Little Richard, rock's flashy founding father, dies at 87

VIDEO: REUTERS
A 2005 photo shows Little Richard performingl in Paris.
A 2005 photo shows Little Richard performingl in Paris.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Little Richard, whose outrageous showmanship and lightning-fast rhythms intoxicated crowds with hits like Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally, has died. He was 87 years old.

Reverend Bill Minson, a close friend of the legendary musician, told AFP Little Richard had died on Saturday morning (May 9).

He confirmed the cause of death was cancer.

With a distinctive voice that ranged from robust belting to howling falsetto, Richard transfixed audiences and became an inspiration for artists including The Beatles as he transformed the blues into the feverish new style of rock 'n' roll alongside Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.

His raunchy 1955 song Tutti Frutti, even with its gay sex theme toned down for radio, became a sort of opening salvo of rock 'n' roll's entry into American life, starting with his nonsensical but instantly thrilling first line: "Awop bop a loo mop / Alop bam boom."

But if his contemporaries kept the respectabilities of old-time musicians, Richard stunned buttoned-down post-World War II America with an otherworldly look of blindingly colourful shirts, glass-embedded dinner jackets, a needle-thin moustache and a 15cm-high pompadour haircut.

A consummate entertainer since childhood, Richard would play piano with one leg hoisted over the keys and, in one legendary concert in Britain, played dead on stage so effectively that the venue sought out medical help before he resurrected himself to an astounded crowd.

While touring, Richard's lifestyle became the epitome of the decadence of rock 'n' roll, speaking fondly of bisexual orgies long before the notorious wild parties of rockers in the 1960s.

But Richard was one of rock's most torn personas and he never became an obvious icon for the African American or gay communities.

Once open by the standards of his time about his attraction to men, Richard became a born-again Christian and renounced homosexuality, treating it as a temporary choice in a manner that is anathema to the modern gay rights movement and psychologists.

And while he was one of the first African American artists to cross the racial divide, a younger generation of black DJs had little interest in an artist seen as embedded in the white mainstream.

MENTOR TO ROCK'S GREATS

But his influence was incalculable. Early white rockers including Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley all pursued Richard's sound and covered his tunes.

The upstart Beatles and Rolling Stones served separately as his opening acts when Richard toured England and a young Jimi Hendrix and members of Earth, Wind and Fire played in his back-up band.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVIttmFAzek

After meeting the star-struck Beatles, Richard proposed the Liverpool lads singing Love Me Do come with him to the United States - an idea rejected by Richard's management, to their sore regret later.

David Bowie was mesmerised when he saw one of Little Richard's several movies, with the then nine-year-old deciding to learn the saxophone and later saying, "If it hadn't have been for him, I probably wouldn't have gone into music."

The superstar was well-aware that his successors owed debt to his outsized stage persona for opening doors: "Prince is the Little Richard of his generation," the singer told Joan Rivers in 1989.

He then turned to face the camera directly: "I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!"

'TUTTI FRUTTI' REBORN

Born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec 5, 1932, the future star was raised in grinding poverty in Macon, Georgia. His father sold bootleg liquor and owned a tavern, where he was shot dead in a dispute when Richard was starting his career.

Richard, despite his stage-name, stood 1.8m but was skinny and was born with a deformity of different sized legs. Mischievous as a child, Richard lingered in churches for their music and was noticeably effeminate.

In his 1984 authorised biography, Richard recalled his father as saying to him, "'My father had seven sons and I wanted seven sons. You've spoiled it, you're only half a son'.

"And then he'd hit me. But I couldn't help it. That was the way I was," Richard said.

A key break came in 1947 when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Gospel singer whose stage persona came to influence rock, spotted him singing at the Macon City Auditorium where Richard had a part-time job selling soft drinks.

Richard developed a low-key career singing around Georgia, including in underground drag performances, when he was approached by record labels enticed by the growing consumer market for music.

But success was not immediate: Early recording ventures with RCA Victor and Peacock Records, with Richard on boogie-woogie piano or leading R&B arrangements, fell flat.

Richard never initially thought to record Tutti Frutti, a staple of his live performances driven by frantic piano and whose lyrics - in a wink likely lost on many a listener - were meant as a light-hearted depiction of anal sex: "Tutti frutti / Good booty... If it don't fit / Don't force it."

But the song caught the ear of Bumps Blackwell, a producer from Specialty Records, which had reluctantly signed Richard after he persistently phoned its office.

Blackwell asked young songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to quickly pen some more radio-friendly lyrics.

Within 15 minutes and only three takes, Little Richard had recorded his defining hit, now with the tame lines, "Tutti frutti / Aw rootie... I've got a girl named Sue / She knows just what to do."

'TRUE KING'

The song - with its infectious rhythm, high decibel level and lingering sense of naughtiness - triggered a reaction never seen before.

In a 1956 concert in Baltimore, women threw underwear on stage as police intervened to prevent fans from rushing the stage or leaping from the balcony in euphoria.

"Richard arrives and he's attacking the piano; he's banging on it. He's not crooning; he's screaming," said Chris Morris, a music scholar who remastered his 1957 album Here's Little Richard.

"There had never really been a figure who came out of R&B who was that extroverted or loud or wild."

Richard followed his success with 1956 hit Good Golly, Miss Molly.

His new wealth allowed him to buy a mansion in Los Angeles where he moved in with his mother.

But at the height of his fame in 1957, Richard abruptly cancelled a tour of Australia mid-way and became a missionary for the evangelical Church of God.

His turn to religion complicated his relationship with the music world, but Little Richard's legacy as a rock titan who ushered in a new musical age remained intact.

Tributes quickly poured in for the superstar, with Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers dubbing the death "the loss of a true giant."

Many artists heralded him as a source of inspiration but Questlove of The Roots was more emphatic: This man was literally THE BLUEPRINT of all the world took from.

"LITTLE RICHARD is THE TRUE KING. LONG LIVE THE KING."