Little Richard, whose outrageous showmanship and lightning-fast rhythms intoxicated crowds in the 1950s with hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” has died. He was 87 years old.
Citing the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s son, Rolling Stone magazine said Saturday the cause of death was unknown.
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 colorful shirts, glass-embedded dinner jackets, a needle-thin moustache and a 15-centimeter (six-inch) high pompadour haircut.
A consummate entertainer since his 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. Well before the notorious wild parties of rockers in the 1960s, Richard spoke fondly of nightly orgies in his hotel rooms where he was both an avid, bisexual participant and a self-gratifying voyeur.
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.
Tributes quickly poured out Saturday for the late rock king, with co-founder of Chic Nile Rodgers dubbing it “the loss of a true giant.”