrio
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