Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer Little Richard Dead at 87

May 9, 2020 Updated: May 9, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Little Richard, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” whose piercing wail, pounding piano, and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, has died on May 9. He was 87.

Pastor Bill Minson, a close friend of Little Richard’s, told The Associated Press that Little Richard died Saturday morning. Minson said he also spoke to Little Richard’s son and brother.

Minson added that the family is not releasing the cause of death.

Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers who helped shatter the color line on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream.

Little Richard performing live
Little Richard performing live in the UK on June 27, 1975. (Angela Deane-Drummond/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, during the Great Depression, one of 12 children. He was ostracized because he was effeminate and suffered a small deformity: his right leg was shorter than his left.

The family was religious, and Richard sang in local churches with a group called the Tiny Tots. The tug-of-war between his upbringing and rock ‘n’ roll excess tormented Penniman throughout his career.

Little Richard performs during a halftime show
Little Richard performs during the halftime show of the game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Boise State Broncos at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee, on Dec. 31, 2004. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Little Richard went Hollywood with an appearance in “Don’t Knock the Rock.” But his wild lifestyle remained at odds with his faith, and a conflicted Richard quit the business in 1957 to enroll in a theological school and get married.

Richard remained on the charts when his label released previously recorded material. And he recorded a gospel record, returning to his roots.

A 1962 arrest for a sexual encounter led to his divorce and return to performing.

By the mid-1970s, Richard was battling a $1,000-a-day cocaine problem and once again abandoned his musical career. He returned to religion, selling Bibles and renouncing homosexuality. For more than a decade, he vanished.

“If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody,” Richard said.

Richard had hip surgery in November 2009 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and asked fans at the time to pray for him. He lived in the Nashville area at the time.

By Kristin M. Hall