Little Richard, the flashy and talented rock pioneer whose inimitable sound and onstage flair continues to inspire generations of musicians, died today at the age of 87. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, GA in 1932, Little Richard's piano-based rock combined with his revolutionary stage theatrics and teaspoon of androgyny was something that mid-'50s America had never seen or heard the likes of before. And the country ate it up.
"Tutti Frutti" was his first in a string of hits that established Little Richard as a bona fide rock/R&B star in the late 1950s. His high-energy act and sounds also had another ripple effect: they brought black and white audiences together at a time when it was still illegal for them to do so in some states. He's also the first artist to induce women into throwing their unmentionables onstage during a show (per his authorized biography and I don't doubt it).
However, almost as quickly as Little Richard became a star, he shifted away from it after he had what he would describe as religious experiences. He didn't stop making music---he was just no longer making popular music for the masses. While he woudn't achieve the level of chart success like he did out of the gate, Little Richard's early work was enduring and original enough that it never faded from America's consciousness and ensured his giant role in the history of music.
This is best evidenced by not only the incredible music that still moves us but the endless list of musicians from all genres who cite Richard's major influence on them. Whether it be the head-banging of Lemmy or the longing soul of Otis Redding, the unisexuality of David Bowie or the vocals of Tina Turner, Little Richard's musical DNA can be found all over the industry and across all categories.
In the '80s, he had a bit of a cultural resurgence for a new generation when he played the exasperated neighbor in the hilarious 1986 comedy DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS and contributed the barn-burner "Great Gosh A'Mighty" to the soundtrack.
But Little Richard had long ago secured his place. He was among the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and continued to pop up here and there over the last several years. There was definitely nobody like Little Richard before he came along and there have only been inferior imitations since. There was only one Little Richard and the mark he left was anything but little.