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Rock and roll icon Little Richard has died at 87

The one-of-a-kind artist paved the way for all of rock and roll.

Little Richard performs on a television show in London circa 1966.
David Redfern/Redferns via Getty Images

Richard Wayne “Little Richard” Penniman has died. The musician, known for his wild vocals, original persona, and unbridled enthusiasm onstage, was 87.

Rolling Stone reported Little Richard’s passing the morning of May 9, citing confirmation by his son Danny Jones Penniman. No cause of death has been given.

Little Richard’s music career spanned more than 60 years. Born December 5, 1932, he found his passion for music in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, singing gospel and playing piano. As he discovered R&B, the artist shifted away from being a talented choir boy, and toward becoming the more eccentric, vaudeville-inspired performer who gained worldwide renown.

By age 22, Little Richard broke out onto the music scene with a trio of hits that would canonize him as one of the greats in rock and roll. “Tutti Frutti” from November 1955, followed by “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in 1956, remain among the earliest and most exemplary modern standards in the rock genre. These songs — and many others in his catalogue — are inextricable from Little Richard’s performance of them, from his electrified singing (punctuated by yelps and wails, impossible to match) to his personal style.

Both aspects of Little Richard’s persona had wide-ranging influences on rock and roll, as artists borrowed his vocal trills and daring fashion to cultivate rock’s image as flashier than pop, more unpredictable than soul.

“When it comes to flaming androgyny, outrageous costume and unhinged libido, a contemporary pop rebel like Prince seems small potatoes compared with Little Richard, the original wild man of rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote music critic Stephen Holden in the New York Times in 1984. “And in his mirrored suits, towering pompadour and heavy makeup, the singer did as much as anyone to establish the tradition of the rock star as sanctified freak.”

Little Richard, at times, drew back from his rock image, however, as he retreated toward gospel as a means to reclaim his Christian roots. His complicated relationship with both his religion and sexuality (he went from declaring homosexuality a sin, to calling himself openly gay, to identifying as “omnisexual,” and back again throughout his life) persisted through the latter half of his career. He also suffered from serious health issues in his advanced age.

But what never changed was his affection for putting on a dazzling, energetic show — and his place in rock and roll’s history. At the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 1986, the all-time great Roberta Flack said this of “Little” Richard Penniman:

“Little Richard’s music has made such a strong impression on all of us. We dance to it, we hum along with it, and we have all been affected by it. Some of us have even been bodacious enough to try to sing his songs. ... He is very special to me. He is very special to all of us.”

Meanwhile, fellow artists and fans have turned to Twitter to offer their kind words and memories of one of the greats.

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