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'Architect of rock 'n' roll,' Little Richard, dies at 87

Reuters | 5/14/2020, 6 p.m.
Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” who built his groundbreaking sound with a boiling blend of boogie ...
Little Richard performs in August of 2004 at the Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, N.Y. AP Photo/Ed Betz

Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” who built his groundbreaking sound with a boiling blend of boogie woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel, died Saturday, May 9, 2020, at the age of 87.

A Grammy Award winner and inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame whose electrifying 1950s hits such as “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and flamboyant stage presence influenced legions of performers, succumbed to bone cancer.

His bass guitarist, Charles Glenn, told celebrity website TMZ that Little Richard had been sick for two months and that he died in Tullahoma, Tenn., surrounded by his brother, sister and son.

“He was loved by his family and adored by millions,” his family said in a statement released through their lawyer, Bill Sobel.

Little Richard was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 but missed the ceremony because he was recovering from an auto accident. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 8 on its list of 100 greatest entertainers of all time and he received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993.

“Little Richard bent gender, upset segregationist fault lines and founded a tradition of rock dadaists devoted to the art of self-creation,” a Rolling Stone critic said. “He went with the inspiration of the moment, be it divine or hormonal, and caromed like a shiny, cracked pinball between God, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”

As a minister, Little Richard officiated at weddings for Bruce Springsteen, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities.

He suffered a heart attack in 2013 and hip problems required him to use a wheelchair at times.

In a post on Instagram last Saturday, Little Richard’s guitarist Kelvin Holly said, “Rest in peace, Richard. This one really stings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all my bandmates and fans all over the world. Richard truly was the king!”

At his peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Little Richard shouted, moaned, screamed and trilled hits like “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Lucille,” all the while pounding the piano like a mad man and punctuating lyrics with an occasional shrill “Whoooo!”

Time magazine said he played “songs that sounded like nonsense ... but whose beat seemed to hint of unearthly pleasures centered somewhere between the gut and the gutter.”

The music drew in young black and white fans at a time when parts of the United States still were strictly segregated. Many white artists, such as Pat Boone, had their own hit versions of Little Richard’s songs, albeit considerably toned down and “safer” for the pop audience.

“I’ve always thought that rock ‘n’ roll brought the races together,” Little Richard once told an interviewer. “Although I was black, the fans didn’t care. I used to feel good about that.”

James Brown, Otis Redding, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Rod Stewart all cited Little Richard as an influence. Jimi Hendrix, who played in Little Richard’s band in the mid-1960s, said he wanted to use his guitar the way Little Richard used his voice.