Childhood & Early Life
Little Richard was born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, as one of the twelve children of Charles Penniman and Leva Mae. His father was a church deacon who also sold bootlegged moonshine. He grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood and was called Little Richard because of his small frame.
He was from a highly religious family and used to sing in the church choir as a child. He was a naturally born singer blessed with a loud voice.
He attended Macon’s Hudson High School. He was not bright academically but possessed great musical talents and played with the school’s marching band.
He had an effeminate appearance and homosexual tendencies because of which his father kicked him out of the house when he was a teenager.
Continue Reading Below
After being kicked out of the house in 1948, Little Richard joined Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show before he began performing at a local nightclub called the Tick Tock Club. The owner of the club, Ann Johnson took the youngster to live with her family after he told her of his family problems.
In 1950, he began performing for various vaudeville groups like Sugarfoot Sam, Tidy Jolly Steppers and Broad Follies. During this time he earned a reputation as a drag performer.
He was heavily influenced by the music of R&B artists Roy Brown and Billy Wright, and forged a friendship with the later. Wright introduced him to Zenas Sears who helped him sign a contract with Camden. His single ‘Every Hour’ became a hit in the Georgia area. However, he could not find much success with Camden and left them in 1952.
He began heading a vocal group called the Tempo Toppers in 1953 and performed with them as a part of blues package tours at clubs.
The producer of Specialty Records, Art Rupe was looking for a pianist cum singer to lead a group of musicians. He selected Richard after listening to his demo tape. He recorded a single ‘Tutti Frutti’ in 1955 which became an instant hit and peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart.
He released another single ‘Long Tall Sally’ in 1956 which became his first hit song to reach No. 1 on the R&B chart. It sold over a million copies.
Following this success he became a much sought after artist to perform on package tours traveling across the United States. He was one of the first artists who was equally popular among both whites and blacks and is credited to have united the races with his music.
He released his debut album ‘Here’s Little Richard’ in 1957. It featured his super hit single ‘Long Tall Sally’ and reached No. 13 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. It was followed by ‘Little Richard’ in 1958 and ‘The Fabulous Little Richard’ in 1959.
He shocked his fans by abruptly announcing that he got a sign from God to quit the music business. He enrolled at Oakwood College to study theology and ended his contract with Specialty Records in 1959.
Continue Reading Below
He formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team and traveled all over the country to preach. He began recording gospel music and released three religious albums: ‘Pray Along with Little Richard (Vol. 1 & 2)’ and ‘The King of the Gospel Singers’ (1962).
During the 1960s he decided to make a comeback to pop music and brought out the album ‘Little Richard Is Back (And There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On!)’, his first rock music album in five years in 1964.
His friend Larry Williams produced Little Richard’s album ‘The Explosive Little Richard’ in 1967. The album was composed of cover versions and originals; however, failed to chart on Billboard.
He struggled in making a comeback to rock and roll and his albums could not find much success. But, he did make a spectacular comeback as a live artist who performed at casinos and resorts. He was the star performer at several shows like Atlantic City Pop Festival and Toronto Pop Festival.
His success as a live performer made him a celebrity again and he was invited to appear on a number of television programs like the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the Dick Cavett Show.
By the 1970s, he had developed severe drug addiction and alcoholism and once again decided to quit rock and roll music. He returned to evangelism in 1977.
During the 1980s and 1990s he made several appearances in films in minor roles.
Personal Life & Legacy
Little Richard's sexual orientation has always been a topic of curiosity for the fans. As a teenager he used to have sexual relations with both the sexes. He also displayed voyeuristic tendencies as a teenager.
He was once married to Ernestine Campbell whom he met in 1957. The couple divorced in 1963. He has one adopted son with whom he shares a close relationship.
Little Richard died of bone cancer on 9 May 2020, in Tullahoma, Tennessee.